A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris 342 pages

Charlie Barnes has had four wives, four children and numerous jobs and occupations. His youngest child, Jake, a fairly well-known author, is writing a biography of Charlie including the good, the bad and the ugly. The opening scene of A Calling for Charlie Barnes describes Charlie waiting for a phone call that will tell him whether or not he has pancreatic cancer.

If you enjoy dark humor(I never laughed out loud but I smiled a lot) and scenes that will pull the rug out from under you, I recommend A Calling for Charlie Barnes. However, if you prefer a work with a chronological plot, sympathetic characters and a reliable narrator, don’t read this novel.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris 342 pages

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman 378 pages

This is the third and final book in Alice Hoffman’s magic series. It follows three generations of Owens’ women, all of whom are witches. The family has been cursed for 300 years, and it involves a tragedy occurring to any family member who falls in love. When this happens to Kylie Owens, the youngest in the family, she vows to reverse the curse even if it costs her her life.

I usually enjoy Alice Hoffman, but The Book of Magic has too much magic and too little character and plot development. There are six main female characters and three secondary male characters, and none of them were fleshed out-perhaps because there were just too many of them.

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman 378 pages

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich 374 pages

Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner has written a timely book set in Minneapolis. The main character, Tookie, has served time, arrested by the man she eventually marries. After she is released, she works in Erdrich’s book store where the ghost of an annoying customer has returned to haunt Tookie. With the help of other employees, Tookie tries to find out why this is happening to her. Along with the haunting, Tookie, her friends, family and neighbors are also dealing with the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.

I was not enamored with the ghost story or the Native American lore in The Sentence, but I enjoyed Tookie’s discussions of books, customers, the day to day happenings at a small book store, and its survival during the pandemic. Louse Erdrich’s final acknowledgement reads, “If you are going to buy a book, including this one, please visit your nearest independent book store and support its singular vision.” Love it!!

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich 374 pages

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah 247 pages

Nobel Prize winner for literature this year, Abdulrazak Gurnah has written a novel that bears no resemblance to its title. Paradise is the story of Yusuf, a handsome young boy who is given to the merchant Aziz until Yusuf’s father can pay back the debt to the merchant. While living with Aziz in East Africa, Yusuf encounters tribal wars, greedy savages and German soldiers methodically taking over his country.

Paradise is not an easy read. Gurnah describes colonial East Africa as brutal, ugly and sinister, and Yusuf at the beginning of the novel as beautiful, innocent and pure. His gradual change as a result of what he sees all around him, helps the reader understand why the author left Zanzibar for London.

Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah 247 pages

Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming 272 pages

Cumming’s second memoir begins with his first marriage and ends with his second. The decades in between describe his life as an actor, the people he meets, and how Cumming evolved from an abused child to a satisfied, authentic individual.

I was in the mood for a juicy, gossipy read and Baggage did not disappoint. Very often Cumming names names and describes the pluses and minuses of the life of an actor. He is a good writer, and although at times he delves too deep into his own psyche, it was enjoyable reading about most of his experiences.

Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming 272 pages

Still Life by Sarah Winman 436 pages

During World War II in Tuscany, Ulysses Temper and Evelyn Skinner meet. Temper is a young English soldier-bright and handsome with a heart of gold. Evelyn is a middle-aged gay British art historian. About 10 years after the war, Ulysses inherits an apartment in Florence that he turns into a thriving pension. Evelyn continues visiting Florence drawn to its beauty, food and art work. They have never forgotten each other, but their paths never seem to cross until . . .

Although Evelyn and Ulysses are the main characters in Still Life, there are a number of memorable secondary characters as well, including a perceptive, very verbal parrot. Except for a diversion at the end of the novel, Still Life is a warm-hearted feel good novel that portrays Florence as heaven on earth.

Still Life by Sarah Winman 436 pages

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout 237 pages

The narrator in Oh William is Lucy Barton. Lucy has been in several of Strout’s other novels. William is Lucy’s first husband. They had two daughters, and after they divorced Lucy remarried once, William twice. When William discovers through a DNA test that he has a half sister living in Maine, he asks Lucy to accompany him there, although he has no idea what he is going to do after he arrives.

I love the way Strout writes. Everything is seen through the eyes, ears and mind of Lucy Barton. The prose seems so simple but there is so much behind so many of Lucy’s observations.Oh William has a main story line, but while Lucy is recounting it, she often digresses. For me, her digressions were just a fine and thought provoking as the plot. Oh William says a lot about family, marriage and how the past is always a part of the present.

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout 237 pages

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci 289 pages

Food has always played an important role in Stanley Tucci’s life. As a first generation Italian-American, he appreciated the making and eating of pasta and Bolognese sauce. Through Tucci’s vivid, sometimes mouth-watering, descriptions of family dinners and meals he has had throughout the world, his life unfolds. From his childhood in Westchester, New York to his present home in London, England, Tucci illustrates how food and the rest of life are interrelated.

Stanley Tucci’s memoir is a must read for foodies, especially those who appreciate Italian cooking. Taste is humorous, well-written and delicious!

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci 289 pages

On Animals by Susan Orlean 288 pages

Susan Orlean is an animal lover, and although she admits it on page one of her most recent work of nonfiction, the fifteen essays in On Animals is further proof that she is. The main characters range from show dogs to chickens to oxen to pandas. Her travels take her to Morocco, South Africa and Cuba.

Susan Orlean is a great writer of nonfiction. On Animals is heartwarming, interesting and humorous. She even makes taxidermy fascinating!!! I think anyone and everyone would enjoy On Animals, but especially people who love and respect animals.

On Animals by Susan Orlean 288 pages

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen 580 pages

This is approximately a year in the life of the Hildebrandt family in the early 70’s. Father Russ is a minister at a nondenominational church in suburban Chicago. He is unhappy about his marriage and his role in the church. Mother Marion has a secret past that is catching up with her psychologically. They have four children-Clem, Becky, Perry and Judson. Clem is in a relationship at the University of Illinois and is toying with the idea of enlisting. Becky is pretty, popular and heavily into Christianity. Perry is a drug dealer and user. and Judson is an obedient, happy young boy-as of now.

Jonathan Franzen is not for everyone, but I think he’s a terrific writer. He has a way of making his readers uncomfortable, yet they still have the strong urge to continue reading. Crossroads is the first of a trilogy. I’m looking forward to reading the next two novels about this extremely interesting family.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen 580 pages