Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, June 7, 2024

“The Tailor of Panama” by John le Carré

Sigh. I finished reading this book a week and a half ago and have dragged my feet about it ever since then. Each day that passes solidifies my impression: this was just not my kind of book. The bad thing is, it's the only John le Carré book I've ever read. I'm torn between wondering if I won't like any of his books, and wondering if I shouldn't even bother trying to find out. 

We recently re-organized all the books in our house, and now all my TBRs are together (all 384 of them). This makes it both easier and more difficult to choose my next read. All my choices are in one spot, but . . . oof, there are so many choices. (Once I get through my current stack-in-progress, I am definitely going back to my old system, because it was awesome: choose 4 books, and read them in order from the one that interests me the least to the one that interests me the most.)

We took a trip last month, and 1) I brought the right amount of books based on previous trips (one for every two days), but 2) for some reason we did very little reading on this trip and 3) I brought two books I wasn't super-excited about reading, and this was one of them. (Now that I think about it, #3 probably had an impact on #2.) Good thing we had a long flight, because I was able to force my way through this one on the way home. It was hard for me to get into, but then it started to get kinda good . . . which lasted for about twenty pages before it dropped back down into meh territory. What's more, I couldn't grasp the tone. I read it as tongue-in-cheek and darkly humorous, but it got pretty serious towards the end. Did I misread the whole thing?

OK, so everyone knows le Carré does spy novels, right? Intrigue, suspense, backstabbing--seems like something I could get into. And the premise of this one isn't bad: there's a tailor in Panama (would you ever have guessed?) who dresses all the rich people, making him fairly well-connected. He's a British expat, so when a guy, from, like, MI6 or whatever shows up looking for a new spy, he figures the tailor is his man. Especially because he knows the tailor is living a lie to hide the embarrassing details of his past. This is good for two reasons: the tailor obviously knows how to keep a secret, but also the spy-recruiter knows the tailor will probably do anything to keep his secret past a secret. BUT what the spy guy doesn't know is that the tailor just Makes Up a Bunch of Stuff ALL the time. So when New Spy is feeding information to Old Spy . . . most of it is a crock. I don't know, it was just all over the place, kind of like this blog post. I'm just gonna hit publish before this gets any worse. 

Oh . . . is THAT what happened to this book??

Friday, May 24, 2024

“The Orange and Other Poems” by Wendy Cope

I may not be a poet but
You’ll humor me, I hope
Or get to know a better one: 
Her name is Wendy Cope

She wrote a little poem called 
“The Orange” (short and sweet)
I read its mirror image
Through a window by my seat

I’d never even heard of it
Until that very day 
But when I read “The Orange,” well,
I knew what I would say: 

“Please sir may I have some more?”
I’d like to own the book 
I don’t mean to be greedy but 
I had to have a look

And I’m so glad I asked to get 
A copy of my own
I surely don’t regret it and 
I know I’m not alone

I read it as I rode the train
From Waterloo to Surrey 
Enjoying every moment of the trip
Without a worry

Sometimes it was funny
Sometimes it was sweet
But always, like “The Orange,”
It was good enough to eat 

I tried to take my time and think
Tasting as I read 
I related to the poems
As the words flowed in my head

I really loved this little book
Of that you can be sure
And when I turned the final page
I wished that there were more

Buy this book of poems
Smile and savor it
Open it and start to read
You’ll never want to quit.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

was on a long list of books I have always intended to read, most of which appear there purely because, for whatever reason, I feel I should read them. So when I came across this cute little palm-sized copy on Amazon last fall, I figured the time was ripe. And it really is a pretty little book, with gilt-edged pages and oak leaf endpapers. 

As tiny as the book appears, though, it still contains 351 pages, and I soon found that it was not to be swiftly devoured. Instead, it requires focus, concentration, contemplation, and time. But just as I could not absorb great swathes in one sitting, I also found I needed to read more than a page or two at a time. I finally settled into a good rhythm: I read ten pages each time I picked it up. 

Thoreau's main idea in Walden is to live simply and wisely, remaining free and uncommitted for as long as possible. If you work hard, you have to eat hard, so it's better to work less and eat less (and spend less, and need less). He points out that many are "spending the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it." In fact, he went to the extent of suggesting (tongue-in-cheek, surely?) that one might live in a coffin (okay, so maybe he didn't call it a coffin, but that's certainly what I pictured when he described a 3'x6' box) in order to avoid paying rent or having a mortgage; without such debts, one is afforded more free time. (It is worth noting that the cabin Thoreau built on Walden Pond was larger than 3'x6', though 10'x15' is far from palatial. It is also worth noting that Thoreau only lived there for two years.)

He does have a point, though, when he states that men have become the tools of their tools. I love my home, and I take care of it accordingly, but I do spend far more time in doing chores than I would if I lived in a coffin . . . and it's good to keep in mind that the present shouldn't be eclipsed by the drive to earn money for a hypothetical future. I prefer, though, to build on that thought by incorporating a little bit of "the good life" (i.e. retirement) into my everyday working life, along with the perspective that we should do the most good while we are the most able.  

Thoreau takes the theme of self-sufficiency to an extreme, but I find him too isolationist. Widespread implementation of his ideals would be tremendously inefficient. Division of labor is necessary in an advanced culture. And while he is correct in saying "the man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait until that other is ready," there are benefits--including joy--in traveling with another (literally or metaphorically). Even Thoreau himself did not sew or mend his own clothes. (Were these tasks beneath him?)  

Thoreau also really slags off "easy reading," which happens to be one of my greatest joys in life, causing me to briefly toy with changing the name of my blog to Easy Reader. But in the end I decided that my blog would then be too easily mistaken for one about books for Kindergarteners.  

For all the philosophy and deep thought, there is, of course, just as much in the way of beautiful descriptions of nature, so I will leave you with one of my favorites: 

"It is glorious to behold this ribbon of water sparkling in the sun, the bare face of the pond full of glee and youth, as if it spoke the joy of the fishes within it . . . "

Monday, March 25, 2024

“Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac” by Gabrielle Zevin

After reading and loving Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Sam and I both were interested in reading more Zevin. Sam went with AJ Fikry (which I then read later), but the title of this amnesiac book was the one that most piqued my interest. I knew ahead of time that it was YA, which isn't always my favorite genre (at least not since I was a YA myself), but I wanted to give it a try anyway. 

Well, here were my thoughts as of page 20: This book is silly. 

And yet within three days I’d already finished reading it, so it couldn't have been all that bad. It never did really grab me, but it was enjoyable enough. 

This story follows a teenage girl, Naomi Porter, as she tries to regain her memories after falling down the steps outside her high school and getting a nasty knock on the head. She's seventeen years old, but she has lost all her memories since the time she was in middle school. She's forgotten her parents' divorce, and she doesn't even recognize her own boyfriend. 

The first half of the book seemed a bit contrived, with the amnesia just a plot point that allows Naomi to learn about her life along with the reader. The second half of the book was somewhere between surprising and annoying as Naomi realizes how much the fall has changed her. I'm obviously no expert, but I find it difficult to believe that a few forgotten memories would so completely change who you are on the inside. Would you really make such completely different decisions the second time around just because you forgot what you'd chosen the first time around? To me, the mystique of amnesia lies with the potential when uncovering what's hidden. In this book, nothing is really hidden--there are no real surprises or twists--it just takes some time for Naomi to put all the pieces back together. 

Ultimately, I was a bit disappointed in this book but that was most likely due to unrealistic expectations. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

“The Girls” by Emma Cline

Well, Sam was right--The Guest was better than The Girls, and I was right too--I should have read The Girls first. I think I would have liked this one more if it wasn't suffering in comparison to its successor.

This is the story of Evie Boyd, a fictional hanger-on of the Manson Family. In fact, all of the characters were fictionalized, or at least given pseudonyms. I did briefly contemplate that decision (why bother? why not just give everyone their real names?) but I came to the conclusion that this allowed the writer greater creative freedom rather than requiring historical accuracy. 

I'm not eager to read about serial killers or senseless murder (though I guess I would say, for me, it's one step above reading about war, which is nothing if not officially-sanctioned senseless murder) but this book benefits from not really being *about* the Manson murders; they're more of a backdrop. What is really central to the story is fourteen-year-old Evie's obsession with Suzanne, the beautiful older girl whose gravitational attraction separates Evie from her mundane life and pulls her into the inner circle of a cult. Part of the story is told years later, and it's unsettling to see how Evie has spent her life just drifting off on an aimless trajectory after her release from orbit.  

Did I like the book? Meh. I mean, it definitely wasn't a chore to read. But ultimately it left me a little disappointed. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

“Dinner: Changing the Game” by Melissa Clark

What's this? Another cookbook blog post? 

I promise I am not trying to turn this into a cooking blog. It is, and always will be, a reading blog. However, technically I did read this entire cookbook. In fact, I did more than just read this entire cookbook: I cooked every single recipe in it. All 225 of them! Did it take years? Yes! Was it awesome? Also yes! I even took it on vacation with me, more than once. (Hi, Hot Springs and Santa Fe!) I cooked a recipe from it the first time my son brought his then-girlfriend, now-wife over for dinner. I cooked a meal for my best friend from high school. I was brave enough to invite our foodie friend (the might-as-well-be-a-chef type) over for a meal cooked from this book. If there were an award for Best Cookbook Ever, this one would win hands down (and forks up).

Every time I cooked a recipe, I took notes. (Right there in the cookbook! My mom would be horrified. Five-year-old me still vividly remembers the We Don’t Write In Books conversation.) My notes are a combination of helpful hints for next time (when did the heat need adjusting? what did I use as a substitute for broccoli rabe? when did I use feta because I couldn't find any ricotta salata?) and diary entries about the who, when, and where of each meal. 

Towards the end I even started sticking photographs of my finished meals on the pages that didn’t already have a picture. (I just wish I’d had that idea four years ago!) My photos, of course, are nowhere near as beautiful as the ones already in the book, but they add another dimension to what has become an intensely personalized keepsake. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

“Foe” by Iain Reid

Sam said I wouldn’t like this book. He said it was terrible and he didn't recommend it. But I decided to read it anyway. (Because it was the shortest book in my main TBR pile? Maybe.)

I'm not sure what Foe seemed like to Sam, but as I read I found it similar to Philip K Dick: mysterious, intriguing, strange. And I never got to the point where I didn't like it. In fact, on page 111 (almost halfway through) Sam asked what I thought so far. When I said I actually liked it, his response was, "I don't think you will all the way through. But we'll see." 

Too bad Sam can't remember specifically what he didn't like about this book. (Sometimes I feel like we're the old man and old lady from The Buried Giant . . . ) This is the story of Junior and Henrietta, a young married couple living on midwestern farmland (which, embarrassingly, in my mind's eye looks exactly like the Kent farm in Smallville; the embarrassment doesn't lie with the fact that I was reminded of the Kent farm, but with the admission that I've watched every episode of that show. Though I guess I didn't have to mention the "every episode" part). Junior and Hen live in a somewhat dystopian future. They own chickens (which is illegal, but who's to know out here in the middle of nowhere?) and, surrounded by corporate canola fields, Junior works at a feed mill rather than cultivating his own land. Life takes a bit of a turn when Terrance shows up with the news that Junior has been randomly selected to temporarily populate The Installment, ostensibly in outer space. Hen will remain behind, and during his absence Junior will be replaced by a not-completely-explained entity who will be an  indistinguishable (even to Hen) replacement. This news, understandably, puts a bit of a strain on their relationship as they each privately deal with the coming changes.

On one hand I don't want to say more about the plot because I want to avoid spoilers; on the other hand I want to talk about the ending, so I'm about to give a huge spoiler. It's unavoidable. I mean, if you want to avoid it, you can. Just stop reading now. But if you've already read the book, I really want to know what you thought of the end. I thought it was totally ambiguous . . . did you? Junior is happy, and Hen is even more so. Is Hen happy because Replacement Junior has come back? Or did the real Hen leave, and it's Replacement Hen who is happy??

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

“The Storied Life of AJ Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin

For a long time I have harbored a fantasy of finding a baby in a box. (In my dreams it's a live one. Let's not talk about my nightmares.) Not that anyone finds a baby in a box in this book. But there's a similar sort of dynamic which spoke to that unrealized possibility.

Sam bought this book after reading Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, because who wouldn't want to read more books by the same author after reading that? (I myself, maybe unsurprisingly, was more attracted to the title Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac; I'll definitely be reading that someday.) Unfortunately Sam was less than impressed by Fikry; I'm willing to bet that's just because TaTaT was that good. How could it compare? But despite the lack of recommendation from Sam I figured I would give it a try. 

AJ Fikry is an old (ish! not really) and somewhat grumpy bookstore owner on Alice Island, off the northeast coast of the US (although, weirdly, the beach and the ocean hardly figure into this book; I think the [made-up] location was only chosen because it is a bit remote and difficult to get to). We first see AJ through the eyes of Amelia "Amy" Loman, a publishing rep from a small press hoping to get him to purchase a significant portion of their winter catalog. At first we don't realize it, but AJ has every right to be gruff since the demise of his beloved wife two years earlier. 

Sam may have been right in that this book isn't as good as TaTaT, but I enjoyed reading it. I mean, it had its flaws, mostly centering around Maya. For one, I could not grasp Maya's voice; she didn't sound like a real child or even a real person. What was supposed to make her sound unique (never using contractions) only served to make her sound like a weird robot. It's like Maya was written by someone who has never met a child, or maybe never even was one. For another, Maya's short story (supposedly nearly award-winning) was terrible. It had a striking final line, but that was the only good thing about it. On the other hand, I loved it on page 86 when Maya figured out that r-e-d spells red, because I remember that moment of realization in my own life (the letters make sounds, and the sounds make words! although I was sounding out "Away We Go" instead of "red"), and I remember the feeling of the world opening up to me. It's definitely a nice thing to be reminded of. And then there's the whole bookish background, with all of the literary references and love of reading. Island Books is the perfect setting for a bibliophile.

Overall, I found this book very satisfying, even if contrived (as when Fikry asked to keep the child, and when Maya reviewed the books in the store) and a bit sentimental. The nostalgic bent saved it for me.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

“Romantic Comedy” by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is the kind of book I usually hate. I mean, if I hadn't already read a book of short stories by this author that I really liked, and if this novel hadn't been recommended by [insert entity here that a literary amnesiac can't remember but was probably Oh, Reader magazine], I wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole, no matter how witty and intelligent the main character was. 

I actually bought this book for Sam for his birthday. (Six months ago.) It's not Sam's usual thing either, but he *did* like One Day and The Versions of Us, both of which I would lump into the same category as this one. Aaaaaand yes I was interested in reading it myself after that [unremembered] recommendation. Unfortunately, without the interesting hook of once-a-year updates, or the distinctive alternate universe idea, there must not have been anything in this book for Sam, because . . . he hated it. I don't think he made it more than fifty pages before he gave up. 

I won't say I was undaunted by Sam's reaction, but I still wanted to give it a try. And I'm glad I did, because it turns out I didn't hate it. It definitely wasn't my favorite book ever ever, and I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly, but I did enjoy reading it. So maybe the characters' lives were too different from the average Joe (or Josephine, or me) to seem realistic, but that was actually part of the (vicarious) fun. And somehow the characters, despite their charmed lives, did seem real (which I can only attribute to good writing). 

Oh, right--what's it about? Sally Milz is one of the longer-term writers for the TV comedy show The Night Owls (a super-obvious surrogate for Saturday Night Live). She meets Noah Brewster, who is maybe not the male equivalent for Taylor Swift because apparently she's currently bigger than any worldwide phenomenon has ever been? But Noah is maybe the next tier down, as a talented, beloved, hunky pop star who stereotypically should only be dating models, though actually (actually) he is interested in Sally. And then there's that attraction-repulsion-attraction cycle that keeps you hanging on for more, only it's interspersed with personal assistants and mansions in Topanga Canyon and private jets punctuated by a bit of pandemic caretaking in Kansas City or whatever location is a substitute for bland middle America, and the underlying question is: are they going to live happily ever after? 

The only other thing I can think to say about this book is that it is weirdly, weirdly specific about what life is like when you work for a famous weekly improv comedy show. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

“Snow” by John Banville

If you were cynical, and you were reading a book about a priest who was one of the people in charge of a school for wayward boys, would you guess what that priest did with those boys (or at least some of them)? Yes, yes you would. And you would be right, and you would be disgusted. 

And that right there was me reading Snow. And I just can't get past that aspect of it. 

It was a murder mystery, and I like murder mysteries. It was well written and suspenseful, and I enjoy well-written suspense. It was atmospheric, and really, Snow was the perfect name for it--the story really evoked the wintry and cold ambience. But also  . . . it was just . . . sordid. Agatha Christie would never have written about a pedophile who (albeit deservedly) had his junk removed in the throes of death.

This one is going back to Half Price Books.  

Saturday, February 10, 2024

“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

Any time a book I read completely absorbs me, the book that follows is going to suffer in comparison. And there's no doubt that's what happened to Rules of Civility

But even if I hadn't read this immediately following The Guest, I'm not sure I would have known what to make of it. It's mainly the story of one year in the life of Katey Kontent, an independent young twenty-something in 1938 Manhattan who talks like a hard-boiled detective in film noir. I don’t know why, but I expected Katey to turn out to be a Russian spy. Thant unmet expectation threw me off for quite a ways through the book. 

I liked it but didn't love it. I enjoyed the reading experience but wasn't swept away by it. The characters were interesting enough but I didn't live their lives with them. And it took me nine days to finish this blog post . . . 

Monday, January 29, 2024

“The Guest” by Emma Cline

Is it almost a cliché to read an Emma Cline book at this point? I feel a little behind the times.

I let Sam pick my next read, and this was it. He'd already read both The Guest and The Girls, and he said this was the better of the two. I did have a brief momentary doubt--shouldn't I read the less good one first, saving the best for last? I can't help but want to read the other one, but I also kind of dread its not-as-goodness. 

Speaking of dread...

Reading The Guest was an intensely uncomfortable experience, from quite early on. When I mentioned this to Sam, he laughed and said, "Yeah, it's like that the whole way through. You just have to remember--she's not you. And then you can see the humor in it." And he was right--I had been living this book as if I were Alex. It felt dangerous, unhealthy, and a little bit dirty. But even after the reminder that this was not my life, I'm not sure what I was seeing (as I mentally cringed and snuck peeks through my fingers) could be called humor.

This is going to be a weird comparison, but this book reminded me of The Nanny Diaries, only dark and edgy. (And Alex is definitely not a nanny.) Alex is a vaguely beautiful 22-year-old who has most recently been living in New York City. She's some combination of escort and prostitute and leech, who has attached herself to the older and (much) wealthier Simon for a late summer month in the Hamptons. Just when Alex is thinking maybe everything in life has become exactly what it always should have been, it begins to devolve into exactly what it always has been. But Alex has an unsettling way of simultaneously settling for and denying the existence of reality. 

I was sucked into this story just as quickly as Alex was almost sucked out to sea (that is, within the first three pages). Yes, I read the whole book in two days. Yes, this is despite the fact that I have a full-time job. I enjoyed the reading experience (if in a slightly bewildered way) but my overwhelming feeling as I turned the last page was one of exceeding relief that it was over.