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“High Cotton” by Darryl Pinckney

highcottonChosen for Black History Month, High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney is a fresh and contrasting perspective of a young, upper-middle class black man in America from the stereotypical drug, violence, and crime riddled experience, typically depicted of the black poor.  In 1903, scholar, activist, and first African American to receive a doctorate degree, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “Talented Tenth” in an essay by the same name.  It was a term that designated the leadership class of African Americans and described the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change.  Du Bois strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington.  It is from this heritage that the story is told by an unnamed narrator in High Cotton as he moves from his comfortable childhood in white suburban Indianapolis to Columbia University to enjoying a brief stint as an expatriate in Paris.


The book is a fictional, yet mostly an autobiographical bildungsroman of a fourth-generation product of the old (as opposed to the post-civil rights new and budding) African American middle class.  Although it contains historical elements of the author’s life, it is done on a large scale of finding and creating an identity, all the while getting at society, history and the spirit of the age.  Prominently featured in the story is the narrator’s grandfather Eustace, the son of a Baptist preacher who attends Brown University, Harvard Graduate School, and eventually becomes a lousy business man and a controversial Congregationalist preacher.  The narrator tells us his grandfather was “a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time.  He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the illusion that no one else shared it.” His grandfather represents the Negro past — something to rebel against.  There is an almost orthodoxy and inherent demand in Du Bois “Talented Tenth” or as the narrator calls “The Also Chosen” that educated blacks have a commitment to their community- much more so than could ever be expected of anybody who is white.  The narrator is trying to forge his own identity while dealing with the inherited identities and expectations he was born with.  He says “All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow.  You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they —whoever ‘they’ were — had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even.”


The book is not an easy read – it is almost painstakingly slow.  Every paragraph is dense and references so many allusions that you almost need to decode, unpack, lookup, or at least reread every other sentence.  For example: “Nothing ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, although the traditional horrors actually happened.  What now seems tired was then fresh… One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches…” is referencing a lynch mob that was after his grandfather.  Overall, the effort of the difficult read is worth it.  Pinckney’s prose is beautiful and, like poetry, must be consumed at a slower, contemplative pace.  There the reader will be rewarded with humor, wisdom, sarcasm, and a fresh view of a black life in America.


Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 7 to discuss High Cotton at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“The Book of Wonders” by Douglas Trevor

9780984824557The Book of Wonders, the second collection of short stories by author Douglas Trevor, features nine humorous, smart, and absorbing works of fiction.  His writing is crisp, witty, and deftly traverses the inner and outer landscapes of his characters and their situations.

One of the recurring threads woven throughout the stories is books – reading, writing, studying, touching, relishing, even defacing them.  Many of the characters are academics, writers, librarians, scholars dealing with the written word and how it relates to the real world.  My favorite story is “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group” which features Colin, a recently divorced professor at the University of Michigan where he teaches English composition and Theory of Critical Thought.  Colin, blind-sighted by his divorce, is trying to remake his life by staying busy to avoid moping and strategically looking at ways to find a new girlfriend.  He made a list of things to try: yoga, golf, Thai cooking, learning Russian, volunteering, and internet dating – all which proved to be hilariously disastrous.  One night he is voluntarily kidnapped by a couple of blue-collar white teenage girls and a black man named Ty.  Ty, who never applied to college, had obtained (aka stolen) and had been reading materials from Colin’s syllabus for his course on the Frankfurt School: Traditional and Critical Theory.  The upshot of the Frankfurt School’s philosophy was that the marriage of political ideology and manufacturing capability prevalent in the Nazi regime left workers without a chance of improving their lot.  The purpose of the “kidnap” was for Colin to make an appearance and speak to Ty’s Frankfurt School Discussion Group in Detroit.  Ty’s reasoning for the group was this:  if Detroit is going to rise again, be rebuilt, it is in the interest of the workers to do it right this time around.  And what better way than to glean what could be learned from the Frankfurt School to shape the future of the Big D.  And what better way to understand the Frankfurt School than to kidnap the professor.  The meeting is held in an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse that used to be a book depository before it burned.  There are books strewn everywhere, nibbled on by rats.  Ty selected the location as a living metaphor: “Where do books end up? They end up rotting, turning to ash.  Books are just things.  You got to take the ideas that are in books and move them out into the world to make them matter.  That’s the central message of the Frankfurt School.”

In the story “Sonnet 126”, Theo (another professor of literature and research) spends three to four days a week in the British Library in London depending on his teaching schedule.  One day he comes across a discovery of a lifetime: two lost final lines to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 in the poet’s own handwriting.  He sacrifices his opportunity for acclaim by bequeathing the discovery to another scholar: his ex-wife Fiona.  He decides to abandon books altogether: “I think I want more than books for my life… I’m done with the business of old books, Fiona.  I want to be done with it.  Enough torture and torment.”

Myths are another recurring theme.  According to the Greek myth, Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd sleeps with his eyes open, never ages and he and the moon, Selene, fall in love.  In “Endymion” a present day beautiful Greek man named Damien Endymion picks up the overweight accountant Cynthia at her company’s happy hour at an Irish pub up the road from her office.  She can’t believe someone so beautiful could be attracted to her.  He says her rotundness reminds him of the moon.  He sleeps with eyes open.

In the final story “Easy Writer”, Trevor’s use of myth takes on a Jungian treatment where a person’s life narrative resonates with a myth contained in the collective unconscious.  The myth of Ceres by Ovid resounds with the autobiographical account by Charity, a writer (and again professor of literature).  In her story instead of a descent into hell, it is a descent into the bowels of the Chicago slums – the pomegranates from the myth (forbidden, lest one be trapped forever in the underground) are transformed into heroin and the consequent addiction that steals Charity’s mother from her.  The “reader”, Alex, grew up an economically privileged white kid in La Jolla but was overweight, uncool, and bullied.  The myth and Charity’s story are translated in his subconscious as a story of abandonment by his father.

I highly recommend this collection.  Trevor’s writing is impeccable and the themes erudite.  The alienation and loneliness found in each story is poignant.  The humor in the predicaments is non-whimsical – like funny in a sad, existential way.

Douglas Trevor works won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 7 to discuss The Book of Wonders at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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The Book Of Wonders By Douglas Trevor (Short Story Collection. Fiction)

(author will be at The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague MI January 26th, at 5:30pm) 

Review written by Andrew H. Kuharevicz

The Book of Wonders by Douglas Trevor is about questions, and about what keeps our stories going, our myths and dreams…

It is a book that asks if the wonder and mystery is more important than the truths we find, age old questions to be sure, maybe even unanswerable, but important we ask none the less. It is about people trying to coexist with other people, and all of the complexities that entails.

            The Book of wonders (2017 published by six on seven books) has numerous meta-narratives working below the surface of the fictional character’s existence, bringing the object known as the book and the ideas of our own reality into play. One is about literary mediums, and one person might ask…

Why in the age of twitter and social media, a time where everyone wants everything right now, with a society that seems to have an attention span that lasts no longer than five minutes, why, is the short story not more popular than the novel?

The characters in The Novelist & The Short Story Writer are ying and yang. The story itself is a contrasting thought experiment where two different writers are shown in juxtaposition to one another, colliding at a summer conference where the novelist is held in such high regards, while the short story writer is seen as a weirdo who unfortunately writes badly. Somehow, the short story writer has mistakenly been invited to lecture, and as the summer days go by he becomes an outcast, while talking about his experimental writing and asking the novelist if she’ll do whatever it takes to be able to write the story she needs to write, even if that means lighting herself on fire. It is a comedic but lonely piece of writing that ends abruptly…after the novelist meets the short story writer’s family, who lives in Ohio in a lower middle-class neighborhood.

The novelist brings the short story writer’s notebook he forgot on campus to him, they talk for a while, but that’s it, they part ways; the short story writer goes inside of his house to calm down his autistic child before he types his stories at the kitchen table when his family goes to bed.

She (the novelist) gets back on the highway, home to New York, seemingly happy that her life isn’t the short story writer’s life, making the reader wonder if either of them understood anything that happened to them. Were any lessons learned? But—so goes life, and often enough we don’t take the time to comprehend what is going on in the moment, a major theme in—The Book of wonders, and this is just one of the stories, but all have a different existential impact on the reader.

Trevor (who’s tight prose is a perfect fit for the literary short story genre) writes about humanity, and about the relationships we have with each other. Mothers and daughters, brothers and colleagues, all interactions of human nature are on display. The short story collection could be said to be about…what happens after…

The Book of Wonders. It is a great book, I’d say, about simply, existing.

Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know (SixOneSeven Books, 2013), and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space (University of Iowa Press, 2005). Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Girls I Know won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.


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“The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol

yelloweyesKatherine Pancol’s novel, a runaway bestseller in France, has been translated into more than 2 dozen languages.  It’s a predictable Cinderella plot line that is wrought with lively characters and humorous predicaments.  Dowdy, middle-aged Josephine hits bottom when her chronically unemployed husband runs off with his mistress (and manicurist) to start a crocodile farm in Kenya.  He’s certain that this is finally the get-rich-quick scheme that is going to pay off.  He is so confident that he drains their savings to invest in the project.  Josephine is left alone to support their two teenage daughters on her measly wage as a 12th-century French research scholar.  To make matters worse, her oldest daughter Hortense blames Josephine for her husband’s behavior – she is much too frumpy and dull to keep a man interested.  Meanwhile, Josephine’s sister Iris has everything: beauty, a rich husband, a swanky apartment in Paris, and a glittering social life.  But, Iris is bored by it all.  At a cocktail party she strikes up a conversation with a publisher – to make herself seem more interesting, she tells him she is working on a novel.  He agrees to read the manuscript when ready.  It is then that Iris hatches the brilliant idea of having Josephine write the book (a romance that takes place in 12th-century France).  Josephine keeps the money, and Iris gets the credit and attention.  The book is an overwhelming, overnight success.  Josephine becomes rich, and Iris gets fame.  Josephine, buoyed by her achievement, comes into her own:  she loses weight, gets highlights, fights inner demons from her past, and even finds a handsome lover in the library.

Although this is a satisfying Cinderella story, the theme is the age-old moral:  money, fame, and wealth are shallow pursuits, and you can lose your soul by pursuing them for their own sake.  Crocodiles are used as a metaphor for this – one can be eaten alive by chasing the gold of the crocodile’s yellow eyes.

Katherine Pancol has gone on to write two sequels to the novel:  The Slow Waltz of Turtles and The Squirrels of Central Park are Sad on Mondays (not yet translated to English).  The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles has been made into a movie – in French.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 3 to discuss The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson


In a series of best-selling biographies of Renaissance men (Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin), Walter Isaacson tackles the original Renaissance man himself: Leonardo da Vinci.  Leonardo’s interests were wide, vast, and deep: the arts (theater, painting, music), the sciences (optics, biology, anatomy, hydraulics, aviation, geology), and engineering (mechanics, civil, architecture, city design).  The challenge for Isaacson was source material.  His previous genius subjects left piles of material in their wakes – Da Vinci left 7200 pages of notebooks.  The notebooks are rich with doodles, maps, schemes for new machines, ideas for new weapons, city designs, anatomical drawings, grocery lists, and scientific studies to work out solutions to experimental problems.  They contained very limited autobiographical or inner musings.  Thus, Isaacson concedes the book is more about Leonardo’s output and contributions than “intimate personal revelations”.

The astounding detail about Da Vinci was his approach to learning.  Other than attending an abacus school for math, Leonardo was self-taught.    He eschewed dogma and rote learning, going directly to the source:  experience and experimentation.  He was exceedingly curious – a two-year old that never stopped asking why and how.  Why is the sky blue?  How does a bird fly?  How do muscles in the face express emotion?   He saw patterns across different fields of study:  branches of trees, rivers and tributaries, and veins in the body; how eddies and swirls in water work the same as in air to keep birds in flight – and the same patterns can be used to paint curls on a portrait’s head.  His inquisitiveness led him to discover things long before they became common knowledge.  He intuited the first and third laws of motion 200 years ahead of Newton. He determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did.  He let science inform his art:  he dissected more than 20 cadavers to create detailed anatomical drawings – especially interesting is his dissection of the face and lips to get to the source of facial expressions.  There is a reason Mona Lisa’s smile is so captivating.



Da Vinci could have written dozens of books on his subjects of interest that would have likely been used for teaching in the academies for centuries.  He had little interest in studying passed-down knowledge, therefore he probably did not even consider publishing and passing down what he discovered. He was learning for the sake of learning to satisfy an unbound personal curiosity.


Leonardo was the ultimate character: “illegitimate, left-handed, gay, vegetarian, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was strikingly handsome, well adjusted, gregarious, and self-expressed.  He had many friends, wore pinks and purples, and in accordance with letting experience rather than dogma dictate, he had an openly gay relationship with a long-time companion.

He was notorious for procrastinating on commissions, and, more times than not, he just abandoned projects altogether.  He eloquently defends procrastination: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”  One of his famous abandoned projects was his Gran Cavallo commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482.  It was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.  Leonardo did extensive preparatory work and produced a clay model, but eventually abandoned the venture. The project was picked up again 500 years later.  Now named “The American Horse,” one of two full-size casts is on permanent display at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.


In our age, where an education is a diploma earned by memorizing and regurgitating handed-down information, all “knowledge” is a mere internet search away, and most experience is virtual, Leonardo’s example beckons us to put the books and gadgets down to interact physically with the real world and everyday sensory experience – and, most importantly, to always stay curious.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 6 to discuss Leonardo Da Vinci at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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“Wolf’s Mouth” by John Smolens

wolfsmouthJohn Smolens’ novel Wolf’s Mouth, Winner of a 2017 Michigan Notable Book Award, has been chosen as the novel for the first “One Book, One Community” event in the White Lake area by the Friends of the Montague Library and Friends of the White Lake Community Library. The “One Book, One Community” program encourages communities to read the same book and to come together to discuss it in a variety of settings (see below for a schedule of events). Dozens of similar programs have been sponsored nationwide.

The book is an excellent choice for a community-wide read because it offers something for everyone. Do you like suspense? Love stories? Historical fiction? War stories? Check, check, check, and check. And to top it off, it takes place in Michigan and by a Michigan author.

It is 1944, and Captain Francesco Verdi, an officer in the Italian army, has just been captured by the Allies and sent to Camp Au Train, a POW camp in the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Braving the unfamiliar cold, he is assigned to chopping down trees with civilians and serving as captain of the camp’s soccer team. Verdi is one of few non-German POWs at the camp. Most of the Germans are happy to be away from the war front enjoying comfortable lodging, a good day’s work, and nutritious food. However, some of the captured Germans are die-hard Nazis who try to retain control even in captivity – epitomized in the story by the ruthless Kommandant Vogel. Under Vogel’s direction, some co-prisoners are tortured and even killed. When Vogel holds a mock trial and sentences Verdi to death, Verdi knows he can either choose to face his deadly fate or escape. With the help of a sympathizing Italian mother and daughter in town, he chooses the latter. By 1956, Verdi, now living undercover as Frank Green (Verdi is Italian for Green), is happily married to Claire (the daughter) and enjoying a middle-class life with his own business in Detroit. Later, an INS agent, who has been following Verdi, comes to warn him that Vogel is still at large and reeking revenge on those defectors from the Nazi cause in the past.

This sweeping story offers evocative settings: from the stark Upper Peninsula to bustling, heyday Detroit – with stops in Italy and Berlin. Wolf’s Mouth is a plot-driven novel that winds and weaves, covering a wide range of historical, geographical, and emotional ground. The book offers many themes to discuss: along with the obvious romance and violence there are the experiences of immigrants, survivors, and soldiers in peacetime; fate and the role an individual’s past plays in determining his future; revenge; and POW camps in Michigan. I found the latter eye-opening as the existence of POW camps in Michigan was something that was not taught in any history class I took growing up in Michigan. In fact, there were 6,000 POWs in Michigan during World War II with about 1,000 stationed in five camps the Upper Peninsula and the others located throughout the Lower Peninsula in camps as close as Allegan, Hart, and Sparta. Camp Au Train, featured in the story, actually was a camp.

Author John Smolens lives in Marquette, and is the director of Northern Michigan University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. He is an acclaimed author of one collection of stories and three novels.

The One Book, One Community events scheduled are:
• 7pm Wednesday, October 25 – Historical Presentation and White Lake Reminiscences, a presentation about WWII POW camps in the area by the Oceana Historical Society followed by local residents’ stories and reminiscences about life in the area during that era – at the Montague Library Lower Level
• 6pm Wednesday, November 1 – Book Discussion at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 2-4pm Saturday, November 4 – Book Signing with Author John Smolens at The Book Nook & Java Shop
• 5pm Sunday, November 5 – Community Potluck followed by John Smolens presentation at 6:30 at Ferry Memorial Church

Copies of the Wolf’s Mouth are on sale for 20% off at The Book Nook & Java Shop all month. The Book Nook & Java Shop book club meets at 6pm the first Wednesday of every month and is open to everyone: wine, snacks, camaraderie and book discussions – a great combination all year long.


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“Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winters

undergroundairlinesWith current headlines of NFL players kneeling for the national anthem and the continued momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we in this country are confronted with old wounds from slavery that are far from healed. In Underground Airlines, Ben Winters paints a picture of modern America the same as it is today, save for one detail: slavery is legal in four states. In the history leading up to his story, Lincoln was shot before his inauguration and the Civil War never happened. To solve the dispute over slavery, a treaty was entered that allowed four Southern states to uphold the institution of forced servitude or, as it is euphemistically called, “People Bound by Labor.” They had the practice baked into the Constitution – forever protected. And, the slaves of the 21st century get an upgrade: they are corporate property, with the logos of the corporations branded onto their skin, marking their ownership.

The main character, Victor, is a bounty hunter who tracks fugitives for the United States Marshals Service. The people he’s chasing are escaped slaves. He has a complicated past: he also was an escaped slave who, when caught, was given the Faustian deal to exchange his soul for his freedom. The book reads like a noir mystery detective thriller. Victor is a cynical, private loner who reports his daily progress by telephone to a shadowy, yet ever-looming Mr. Bridge whom he has never met. Victor, who uses being black and a prior slave to his benefit, turns out to be a pro at his job – he has racked up more than 200 captures. On the current case, he infiltrates an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines, but something about the case-file details seem off. The further he delves, the more irregularities he uncovers and the less he can trust the stakeholders around him. The case gets under his skin and starts to chip away at the thin veneer of indifference Victor has built up to shield himself from his conscience. He soon is haunted by visions of his youth in a Carolina slaughterhouse plantation along with the ghosts of the many run-aways he helped the Feds to catch. Mr. Bridge makes it known that his freedom depends on continuing to perform his duties – and a tracking device implanted in his spine makes the idea of escape impossible.

According to Ben Winters, in the Fall of 2013 he was searching for his next project. He kept thinking about Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman and other incidents of police violence against African-Americans. “Our country is still dealing with the legacy of slavery,” Mr. Winters said. “As I researched the subject, I realized I wanted to take this figurative idea that slavery is still with us, and make it literal.”

The novel was a finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize, the 2017 Southern Book Prize, the 2017 International Thriller Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. The book won the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Winters has written the pilot script for a television adaptation in the works.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, October 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, October 4 to discuss Underground Airlines at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.


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