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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

"Surfacing" by Margaret Atwood

I definitely picked up this book based solely on the author's name. There are a handful of writers whose books I would probably give a shot even if the cover were ugly or the premise sounded boring or the blurb rubbed me the wrong way, and Margaret Atwood is one of them. I associate a kind of "you can't go wrong, or even if you do, you don't go very wrong" with her. (Now I am daydreaming about a blog post listing all the other authors in that category.) (Now I am taking a break from blogging and actually writing a list of all the other authors in that category.)

Moving on . . . Atwood did not disappoint with Surfacing. (Good thing! One unworthy book is enough to knock you off The List.) It started with the same sort of otherworldly struggle to find my feet (where am I? who are these people? what is going on??) that I remember from The Handmaid's Tale. Even as the pieces began to fit together, the story retained a sense of mystery and suspense.

Surfacing was first published in 1972. The unnamed narrator is a young Canadian woman traveling back to the remote island where she grew up. She's in the company of Joe, her sort-of boyfriend, and Anna & David, a not-especially-happily-married couple who are kind of friends of theirs. Narrator's father seems to have disappeared from the island and she vaguely wants to figure out what has happened to him, and David and Joe are tagging along to film an arty mishmash of random vignettes.

The narrator, numb and empty and detached (though none of these are recent developments), is definitely what one might call unreliable. Events from her past slowly bubble up . . . and then later reemerge as something somewhat different. By the end I'm not sure I could say with any certainty what did and didn't happen. (I mean, I think I know, but maybe I'm just a trusting fool.) While on one hand I had the sense that attitudes in the book (which is just slightly older than I am) are old-fashioned and somewhat dated, on the other hand it's still a good read that stands the test of time and has the ability to make a reader think.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Bitter Orange" by Claire Fuller

I loved everything about this book, inside out, with its beautiful cover and its intriguing story. It was strange and mysterious and suspenseful and enticing and I didn't want it to end but I raced to finish it anyway.

Bitter Orange tells the story of Frances Jellico, a self-taught surveyor of garden architecture who has been hired to catalogue the grounds of a decaying English manor over the summer of 1969. No longer young, she's at loose ends after the death of her invalid mother who she'd spent most of her adult life caring for. Her arrival at Lyntons introduces her to Cara and Peter, who are there to catalogue the house's interior, and Frances--who has never really experienced true friendship--is drawn into what, at first, seems to be their warm and welcoming circle . . . but, of course, it turns out to be more of a triangle. And it's all just deliciously complex and tense and ominous.

Not only that, but the bookstore where I bought Bitter Orange falls in the category of Best Bookstores Ever. If you are ever in Santa Fe, NM, you have to check out Collected Works on the corner of Galisteo and W Water Street, because I think it may be magical. It's a cozy little nook with a little coffee bar, and it gave me the sense that it is fully curated (unlike the big box stores that will sell anything and everything made of paper). It gets extra points because we were there in the wintertime and they had a warm fire roaring in their fireplace, and we could see snow flurries drifting past the windows . . .

Saturday, April 27, 2019

"The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness" by Mark Rowlands

This is a book written by a philosophy professor about the period in his life when he owned a full-blood wolf as a pet. It goes deeper than memoir, however; Rowlands explores many varied lines of thought related to his experiences with Brenin.

My mom picked this book up at the FOL bookstore in Los Alamos, read it, and passed it on to me. Normally I don't take book recommendations from my mom very seriously, but she didn't say she loved it and didn't push me strongly to read it (which means she didn't push me away from it), and the themes immediately made me think of a friend of mine--I thought I ought to read it to see if that friend might like it.

Reading the book confirmed my hunch. As I read, I alternated between marveling that my friend might have written exactly what I was reading and wondering at the fact that my friend hadn't already read or heard of this book. Well, it's on its way to her now . . . I hope she loves it.

I wish I had something interesting to say about my experience with the book but they don't call me the Literary Amnesiac for nothing. I enjoyed thinking through Rowlands' philosophical meanderings as I read, but unfortunately I didn't retain anything.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

"The Maker of Swans" by Paraic O'Donnell

I spent a lot of time reading this book. I spent even more time not reading it.

We didn't get off to a good start, this book and I. By page six I had decided the writing was too florid for my taste. As time dragged on, I finally figured out my biggest problem with the book was that I disliked one of the main characters, Crowe. It wasn't necessarily the type of dislike reserved for true villains who deserve it, which can actually be satisfying and maybe even exhilarating; it was more like an irritated annoyance rooted in disbelief that made me want to sigh and lie in bed with my face turned to the wall. Crowe just did not seem like a real person and it grated on my nerves every time he showed up. I have a feeling he was meant to be larger than life, but instead he was like a badly animated cardboard cutout trying to come across as a swashbuckling pirate. (Except that there are no pirates in this book.)

I feel like maybe I settled in by the middle of the book (quite possibly because the detested Crowe didn't appear as often) but by the end it was back to its old ways. By which, of course, I mean that Crowe was back, and had not become any more interesting or realistic in his absence.

I actually didn't hate this book as much as I may have made it sound. It has elements of mystery and magical realism that I usually enjoy, and I was mildly intrigued by the story. But I obviously didn't love it. Maybe that was my fault? I can't help but wonder if I could have invested more focus and thought and found it more engaging. But . . . I didn't. And I'm not going to bother trying again.

I really like the cover, though.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact, and Unsinkable Strength" by Kelly Williams Brown

So of course after reading Adulting, when I saw that the same author had written a book on how to be gracious, I had to read it too. Because (if you hadn't noticed) I'm not exactly a bastion of tact. And in recent years I've begun to feel as if maybe I should be.

I had fun reading this book, but sadly, I failed to come away with a Plan for How to Be a Better Person. I feel like it's mostly about how to be gracious in situations where I don't often find myself (like social media--this blog doesn't count!--or entertaining guests in my home. Although reading this kind of made me want to entertain guests in my home but I'm just waiting for that little flame to burn out.)

Despite not finding a concrete system in this book, there certainly is an underlying theme of "be more thoughtful and polite," and Sam and I are trying to incorporate that into our lives. Sometimes all that amounts to is us wondering "how could I be more gracious in this situation?" and not finding a way. But it's a start.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

"Cozy Minimalist Home: More Style, Less Stuff" by Myquillen Smith

Here's yet another book that suckered me into purchasing it during that fateful pre-Valentie's-Day trip to Target. It was the title that got me: Who doesn't want their home to be cozy? Who isn't intrigued (and maybe a little bit scared) by the concept of minimalism? Who wouldn't want to have a stylish home with less stuff instead of more? Well, not me. (Yes, I don't not want those things.) So I bought the book. (Never mind the the fact that this means I added yet another thing to my home.)

I should have paid more attention to the photos when I was deciding whether to buy the book. There's nothing inherently wrong with the denim chair and uniquely-textured blanket on the front cover, though they're not quite my style . . . but I should have known that if this was the flagship photo, it wouldn't get better from there. And I did notice something inside the book before I bought it, which is definitely not my decorating style and can be summed up in one word: antlers. But I ignored these warnings and bought it anyway.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy reading the book in a cozy, albeit minimal, way. I even made it to Chapter 6 before I really started to worry. But on page 111, when the author suggested I start moving furniture around to the accompaniment of banjo music, I lost all faith. I was only halfway through the book. I *did* manage to finish the entire thing, but it definitely isn't a keeper and won't go down in the annals of fame as one of Kathy's Favorite Decorating Books (The Inspired Room, I'm looking at you . . . with sappy loving doe eyes).

So I will finish this post with a list of reasons this book was not for me:

  1. Not my style. (Oh, did I mention that already?) I'm all for cozy! And I like the idea of minimalism, if it can be cozy as well. But I did not care for the design suggestions pictured in the book.
  2. The method is TOO HARD. I hate moving, I hate chaos, I hate scrapping everything and starting over at the very beginning. Myquillen Smith asked me to do everything I hate. I just want to make small changes and add little touches in my home, not move in all over again (even if it's just one room at a time).
  3. I didn't come away with any good ideas for my own home. I'm sure this is mostly due to my unwillingness to follow the method. But also due to my unwillingness to decorate with antlers. 

Hey, do you want this book? Let me know and I will send it to you. Not that I've particularly made it sound like something you've gotta have. But I took my chances with it, and now you can too. Who knows, maybe you'll find it's your thing. Do you like antlers? 

Friday, March 1, 2019

"The Woman in the Window" by A.J. Finn

I remember seeing this book piled up in Target and Walmart when it first came out and thinking how uninterested I was: it just seemed like a very obvious copycat publication - the next Gone Girl on the Train, blah blah blah. Now, I loved Gone Girl when I first read it, and was gripped by The Girl on the Train, so I'm not quite sure why I was so dismissive about this one. But it turns out that my instinct was correct.

The Woman in the Window is a fairly generic piece of fiction, much less interesting than the life story of its author, which is what lured me into reading it in the first place. A.J. Finn's real name is Daniel Mallory. He was recently the subject of a very long and entertaining, if slightly horrifying, New Yorker exposé by Ian Parker. Mallory, who is a huge Patricia Highsmith fan and had supposedly written a doctorate (that 'supposedly' is a key, recurring word, where Mallory is concerned) on homoeroticism in Highsmith's novels, was, apparently, a bit of a Talented Mr Ripley himself: a pathological liar who invented whole tragedies for himself and his family as a way of furthering his career, or perhaps because he was mentally ill (his version). Suddenly, The Woman in the Window seemed a lot more intriguing. So I bought it...

But I did not devour it. It turns out that a novel written by an amoral sociopath is a lot less interesting than a novel about an amoral sociopath. Or, at least, a lot less interesting than Patricia Highsmith's novels about amoral sociopaths. Because everything that I love about Highsmith's novels - the psychological depth, the dark wit, the subversiveness - is missing here. Mallory is not a bad writer, exactly - there is at least one beautiful sentence in this novel, though I can't remember now what it was - but I had the feeling throughout this book that he was very deliberately pandering to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, everything about this book is almost soul-crushingly cynical, from its author-penned advance praise to its massive international success.

Let's start with the prose. Very short sentences, very short paragraphs, very short chapters. Lots of dialogue. Active verbs, verbing actively. Hyperbolic imagery. It's quite striking to start with, and then you realise: the whole thing is written this way. It's like a tabloid newspaper version of a novel. It's like reading 400 pages of capped-up, italicised text: the intention is clearly to be as VIVID and INTENSE as possible, but the actual effect is cliched and wearying.

Then the plot: 'contrived' does not even cover it. 'Formulaic'? Yeah, that too. I liked the references to Hitchcock movies, up to a point, but the problem was that The Woman in the Window never rose beyond the level of pastiche. The characters were all paper-thin, except for the narrator, who was too obviously designed to make the reader like/feel sorry for her, after initially mistrusting/disliking her.

Most damningly, I just wasn't hooked on the story in the way I was with Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. True, I didn't guess whodunnit. But then, I didn't try to guess. Because I didn't care. The fact that this slight, 'page-turning thriller' took me several weeks to get through probably tells you all you need to know about it. If, by some miracle, you're not one of the millions of poor suckers who has already bought and read it...

'No Time to Spare' by Ursula K. Le Guin

The subtitle to this collection of essays (originally published as blogs, between 2010 and 2016) is 'Thinking About What Matters'. Ursula K. Le Guin is primarily known as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, with a huge body of work, and she died last year. I had never gotten around to reading anything she'd done before (mainly, I think, because I was put off by the old-fashioned formality of some of her titles - The Tombs of Atuan, The Lathe of Heaven - and by my impression, possibly false, that she was on the worthy, serious end of the SF spectrum, rather than the weird, dark, ironic end where my personal fave Philip K. Dick resided), but when I saw this book in a really cool store in Santa Fe, I was immediately drawn to it.

Partly it was that subtitle, partly the fact that she had just died and that these essays were among her last publications: I've always felt that what a writer produces in their final years, assuming they haven't lost any of their mental verve, is likely to be their most honest work, because by then it's too late for ambitions, pretentions, masks. But mostly it was this paragraph, printed on the back of the book, that hooked me: "I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband... None of this is spare time. I can't spare it... I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.'

I loved the ordinariness of that list, but also the urgency and vitality behind it. I am forty-eight, which feels simultaneously old and much younger than eighty-one, but I could really relate to the feeling in that paragraph, and I bought and read the book as if - in the image employed by Karen Joy Fowler, in her enjoyable introduction to this book - I was a seeker, and Le Guin a sage in a mountain cave.

So did I find out the meaning of life? Yes and no. I loved her writing about the concrete pleasures of life - a cat purring in your lap, a soft-boiled egg eaten from the shell - and her advice to embrace the age you are, rather than constantly wishing yourself younger. I also liked all the writing about writing. But as the book went on, it seemed to become more of a soapbox or a collection of journalistic odds and ends: Ursula raving about some opera she'd been to, Ursula making fun of vegetarians, Ursula on insincerity in modern politics. Some of it I agreed with, some of it less so, but either way it just seemed less important and real than the more personal, supposedly trivial stuff.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book and am glad I read it. And I am going to overcome my squeamishness about her titles and try reading some of her fiction now...

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps" by Kelly Williams Brown

Just finished reading another acquisition from my recent foray into the book section at Target. I initially picked this one up for Bookworm Child, who--though several years away from Required Adulting--is definitely wanting to add to her adult-like responsibilities while maybe not having all the necessary knowledge and maturity. (I can't do much about the maturity, but I figured this book could be a start for the knowledge.)

But I secretly harbor an intense inner fear that I'm completely overlooking some very, very important aspect of passing as an adult (I'm not sure "adulting" comes naturally to me, and I am sure that I was raised by parents who could be mistaken for cyborgs, which makes it likely that I am unaware of some things that are instinctive for humans). Plus, I read a little bit of it, and it was funny. So I read the whole thing before passing it on.

I am now relieved and reassured to know that I am not missing any essential ingredients. I enjoyed the book (which continued to be funny all the way through) and must admit that I didn't find any impressive takeaways, but if I'd read this a few decades ago I'm SURE I would have. So now, I am not only passing this book along to Bookworm Child, but I am also sending another copy directly to her older brother, who just paid his first month's rent on his very first apartment TODAY.

(And if Sam were not an angel in the form of a home chef, I would be buying a few of the cookbooks recommended in Chapter 3, Cooking. I made a list of them on my phone just in case. I also took pictures of the recipes for roasted chicken and homemade soup for future reference!) 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

"Fierce Fairytales: Poems and Stories to Stir Your Soul" by Nikita Gill

I took a leisurely stroll through the book section at Target this past weekend and was quite surprised at the amount of poetry I saw for sale there. I don't naturally gravitate towards poetry, but neither do I automatically scorn it, and anyone who knows me probably knows why this book caught my eye; it often doesn't take much more than a mention of fairytales and nicely-designed cover art.

Taking a cue from Gregory Maguire, Gill tells fairy tales from new perspectives. Maybe princesses don't always need saving. Maybe they like the dragon who guards them from the handsome prince. Maybe they are the dragon.

This book is full of empowerment and strong women and the keen observation that there is often a little villain in the hero, and a hero in the villain. I enjoyed reading it, but I think it's more suited to my twelve-year-old who would appreciate the solidarity and understanding it represents. She needs a book that celebrates her strength instead of denying its existence.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

"Transit" by Rachel Cusk

I was just as impressed by Transit as I was by Outline, if slightly less surprised (because this time I knew to expect excellence). The two books are really similar but somehow also very different . . . kind of like two peas in a pod but one pea is valuable and the other is a pearl.

Transit, like Outline, is mostly told in conversation (though these conversations are somewhat more monologue-like than I remember those in Outline). I had the exact same feeling about some of these conversations, too: do people really open themselves up like this to just anyone? And are people really so well-spoken and intelligent that they can just spew all these deep thoughts in such a cohesive and fluent manner? Where are these people?

One thing I noticed and appreciated (and didn't remember from Outline) was the detailed character studies. I'm not sure whether to admire Cusk's imaginative and astute character development, or whether to assume she didn't actually make anything up and is a keen observer (and possibly a pariah for writing so honestly about her friends and acquaintances).

I found it funny, after how much I loved the book and after reading all the glowing reviews printed on its first few pages, to turn to the inside of the back cover of my used copy to find this:

I obviously was not bored by this book and find it hard to imagine how any reader could have been. However . . . there is an unsatisfying element in the way that nothing seems to be resolved. It's a true slice of life, and every interaction is cut off--not in a glaring or inelegant way, but in retrospect it's obvious that the rest of the story is still in the cake this book was cut from.

I want more! I know I won't find resolution for these conversations, but lucky for me there's another pea in the pod. I have Kudos waiting in the wings.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

"Normal People" by Sally Rooney

I'm just . . . so annoyed by these people.

I really wanted that line to be my full blog post but I'm going to have to say more. Sam really liked this book and has been eagerly waiting for me to finish reading so we can discuss it. Maybe I should have waited to post until after we've talked about the book? Or maybe I'll come back later and edit to add more? But right now I'm almost angry about how both Connell and Marianne could so passively destroy their relationship and their happiness, time after time.