Coastal Breeze News » Book Remarks Sun, 17 Aug 2014 10:38:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Traveling Left of Center Mon, 11 Aug 2014 20:15:11 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B7-CBN-8-8-14-5FeatureI was looking for a good love story to break up the string of thrillers I have been reading. Instead, I found “Traveling Left of Center.” As the title indicates, these 18 short stories have protagonists who are slightly off kilter psychologically. We all know they are “out there.” It is estimated that one in four Americans suffers from some form of mental illness. Nancy Christie has given them a voice.

Though not as dreary as Edgar Allen Poe by any means, Christie’s protagonists are in various stages of psychic distress. The first story, named the same as the book title, concerns a young woman who has had three pregnancies by three different men in a very short span of time. She thinks she has hit the jackpot when a doctor attending her at her second delivery takes an interest in her. But she just ends up pregnant by him, and he moves on to a residency in another city. She still believes having beautiful hair and nails and capturing a man’s attention are the most important things in life. As the story concludes, she has a new possible male love interest, despite being six months pregnant.

In “Alice In Wonderland,” this Alice is a 20-something young woman who quit her job to be caregiver to her semi-invalid shrewish mother. After months on end, subjected to constant belittlement as well as the endless physical demands of caring for a semi-invalid, we meet Alice literally eating the books she has borrowed from the library. When the library sends overdue notices, she sends them back, noting “moved, no forwarding address.” As her mother’s shrewishness escalates, so does Alice’s pica (eating non-food items) and daydreaming. This was my favorite of these 18 stories. Exquisite descriptive language in this story.

My second favorite was a henpecked husband who is boarding a flight with his wife for a vacation of her choice, as always. The sound of her voice, her very presence, the knowledge that she exists on earth, drives him loony. We see him unravel as they board this flight, take their seats and she prattles on and on and on. This is an absolute masterpiece, “Exit Row.”

Of the 15 other stories in this collection, the only one that I felt a bit uncomfortable reading was the final story, “Annabelle.” As one reads along, one is first fascinated at the lyrical quality of the writing, then aware of a shadow creeping in, getting larger and darker, but it is worth staying the course and finishing the journey through the mind of this deeply disturbed and extremely lonely young woman.

Nancy Christie is an excellent writer, using superb language skills to make these characters come alive and incite the reader’s appreciation of their thought processes. She appears to understand the various stages of disconnect and struggle to function in the world that make up the lives of the mentally ill. I found myself thinking, “Yes, of course, that makes sense in their view of the world.”

This book is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it engrossing. Christie’s mastery of the short story is remarkable, especially given that the genre has pretty much fallen off the publishers’ line-of-sight the past couple of decades. It would be so lovely to have short stories restored to their rightful place in modern literature. This collection is a step in that direction. It will be available in paperback and e-book formats in August 2014. Rating: 4.25/5.0.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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The Target Fri, 25 Jul 2014 17:16:54 +0000 B11-CBN-7-25-14-3BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust


By David Baldacci. 432 pages.

Grand Central Publishing/Hachette, April 2014. Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Political Thriller


“The reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – Jojen Reed, Game of Thrones


This is great summertime read — light, refreshing and engaging. Slip into the world of clandestine assassination and a female North Korean operative whose martial arts skills make Jason Bourne look like a slow-motion grandpa. Yie Chung-Cha spent most of her youth in a concentration camp, Yodok, imprisoned there with her entire family. There, she learned several languages as well as how to lie, cheat, steal and kill to such a superb degree that she is granted release from the camp after she murders her entire family. The supreme leader employs her services as his personal assassin. She is rewarded with a car, her own apartment, cell phone, international travel, and lots of money, at least compared to the average North Korean. Life in that country as described by Baldacci is stark and dreary, the population filled with a sense of hopelessness and paranoia. Food and fuel shortages leave some people literally starving or freezing to death in their own homes, but Comrade Yie is able to indulge her taste for hamburger and French fries weekly at a little place not far from her apartment.

In addition to Chung-Cha, the other assassins are Will Robie and Jessica Reel. If you are a Baldacci fan, you will likely recognize “The Target” as the sequel to “The Hit,” but this book stands alone. It is not necessary to have read any of the Robie books or even “The Hit” to enjoy this story. Will and Jessica are at a low point in their killing careers as the story begins, held in low esteem by their superiors, and are sent to The Burner Box and put through psychological and physical stressors in extremis. They need to prove their willingness to follow orders, no matter what. The President of the United States calls on Robie and Reel to carry out a mission that violates international law but will save the lives of millions of people, but Reel has a complication in her personal life that may embroil all those around her.

Chained to his bed in a hospital ward in an Alabama state prison, terminally ill Earl Fontaine pleads his case with the female attending physician to get a visit with his daughter Sally. While Sally testified against Earl, assuring his conviction years earlier, he claims he wants closure with her but only knows that she went into witness protection after his trial and does not know her current identity. The doctor arranges Sally’s visit. Coincidentally, Jessica is drawn into this questionable family reunion and Robie as well, since they have been inseparable after their Burner Box experience.

Baldacci tells the story mainly from the perspectives of Chung-Cha, Earl Fontaine, Will Robie and Jessica Reel. His excellent command of language provides a riveting unraveling of all the serpentine plot lines. There are actually at least four stories in “The Target,” each with a conclusion but each also a linchpin to more action in the subsequent story development. The structure is quite masterful. This is a page turner, very engrossing. I call it “light” because some aspects of it border on preposterous or at least are a bit saccharine, not to the point where one needs to suspend disbelief, but just indulge the author’s need for certain endings. Baldacci’s thorough knowledge of the law and political maneuvering keeps the story grounded, and his well-developed characters keep the reader anticipation’s stoked.

There are hints throughout the book that the Robie/Reel partnership is nearing an end, so I suspect there will be a final book in this series in a year or so. I for one will be sure to read it.

Rating: 4.25/5.0. This book is available in every format, literally everywhere including the Collier County Public Library.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Supreme Justice Tue, 22 Jul 2014 20:22:08 +0000 B13-CBN-7-11-14-4BOOK REMARKS 
Maggie Gust

By Max Allan Collins
Thomas & Mercer, 2014
336 pages

“I always turn to the sports page first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice, SCOTUS


Someone is assassinating the justices of the Supreme Court in this nifty little thriller set in the future, circa 2030. “Summertime and the readin’ is easy” to paraphrase that famous Gershwin tune. “Supreme Justice” was quite a delightful surprise. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter.

Joe Reeder, CEO of ABC Security, is a former Secret Service agent who once took a bullet for the president of the United States, a man whom he personally despised. A month after his return to duty following extensive physical therapy, he put in his resignation, citing frustration with politics of the agency as the reason. Needless to say, this alienated him from pretty much everyone in the agency. Reeder is an expert in kinesics, reading people’s body movements and even their posture and facial expressions. He is drawn into the assassination investigation after a D.C. homicide detective phones him after the first justice, Henry Venter, is gunned down in the bar of a restaurant while having a drink with one of his law clerks. It is purportedly part of a two-man robbery spree which has plagued the surrounding area for a couple of months.

However, Carl Bishop, the DC detective, asks Reeder to take a look at the video footage and work his mojo. Since Reeder’s firm handles security for the restaurant where Venter was killed, he queues it up and after several views, realizes that Justice Venter, already being a hailed hero in the media for supposedly saving his clerk’s life, was actually trying to make a break for the fire door and get o-u-t. He also notices some deliberate behavior on the part of the two “robbers,” which indicate they were there strictly to murder the justice and the robbery and terrorization of the customers was just cover.



This is the outline of the situation that gets Reeder back into working with federal law enforcement. He eventually winds up on a task force, as a consultant, working for the FBI, who take over the case from the D.C. police. Reeder is appointed by the assistant director of the FBI herself and will be working under the lead, his former partner, Gabe Sloan. Sloan and Reeder are godfathers to each other’s daughters and go way back. Sloan partners Reeder with Patti Rogers, who has been Sloan’s partner for the past couple of years. These relationships are important to how the story develops.

Things amp up when just a few days after Henry Venter was killed, a second justice, Rodolfo Gutierrez, is murdered in his backyard while putting out birdfeed. So many things at the scene do not make sense on initial viewing. Venter was African American; Gutierrez is Latino – were they killed by some ultraconservative hate group because they were racial minorities or killed because they were politically conservative, taken out by someone hating the reversal of Roe v Wade? The only thing the task force is sure of at this point is that Venter’s death was an assassination and the robbery was just a cover. At this point, they finally realize that all the living justices need 24/7 security.

It was exciting and entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages. A plus is that the reader gets nice little history lessons throughout the book. Each chapter is introduced with a quotation from either a former Supreme Court justice or a former President, a nice touch I thought.

The author, Max Allan Collins, wrote “The Road To Perdition,” which was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks (they changed the ending drastically for the movie). He has written dozens of other novels as well, so if his name is familiar to you, you likely are a mystery lover. As you can see by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer, this is an Amazon book. As I write this article, the book is available only in e-book, paperback and audio formats, but by July 1, it should be available in hardback, according to the author’s website.

Like a cold fruit salad on a hot July day, “Supreme Justice” is light but satisfying. I rate it at 3.75 out of 5.


About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Summer House With Swimming Pool Fri, 27 Jun 2014 14:34:55 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust


B10-CBN-6-27-14-6By Herman Koch
Hogarth/Random House 2014 (USA)
387 pages


“Patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.”Dr. Marc Schlosser

He is back, folks, and he is even more dark and twisted than in “The Dinner.” Actually, those two couples appear positively lighthearted compared to Dr. Marc Schlosser, a general practitioner in the Netherlands whose patient base is composed of actors, writers, artists, celebrities from the creative sector. Dr. Schlosser also serves as the narrator of this story.

The title comes from the fact that Marc’s most famous patient, actor Ralph Meier, has enticed the doctor to bring his family to the Meier’s rented vacation home. Ralph is a known lech who “has eyes” for Caroline Schlosser, Marc’s wife. Marc also catches him throwing lustful glances at 13-year-old Julia, the elder of the two Schlosser daughters. On the other hand, Marc rather fancies Ralph’s wife Judith.

So, ignoring all the red flags, and reneging on his promise to Caroline that they would have a family camping vacation away from everyone, Dr. Schlosser reserves a camping ground that just happens to be within view of the Meiers’ summer house (which Marc had found on Google Earth). When the Schlosser girls hit it off with the similarly-aged two Meier boys, the tent is moved to the summer house’s side yard.

While in “The Dinner,” Koch addressed the issue of how far parents would go to protect their children, in “Summer House with Swimming Pool,” Koch looks at what parents will do to protect themselves regardless of how the children might be affected, as well as how far one might go in exacting revenge. Indeed, Marc Schlosser’s act of revenge might be one of the most diabolical I have encountered in modern fiction. You will never look at your own doctor the same way again.

The book begins in the aftermath of the summer vacation, about a year afterwards, with Marc describing his office routine and his patients. He works five hours a day, and each patient gets 20 minutes although he knows within one minute what is wrong with the patient — he doodles while they talk, thinking they have the most caring physician in the world. Actually, he is reflecting on the repulsiveness of the human body and what patients do with and to their bodies, and fantasizes about them all suiciding. He is also savaging the Dutch health care system, home birthing, book launches, opening nights for movies and plays, the desire to have sons rather than daughters, etc.

In several pages of descriptive narrative, Koch gives us a riveting introduction to Schlosser’s dark side, which seems to be his only side. Often, narrative in fiction can be lumbering and tiresome, something to be endured, or skipped, until the next dialogue, but Koch’s characters are captivating though not at all likable. The beautifully written narrative serves to layer the context for the coming revelations about preceding events. It reveals as much as the dialogue. For example, although Marc describes the misogyny of Ralph Meier, which he sees as repugnant, Marc himself notes during a conversation with Judith Meier: “They’re not used to it, women, to making people laugh. They think they’re not funny. They’re right, usually.”

The reader does not know until about two-thirds of the way through the book what exactly happened that precipitated Schlosser’s act of revenge or for that matter what that act of revenge entailed. I had chills reading that scene — actually talked to the page, “Oh, no, you didn’t.”

I enjoy dark misanthropy to an extent, and I would say “The Dinner” was dark and twisted while “Summer House” is dark and French braided. There were a couple of places where the “ick” intensity was ramped up pretty high, but I never lost interest in this story. It was worth every second I spent with it.

Pure entertainment. Go ahead, take a walk on the dark side with Marc Schlosser. There are no warm fuzzies here, but this book is bound to engender some great discussions this summer. Rating: 4.5/5.0.

Happy Birthday, America! Have a great time on the Fourth.


About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Field of Prey Wed, 18 Jun 2014 09:57:45 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B13-CBN-6-13-14-16By John Sandford, G.P. Putnam 2014, 392 pages, Genre: Mystery

“There’s nothing to match curling up with a good book when there’s a repair job to be done around the house.” – Joe Ryan


The 24th book in John Sandford’s Prey series proves the author is only getting better at his craft. I was engrossed in this story from page one. Although Field of Prey is a mystery, the reader knows from the beginning who the killers are. The mystery involves how the police track them down.

The story opens with the kidnapping of the “fifth woman,” Heather Jorgenson, while she is depositing refuse bags into the dumpster behind the diner where she works. Suddenly a canvas mail bag is pulled over her head, her legs are duct taped together and she is shoved into the back of a truck. She struggles for a minute or so, able to move only her arms inside the bag, then realizes she has a multi-tool with a 3-inch serrated knife in her uniform pocket. She slices herself out of the bag, cuts the duct tape, then attacks the driver with several vertical stabs to his neck and back, causing the truck to run off the road. She gets out of the ditched vehicle and runs across a rural Minnesota field to a distant lighted house. By the time the police arrive, the truck is still in the ditch, lights are still on, but the driver is gone. They check the registration and race to his house but he is not there and never shows up during months of subsequent surveillance.

Zip through a decade plus a few years and we are with a teenaged boy and girl who decide to make July 5 a very memorable night. Layton Burns, Jr. knew the perfect spot to make these special memories was an unused neglected field he had discovered the prior summer when detasseling corn. (For you folks from non-corn-growing areas, i.e. city slickers, Sandford includes a succinct description of detasseling.) After Layton and Ginger Childs make a few memories, they try to track down the source of an horrendous odor. Although they can centralize the strength of the odor and hence its seeming source, they can see only grass. They hightail it out of there but the next day Layton talks to a police officer he knows and tells him about the unusual smell. “There’s something dead up there. Something big. I never smelled anything like it.” They go to check it out and discover an old cistern which emits tremendous putrid gas and at the bottom reveals two human skeletal feet.

Then enters Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. By the time Lucas shows up for work the next morning, they have discovered at least 15 skulls and are still counting. Because the cistern is directly over a spring, it is making retrieval of the remains extremely difficult. Eventually, it comes to a total of 21 female victims over about 20 years. The police come to realize the killers are local and they are smart.

For those new to Lucas Davenport novels, it is good to know he is not the typical state government employee. He is self-made wealthy, drives a Porsche 911 and Mercedes SUV, goes on bi-annual trips to New York City to replenish his wardrobe, wears British-made shoes, loves and is loyal to his family, and is still friends with a girl, now a nun and psychologist, he has known since Kindergarten. His relationship with his adopted daughter Letty is remarkably close with Letty even accompanying on some investigations and reading the murder books with him. He is tough, tenacious and thorough. During the course of this investigation, he meets his female counterpart in the form a Goodhue County Sheriff’s deputy, Catrin Mattsson. I am quite certain she will show up in the 25th Prey novel.

In Field of Prey, Sandford develops the plot at intervals to keep readers engaged; my interest never sagged. Halfway through the book the reader realizes the “killers” are truly, deeply mentally ill but it’s another 150 pages at least before their capture. The author uses humor, details of investigative practices and forensics and lots of great dialogue to move the story lines along. Unfortunately, some of the good guys do expire in this book. There are some scenes involving hand to hand fighting between one of the killers and a female hostage that are pretty brutal but well written.

I read this book in two sittings. If you are a patient reader, you likely could spread it over a week or so of bedtime reading. I enjoyed the intelligent dialogue, humor, variety of characters, detailed descriptions of locations and procedures and the fact that Davenport took time to go play for awhile and clear his head. For its genre, Field of Prey is quite good.

I give it a rating of 4.25 out of 5.


Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.


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Shotgun Lovesongs Tue, 03 Jun 2014 13:25:30 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B7-CBN-5-30-14-6By Nickolas Butler
St. Martin’s, 2014, 307 pages

“All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken.”– Thomas Wolfe


The small town of Little Wing, Wisconsin is the setting for this debut novel by 30-something Nickolas Butler who actually grew up in Eau Claire, WI. The story revolves around a group of five friends, now middle-aged, who grew up together in Little Wing; most of them were born in the same hospital, attended the same grade and high school and achieved various levels of quiet desperation in their adult lives. One of them became a megacelebrity through his rock music.

Leland Sutton, known as Lee to his Little Wing “family” tours the world and comes back periodically to his family farm near Little Wing, rides his John Deere, decompresses and when he’s ready, reconnects with the local folks who welcome him back easily. He has written a hit song about the old mill that friend Kip has been developing to help revitalize the area and everyone recognizes and appreciates that Lee has not forgotten his roots. He is a loyal friend to Ronny, who has suffered one concussion too many during his rodeo bronco riding days. He also supports Ronny financially discreetly and without fanfare. Hank has been married to Beth for many years. They have two children; Hank works his family farm and they worry daily about stretching money.

I read this book because it was about life in a tiny Midwestern town, a story not told often in modern American literature. Also, because the book was given lavish reviews in many sectors. I was expecting to read a modern classic. Instead, what I read was a detailed description of small town life and the interactions among its neighbors. Butler’s imagery is excellent but sometimes his way with words gets a bit heavy and his love letter to Wisconsin gets a bit sappy.

Actually, I think the very things he loves about small town life are the things that keep this book from really taking off. His characters are too much alike, despite the different occupations they pursued. He takes way too long to get anything resolved. When Hank discovers that his great friend Lee betrayed him by sleeping with Beth years ago while Hank and Beth were on a break before their marriage, Butler takes pages and pages to get this breach in their friendship mediated. When he does, it involves old pickled eggs and a gunshot wound that they doctor themselves. Pretty hard to swallow. But, I suppose if you had as many beers and as much weed as the characters did, it might seem plausible.

Nickolas Butler has potential. Shotgun Lovesongs started off strong with vivid character exposition and story development, detailing local life (Red Man chewing tobacco, cheese curds, clothing and hairstyles of both men and women). His language brings the Wisconsin landscape and sky to life for the reader. Once he masters ending a story and giving his characters some depth and perception, he will be a joy to read. Rating: 3.25 (0-5)

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Chestnut Street Mon, 19 May 2014 13:52:22 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B10-CBN-5-16-14-18By Maeve Binchy
Knopf 2014, 368 pages
Genre: Fiction/Short Story Collection

Almost two years ago I wrote a Book Remarks about Maeve Binchy’s final novel, A Week In Winter, published shortly after her death in July 2012. All Maeve fans believed that was the end of the anticipation of new offerings from this wonderful storyteller. Rejoice! We were wrong. The woman who did not believe in an afterlife has endowed her readers with such.

These stories were written by Maeve over three plus decades, beginning when she was a columnist for The Irish Times. Using fictional Chestnut Street as a pivot, she fashioned tales of the lives of various residents and their families, stowing each story in a drawer “for the future.” As her husband Gordon Snell acknowledges in his foreword, the stories, 36 of them, reflect the city of Dublin and its changes over those decades. I believe two or three stories were published separately previously, but this book is not a reprint.

These short stories are not Maeve mini-novels. She always ended her novels with the protagonists coming to some understanding with themselves and their lives. A few of these short stories end seemingly in mid-air, but the reader is left knowing they just witnessed a significant event in the life of the character, but not the character’s reaction. Although few dates are used in these stories, for the most part the reader can just infer the era by the vivid descriptive prose. The author’s growth from a promising neophyte to a grand master of her genre is also evident.

On the opposite side of Dublin from St. Jarlath’s Crescent of Minding Frankie, the horseshoe-shaped Chestnut Street is the setting for these 36 stories. There are 30 homes on Chestnut Street and Maeve covers them all. Some do not get a “starring role” in an individual story but in true Binchy style, every resident is referenced in a few stories. For instance, we meet young Melly, a hippie type new female resident, inviting herself to her very regimented, organized neighbors’ road trip, introducing them to spontaneity and, in another story, is referenced as a mature woman dressing in a hippie style, a beloved reliable neighbor. In Taxi Men Are Invisible, Kevin Walsh is said taxi driver and in Bucket McGuire Kevin shows up as a concerned neighbor.

I could not begin to choose one or two stories as “favorites.” I could come up with a Top 30 List! Bucket Maguire was one of the most mesmerizing in this collection. Brian Joseph Maguire became known as Bucket when at the age of 16 he started his own window washing business after the conclusion of his formal education. Riding around Dublin on his bicycle with his folding ladder, chamois and soap, he established a solid reputation for reliability and quality. His wife left him for an accountant, taking their five-year-old son with her. The bulk of the story is about the father-son relationship, and the climax left me in awe at the power of parental love, rooting for Bucket as Father of the 20th Century.

Friendship is covered in most of the stories, particularly poignantly in The Gift Of Dignity. Sally and Anna have been friends since childhood. Both are married; Anna lives in Dublin and Sally, who lives in London, comes for an annual weekend-long visit. Anna’s husband is having an affair. Everyone knows because he flaunts it. Everyone tiptoes around Anna, assuming she knows but does not want to talk about it. All hope that Anna will open up to her wise friend Sally and things will be resolved, releasing everyone from their vow of silence. What transpires is unexpected. David is killed in an accident, and his paramour comes to the funeral, behaves unobtrusively, excuses herself from Anna’s invitation to the after funeral reception, and Sally realizes that Anna is playing her charade of unknowing spouse to the very end.

“They could have got over this together… It was going to be an entirely new experience having a friend that you couldn’t talk to about the hugely important things in life. Sally didn’t know why she wanted Anna to face up to what had happened. But she did… And she knew that what she had offered, dignity and respect, were not nearly as satisfying as a good cry and a lot of nose blowing and resolution that things could be solved. That was friendship. And somehow in the middle of all this, friendship had got lost.”

In most stories, and particularly in movies and TV shows, breakups of female friendships are usually portrayed in an explosive mode with “cat fights” or verbal jousts. In real life, I think most friendships are transformed or are ended as Maeve shows in this story, they implode, silently but deadly.

I have always referred to Maeve Binchy’s novels as warm hugs from a favorite auntie, her love letters to Ireland – these short stories are sticky notes to Dublin, affirmations of her love for her native city and for humanity, foibles and all.


About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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You Should Have Known Thu, 01 May 2014 14:36:50 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B4-CBN-5-2-14-10By Jean Hanff Korelitz, 439 pages
Grand Central Publishing  2014
Genre:  Domestic/Psychological Fiction

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Grace Reinhart, an almost-40-year-old Manhattan couples therapist, has written a book on the brink of being published. Entitled You Should Have Known, it is based on her 15-year experience with couples in crisis. Her premise is that women negate their initial impressions and intuition about the men in their lives and tell themselves their judgment was wrong, “Now that I’ve gotten to know him better.” Then they end up in her office trying to fix things or just biding time until the inevitable dissolution. Instead of letting themselves off the hook with “You just never know about people,” after the man gambles, cheats, drinks, etc., Grace wants women to be responsible for their self-delusions and their decisions to ignore their own gut reactions. Yes, she knows that men sometimes delude themselves as well, but since 90 percent of her practice is initiated by females, she aims the book at them.

The first third of the book introduces us to Grace and her insular life. She is married to Jonathan Sachs, a pediatric oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, astonishingly charming and incredibly popular with patients and their families. After 18 years of marriage, she still pinches herself at her astounding luck in finding him. Their 12-year-old son Henry is a bright, hardworking student at Rearden, the same prep school that Grace attended. They live in the apartment where Grace grew up as an only child like her own son. Grace walks her son to school every day and picks him up in the afternoon. Some of the other parents are her former schoolmates. Once a week they reluctantly go to dinner at the home of her father and his second wife Eva.

Ms. Korelitz’s prose is quite superb and her description of the prep school mother world is enthralling. In addition to the routine of daily drop-off and pickup of students, there are the committee meetings, fund raisers and the pecking order of the relationships of parents, faculty, legacy seat students and scholarship students. Of supreme importance is the personal grooming, youthful looks, BMI, clothing and accessories of the mothers, and of course, the wealth and influence of the fathers. Rearden is the type of school whose students are “set for life.” The snobbery is palpable, as described through Grace’s eyes, who thinks she is an observer but to this reader as least appeared to be a participant observer. Grace Reinhart leads a very insular life, dare I say self absorbed, and seems to have everyone else’s foibles figured out without examining her own.

Then, a fourth grader, a scholarship student, comes home from school to find his mother bludgeoned to death but his baby sister unharmed. Grace has not been able to contact Jonathan at the medical conference in Ohio and he is not responding to text or voicemail. Henry knows nothing about his father’s whereabouts, either. While standing in her bedroom, Grace makes another effort to e-mail Jonathan, then hears the familiar sound of an incoming cell phone message and follows it to Jonathan’s bedside table. His cell is tightly wedged behind multiple leather binders organizing his music CD collection, its battery almost dead. Sadly, this educated, accomplished, successful professional woman, does not seem to grasp the significance of this, that the cell was not left behind, it was hidden away. Is she dim or is this the stupor of love? In Grace’s own words, “How could she not have known?”

The author deviously then begins dismantling everything we just learned about Grace’s life – every aspect of it, every relationship – but especially her marriage. While You Should Have Known has a murder and quite a few thrills, it is not a mystery, but is definitely a book about relationships. Many pages are devoted to Grace’s self-examination of her life, primarily her relationship with Jonathan, his dysfunctional family whom she barely knows, her grief for her deceased mother, memories of her parents’ relationship, the break-up with her life-long best friend, her feelings about her father’s second wife, about not having a second child, etc. Ms. Korelitz’s superlative writing skills makes this self-reflection intriguing for the reader as well as very illuminating for Grace. Character and plot development move along at a nice clip, with Grace’s reconstruction of her life and her relationships maintaining interest. She manages to downsize her lifestyle and expand her world at her same time.

On a scale of zero to five, I would rate this book a 3.75 due to the ending. It was a bit too tidy and seemed out of place with the first two and a half parts of the novel. It is definitely a good read, full of superlative description of life in Manhattan and one woman’s struggle to (figuratively) wake up and smell the coffee.

You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz is available at Collier County Public Library, your favorite independent bookstore, e-format, and hardcover at all the major booksellers.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Missing You Wed, 23 Apr 2014 18:16:06 +0000 BOOKREMARKS
Maggie Gust

B21-CBN-4-18-14-13By Harlan Coben
Penguin Group 2014, 417 Pages
Genre: Thriller/Mystery/Suspense

“We know that everything in our lives is complex and gray. Yet we somehow expect our relationships to never be anything but simple and pure.” - Stacy in Missing You by Harlan Coben

I became a Harlan Coben fan last year after reading Six Years which I was inspired to read after seeing that Hugh Jackman had been cast as the male lead for the movie version. Now, Mr. Coben is back with another superb, stay-in-your-seat-and-keep-turning-those-pages, good-heavens-what-will-happen-next whodunit. This time, the movie rights to Missing You were acquired by Warner Brothers the day before the book was published. This time, the story has a female lead whose personality and demeanor shriek a certain actress’ name to me, but every reader will have his/her own idea about that. When I read this book, I was unaware that the movie rights had already been sold, but halfway through chapter one I was casting a movie in my mind as each character was introduced.

My entertainment bigamy is books and movies; I love them both and refuse to part with either. However, although a half dozen or so Coben books have been optioned for movies, so far only Tell No One has made it through the film industry’s development maze. It is a French film – a superb 2006 adaptation of the Coben novel by the same title and is available at the Collier County Public Library and on Netflix. If you are new to Coben, you might want to watch this movie and get a taste of his signature fast-paced character and story development and inevitable twist at the ending. A bonus is that Kristin Scott Thomas, British actress, is in the film, speaking quite excellent French. The movie is subtitled, but the tension and excitement of the story are palpable regardless of the language. But I digress.

Katarina “Kat” Donovan is an NYPD detective; a 40-year-old, never-married female who followed her killed-on-the-job-18-years-prior NYPD Homicide detective father into the police world. Her boss, Captain Stagger, just happens to be her father’s former partner. Shortly after her father’s murder, her then-fiancé Jeff Raynes inexplicably walked out on her. She has not healed from either trauma. Her best girlfriend, Stacy, an ultra-sexy woman who draws male attention from 10 miles away, has subscribed Kat to an online dating service called Just My Type. After a few of her usual nightly drinks, Kat logs on for the first time only to discover a photo of her ex-fiancé Jeff with “widower, one child” in the profile; no name of course. Kat finally decides the appropriate response to Jeff’s profile is to send a link to John Waite’s You Tube video, “Missing You,” which had been “their music video” two decades prior. The response she received was curiously impersonal and showed complete lack of recognition not only of the video but also of her.

The puzzle that her life has become continues to expand over the next 48 hours. Captain Stagger informs her that her father’s confessed murderer, Monte Leburne, is dying from pancreatic cancer and that she needs to visit him in Fishkill prison. It is an order, not a suggestion. She learns, through a Cobenesque twist in the storyline, that Leburne did not murder her father but took the fall because he was already convicted of two murders, and “they” told him his family would be cared for. Kat also discovers that Leburne had been visited by his mob-connected lawyer, two FBI agents as well as good old Thomas Stagger, her father’s partner, the day after his imprisonment, immediately before he confessed to Henry Donovan’s murder. Now all she has to do is discover which of them is Leburne’s “they.”

Back at the Just My Type online dating service, other subscribers are being enticed to join their on-line lovers at an exotic locale for a weekend or week of frolicking. However, none of them leave the NYC area and none of them get to frolic. The 19-year-old son of Dana Phelps, one of the JMT clients, visits Kat at the police station, pleading for her help. His hometown Greenwich, Connecticut police force has refused to do anything. He got Kat’s name by hacking into the JMT website and eavesdropping on her interaction with Jeff. He is sure something is amiss with his mother.

With his usual mastery, Coben plaits these threads of plot and characters into a perfectly coiffed braid, then at the very end of the story, weaves in a hair of a different color.

Have fun with this – it is a joy to read. If you have friends or family who love thrillers or just love good writing, put this in their Easter basket. Or, give it to them just because. Check out more about this book and other Coben novels at Missing You is available at the Collier County Public Library, your favorite independent book store and elsewhere in all formats.

Happy Pesach! Happy Easter! Happy spring holidays to everyone!

AFTERWORD: April 23, 2014 is WORLD BOOK NIGHT. I just learned of this a week or so ago, and it is too late now to participate in the book distribution that is part of this event, but there are other ways to support this great effort. Visit their website, to learn more. They are also on Facebook. Your donations help WBN to gift middle schools, assisted living homes, military personnel, and others with books. I love that one of their goals is to inspire teenagers to read for pleasure.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 


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The Accident Wed, 09 Apr 2014 15:23:06 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B11-CBN-4-4-14-18By Chris Pavone
Crown Publishing, 2014
402 pages Genre: Thriller

“Life is the art of being well deceived; and in order that the deception may succeed it must be habitual and uninterrupted.”         – William Hazlitt

If you love thrillers, grab this book. Once you do, hang on, because it’s a heck of a ride. I have not yet read Mr. Pavone’s Expats, published in 2012, but I will be reading it in the near future. This man has clearly mastered the thriller genre.

Where to start? Too many books lately have been weak in character but strong in plot or vice versa, but The Accident is robust in both. The action takes place over 24 hours in various locations – New York, Copenhagen and Zurich, but mainly in New York. Most of the characters inhabit the publishing world and are experiencing various degrees of insecurity and disenchantment.

There are a large number of characters in this book, but no, you will not need a score card to keep track of them – you won’t want to put the book down long enough to write on that score card anyway. The title refers to a vehicular accident that happened a couple of decades previously and involved the scion of a very powerful and influential family and his college roommate. A young woman died as a result of that accident but that fact was covered up. Now that scion is an influential media mogul who wants to run for political office – US Senate to be exact – someone wants to prevent this and to destroy him. That person has sent the one single existing print copy of a manuscript describing the accident to Isabel Ross, a literary agent in New York City. “The author” has ensured that no digital file exists. The media mogul has learned of its existence. The race is on.

I will not reveal any more about the story. Its large cast of characters is very well developed, and I found myself sympathetic to Isabel and some of the other characters. Mr. Pavone thrills his readers; he does not toy with them – for the most part. Like a lattice pie crust to an apple pie, this book layers and criss-crosses the story threads and characters into a satisfying ending for the reader.

Having friends from up north coming down, or Spring Breakers, or flying somewhere yourself? Get this book, put it on your guest room night table, take it on the plane, take it to the beach or poolside and enjoy!

Available at Collier County Public Library, and the usual e-book, hardback and paperback venues.

P.S. April 4, 2014 is School Librarian Day, Hug a Newsman Day, National Walk to Work Day, and Tell a Lie Day. Pick your poison. “See you” on April 18, 2014, which is Newspaper Columnists’ Day! (It is also Good Friday.)

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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A Circle of Wives Fri, 28 Mar 2014 10:58:05 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

By Alice LaPlante
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014
325 pages
Genre: Psychological Thriller

“Alas, the love of women! It is known to be a lovely and a fearful thing.” Don Juan, Lord Byron

B16-CBN-3-21-14-8John Taylor, M.D., a prominent plastic surgeon, is found dead in a hotel room in his hometown of Palo Alto, California. Not only does he have a stellar professional reputation, the 62-year-old man is beloved by his community for his pro-bono work for children with facial deformities, by his wife of 35 years, Deborah, and their three adult children. First thought to be the result of a heart attack, the death is called a homicide after the medical examiner finds a puncture mark on the doctor’s back, indicative of an injection that induced the heart attack.

The case falls to Samantha Adams (“Call me Sam… no beer jokes, please”), newly promoted to rank of detective at the tender age of 27 years. Sam is accustomed to dealing with very petty crimes and a very low crime rate in Palo Alto, but the police chief wants this case to stay local, so Sam gets an opportunity to prove her mettle. Questions to consider are why was the doctor in a hotel room instead of his own palatial home, and who would want to harm this saintly surgeon?

Just like the TV detectives, Sam attends the funeral to observe for possible suspects. The funeral Mass is officiated by four priests, further proof of the high esteem afforded Dr. John Taylor. By now, Sam and the rest of the community know that Dr. Taylor has been a polygamist for the past five years. An anonymous tip to the local media reveals that he has three wives in three cities. Sam’s case has been tangled and mangled before she even gets a first interview with anyone.

The three wives are: Deborah, original wife of 35 years, socialite and mother of John’s three adult children; MJ, an accountant, avid gardener and earth mother, wife of five years and lives in a ranch home in Santa Cruz; and Helen, wife of six months, 36 years old, and a very dedicated Los Angeles pediatric oncologist.

MJ and Helen attend the funeral, feeling secure in their anonymity. Both are shocked to learn that Deborah not only is aware of their existence, but knows all about each of them. In fact, Deborah has been John’s “puppet master” during these past few years, assisting John in the selection of his additional wives and doing his travel arrangements, etc. It gets curiouser and curiouser.

Ms. LaPlante has given us a great read – an excellent character study with an intriguing storyline. The book is written mostly in the first person from the viewpoints of the main characters. Every chapter is titled with the name of that character, though it really is not necessary because these characters are so strong, so different from each other, and so well defined by the author that it is obvious who is “speaking.” She does a superb job of developing these characters, revealing more about them and about John in every chapter.

LaPlante’s prose flows. I hated to put this book down and actually only interrupted my reading twice for short periods. About a quarter of the way through the book, I was sure I knew “whodunit,” but I was wrong. The real culprit is not a huge surprise, but I found the journey to that point intriguing and engrossing. These characters are so vivid I felt I was watching a movie instead of reading a book. Questions popped into mind about how I might react in such a situation. The background information about the characters deepens the reader’s understanding and gives them poignancy.

Like any good psychological drama, A Circle of Wives leaves the reader wondering how well they really know the people in their lives and whether it is possible to really know another person at all

This book is available at Collier County Public Library and your local independent bookstore as well as the other usual venues. For more information about Alice LaPlante, visit her website

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 


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Cell Wed, 12 Mar 2014 01:58:58 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B13-CBN-3-7-14-5Author: Robin Cook
Publisher: G. P. Putnam, 2014
Length: 402 pages.
Genre: Medical fiction

Medicine for the soul” – Inscription over the doorway at the Library at Thebes.

In his latest novel, Robin Cook takes on the issue of digitalized medical practice. The title refers to 21st century humanity’s ubiquitous accessory: the cellular phone. If you are interested in healthcare issues, this is worth your time. Cook takes the Affordable Healthcare Act, death panels, primary care physician shortages, reimbursement schedules, health insurance companies, electronic medical records, etc.

Amalgamated Healthcare, insurance giant aiming to become a behemoth, has produced a software application for smartphones called iDoc. It is capable of monitoring patients 24/7 and treating them as would a primary care provider. In the USA, this seems like a godsend, an answer to astronomical health care costs coupled with a critical shortage of primary care physicians. It is an understatement to say that it is a revolution in health care.

The protagonist, Dr. George Wilson, third year radiology resident at LA University Medical Center, becomes aware of iDoc when he is invited by a former medical school classmate/girlfriend to attend an Amalgamated presentation. The company announces the preliminary results of the beta test it started a few months earlier and declares it a huge success. Afterwards George’s former classmate gives him a tour of the iDoc facility.

During this first part of the book, there are fascinating descriptions of the iDoc software. For example, artificial intelligence, security in the virtual universe, as well as the actual board-certified physicians who perform and monitor the interactions with the patients.

It is at this presentation that George realizes his dead fiancee was part of this beta study. Then George’s neighbor and some of his patients, all beta test participants, start to die. Has iDoc run amok and is now killing patients? The doctor wants to know.

Truthfully, Cook does a very good job of presenting multiple perspectives on healthcare issues through the characters. But I find it hard to believe that this is the same man who wrote the take-the-reader’s-breath-away “Coma” almost 40 years ago. There is just not much of a story here and there is no pay-off at the end because there is no conclusion, just an ending. There were no thrills here. The characters are shallow and unremarkable. I kept reading, wondering when he was going to tighten up the story – it never happened. It did leave me thinking about these very timely and important issues, but most of us think about them anyway.

There is an author’s note at the end of the book wherein Dr. Cook plugs “The Creative Destruction of Medicine” by Eric Topol, MD. Cook stated he read this book when he was about halfway finished with Cell and indicated: “Reading the book enabled me to add some richness to Cell that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Both books are available at Collier County Public Library. If interested, check out more about Cell at or

OF NOTE: Robin Cook will be at Sunshine Books on March 27, 2014, at 3 PM for a book signing.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 


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The Barkeep Fri, 21 Feb 2014 19:45:53 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B21-CBN-2-21-14-4By William Lashner
468 pages
Thomas & Mercer, February 2014
Genre: Mystery (Zenspense)

“Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” - Author Unknown

If you are familiar with the name William Lashner, you likely have read some of his Victor Carl mysteries. This is not part of that series. Frankly, I started reading the book because after several nonfiction reads I was ready for something lighter and I found the title intriguing. It is not often I encounter the term “barkeep,” but it certainly has a better ring for a book title than “The Bartender” or “The Mixologist.” It was serendipity that I was intrigued, as this book is a gritty little gem, reminiscent of the 1950s film noir and Raymond Chandler novels but better written.

Justin Chase is the barkeep. He is a 29-year-old graduate of Northwestern and Penn Law who has never practiced law because he never took the bar exam. Yes, the author enjoys a little play on words. Justin changed his mind about becoming a lawyer six years previously after coming home to find his mother dead, beaten to death in the foyer. His father was convicted of the murder, and Justin helped put him there. After spending a year in an asylum, Justin took to bartending, practicing Zen, drinking nothing stronger than tea, and moving frequently with his prized copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in tow.

Eventually, he comes back to his hometown, Philadelphia, where he moves around from bar to bar, establishing a reputation as a reliable, honest barkeep with a large, ever-expanding repertoire. When we meet him, he is at the Zenzibar, which he has chosen because he feels destined to be there. Perhaps he was. One night in walks a particularly unkempt older man, arms peppered with tattoos, clacking dentures, and a foul mouth and fouler attitude, claiming to Justin that he killed Justin’s mother at the behest of The Preacher. Introducing himself as Birdie Grackler, he claims he is a hired killer, trained by the military in Vietnam as an assassin, and used those skills to earn a livelihood after he left the military. The Preacher is his handler, who tells him who to hit, but never who requests the “job.” Thus, the seed is planted in Justin’s mind that his father, MacKenzie Chase, is serving a prison term for something he did not do.

The beginning chapters of the book are all about character introduction and development with the plot moving along but rather slowly. Since I know nothing about the world of bartending, I found the description of the life “behind the wood” intriguing, including the many recipes for various drinks. Lashner kept all the chapter titles alcohol related, naming most of them after drinks. I know nothing about the world of hired killers either, so this book was a nice escape.

I cannot say I particularly liked any of these characters, except perhaps the old cop, from the very beginning. However, the characters do develop through the course of the story, but it is the plot which enthralled me. There is romance, bromance, familial reunion and a shift of paradigm for one of the characters. Twists and turns are overused and do not really capture Lashner’s storytelling acumen. It is revelation of facts that keeps the story going and keeps the reader turning the pages. I found this a fun, satisfying read. On a scale of 0 to 5, I give it 3 for characters and 3.75-4.0 for story.

The Barkeep is not available at the public library, but it is available in e-book formats and paperback. See the author’s website for further information:

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 


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This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage Sun, 09 Feb 2014 00:23:54 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” ~ Joseph Brodsky
By Ann Patchett
306 pages, Harper-Collins 2013

Patchett’s new book is a collection of non-fiction pieces she has published in her 20+ year career as one of America’s premier writers. SUBMITTED photo

Patchett’s new book is a collection of non-fiction pieces she has published in her 20+ year career as one of America’s premier writers. SUBMITTED photo

The title is deceptive. This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage is a collection of essays about Ann Patchett’s life — not “simply” about her happy marriage. The road to that happy marriage had some significant detours.

This is probably the most fun I have ever had reading a biography. From the first page, I felt that I was catching up with an old girlfriend over a very long lunch. Her writing style is witty, intimate, honest, sweet yet slightly tart like perfect lemonade, deeply moving and thought provoking.

The essays have been mostly previously published in magazines, but a couple are convocations given at colleges. Those are two of my favorites. In 2005 at Miami University, Oxford, OH, Patchett spoke to the incoming students about the importance of friendship and how their relationships would be as essential to their success in their life and in their professions as their academic achievement.

The next year at Clemson University in “The Right To Read,” she addressed the topic of censoring books. A failed South Carolinian political candidate had led a campaign to get her book, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship, eliminated from the university’s curriculum. In his opinion, the friendship between the two women was not normal.

Every chapter in this book is splendid, and it is difficult to select those that I think will entice others to read the book. It is obvious from the first essay that Patchett is a nurturer. She spends a significant number of pages describing her life as a writer and addressing concerns of aspiring writers, encouraging people who think they want to write to start doing so. Patchett writes two excellent chapters about her dog, Rose, who was adopted in a parking lot. In the first essay, we are given a sanitized version of Rose’s adoption, and she addresses the proverbial “she-has-a-dog-because-she-really-wants-a-baby” perception. She points out no one says that about a man and his dog. It’s accepted that a dog is man’s best friend, but for a female, some see it as a child substitute. Later in the book, she comes clean about Rose, who was actually snatched out of the arms of a teenaged girl in that parking lot. Unlike some biographers I have read lately, Patchett comes clean about her warts. In that final chapter about Rose, she also finalizes the story about her grandmother, saluting them both and what they meant to her. It is deeply poignant.

In “The Wall,” Ann describes her project involving the Los Angeles Police Department shortly after the Rodney King incident. She was born in L.A., and lived there until her parents divorced when she was six and her mom moved she and her sister to Nashville. Her father was a career LAPD officer, achieving the rank of captain and was involved in the Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan arrests. He was retired at the time of the King incident, but the public outrage and bad press about the LAPD got the writer in Patchett thinking it was time to go undercover and rub elbows with the people who wanted to join the police force.

The department actually had a surge of applications after the King incident, and she was curious about the motivations of the aspirants. The title of the essay is derived from the 6-foot wall that applicants are required to jump over as part of the physical. Patchett trained for months to get ready. When her test time came, she went out to L.A., stayed with her father who was popping his buttons over Patchett’s decision to apply for the LAPD at age 30. She told him it was for an article, but it did not seem to register that she was not starting at the academy until after Patchett passed the interview and physical portions of the test only. He just had not believed her. “The Wall” is a great chapter because of its description of the father-daughter dynamics, the commitment and focus of the writer, her interactions with the other applicants and those conducting the tests, and the ride-along that Patchett takes with two L.A. police officers. She picked up the tab when they stopped for a meal — it was $5 dollars for all three of them. Yes, the Rodney King incident was that long ago.

If the name Ann Patchett sounds familiar, you may know it from her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, or her most recent novel, State of Wonder. Or perhaps you recognize it from her magazines articles. If she is not familiar to you, I recommend this delightful book to you as an introduction. Put it on your bedside table and read one chapter at a time or take it to the beach.

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage is available at Collier County Public Library, and is in hardback, paperback, audiobook and e-formats.


About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 

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Levels of Life Wed, 29 Jan 2014 14:24:49 +0000 BOOK REMARKS
Maggie Gust

B18-CBN-1-24-14-5By Julian Barnes
128 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

In this slender book, Julian Barnes writes three sections/essays: “The Sin of Height,” “On the Level” and “The Loss of Depth.” He begins, “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” Those two things are invariably eventually torn apart, and hence, the ups and downs, or levels, of life.

“The Sin of Height” tells the story of Felix Tournachon, a mid-19th-century French photographer who was celebrated for his portrait photographs which were unique due to his use of lighting as well as his talent to chat his subjects into utter relaxation. Nadar, as he came to be known, also ventured into the Paris Catacombs and photographed fully clothed mannequins he positioned among the ancient skeletal remains. Barnes includes his story because Nadar was the first to bring together photography and ballooning, the first to take aerial photographs. At that time, ballooning was not new, but still unusual and only “progressives” participated in it. It represented freedom, so many “balloonatics” enjoyed it strictly for the entertainment value. However, Nadar was intrigued by the possibilities of using balloons and aerial photos for land surveying, military reconnaissance and postal service, as well as artistry.

Nadar was married to the same woman, Ernestine, for 55 years until her death in 1909. He followed less than a year later. He was an “uxorious man,” had helped nurse his wife after she suffered a stroke, moved her to the country for quiet and clean air, and had been closely attentive to her throughout their life together. This uxorious trait is important to Barnes, as he will articulate in “The Loss of Depth.”

The middle essay “On the Level” is a fictionalized relationship between the great actress of that day, Sarah Bernhardt, and a British colonel, Fred Burnaby. “You put together two things that have not been put together before; and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” Yes, it didn’t work out for Sarah and Fred. Both were balloonatics, and both knew Nadar. Fred had ballooned with him, and Sarah was photographed by Nadar. It is a fact that they all knew each other. Barnes has Fred, a member of the inner circle of the Prince of Wales, falling in love with Sarah after he is convinced she is “on the level.” The actress is committed to freedom, and when he gets to the point of asking her to make their togetherness permanent, she reiterates her stand against marriage. To underscore her refusal of his proposal, she invites him to her dressing room the next evening so he will understand. When he appears, she is with her usual retinue plus has linked her arm to another man, locks eyes with Burnaby, then looks away. Dismissed, Colonel!

Factually, both Sarah and Fred do marry later. Sarah’s marriage was a complete disaster. Fred’s wife became ill within a year of their marriage, gave birth to a son and spent many future years in a Swiss sanatorium. Fred busied himself ballooning, writing and eventually was killed by a spear thrust to the neck at the Battle of Abu Klea, Sudan, in 1885.

Leaving the 19th century, the third essay addresses Barnes’ grief with the death of his wife of 30 years, literary agent Pat Kavanaugh. It was 37 days from her diagnosis to her death in 2008. This book was put together four years after she died. He had been writing about his grief during that time, just had not published anything. This third essay is the result of culling through hundreds of pages written by a bereaved husband. What a brilliant result that culling has produced.

This final essay, “The Loss of Depth,” is the heart of the book. These 55 pages are positively luminescent, not only for the gorgeous wordsmithery but for the unharnessed emotional pain articulated. The phrase “bares his soul” is insufficient – this man is writing from his bone marrow, his very core. I read it once for the beautiful prose and again for the nuances of the range of emotions. C.S. Lewis (A Grief Observed) kept popping into my mind. Barnes is Lewis without the spirituality. Also, Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking). Brilliant literary minds recording their spousal bereavement, putting letters to the human experience of living with a mammoth void, and making us understand that though a common experience every grief is unique.

As anyone who has grieved for any loved one knows, people can say incredibly insensitive things. “(A) long-time American friend of my wife’s told me, within weeks of her death, that statistically those who have been happy in marriage remarry much sooner than those who have not; often within six months. She meant it encouragingly, but this fact, if it was one (perhaps only applies in the States, where emotional optimism is a constitutional duty), shocked me.” I just had to include this little swipe at the U.S. When I read it, I thought to myself, how very British of him.

In Levels of Life, Barnes tries to synthesize these three essays, but I personally do not think it worked. He uses metaphors from the first two essays in the final one, and all three are a joy to read. However, “The Loss of Depth” is what matters to this book. Reading it only and skipping the first two is a viable option.

About The Author

Maggie Gust is a life-long avid reader whose career path has included working as a teacher and in various positions in the health care field. A native of Illinois, she has lived in Florida since 1993 and presently works from her home here on Marco Island. e-mail: 


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