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

Saturday, September 17, 2022

“The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett

I'm working on the next inductee to my "I've Read All Her Books" group. This one takes a little more effort than the last one, considering Patchett has had more than three times the number of Fuller's books published. But, nine down and four to go! And here's a little sampling of how this one went: 

P38… this hasn’t grabbed me yet. But it’s Ann Patchett. I’ll keep going. 

P299… how did I get so close to the end?

P357… The end? How could that be the end?? I hated the end. What a letdown. How anticlimactic. 

Overall (like probably from pages 39 to 356) it was good. It was Ann Patchett and her writing is always brilliant. I can even forgive the ending. But this won’t rank among my favorites of hers. Although it’s possible it will surprise me and stick with me. Those were some pretty vivid characters. 

This is the story of Sabine Parsifal, who has spent most of her adult life in unrequited love with the magician she assists. She is actually married to the magician, and he does love her in his own way, but for him the marriage is really only a way to make sure she can inherit his wealth after he dies, since he has no other family. (Although, as very few magicians can actually make a living by performing, Parsifal and his wife are financially supported by the two rug stores he owns and runs.) The story takes place very soon after Parsifal dies of an aneurysm (though if the aneurysm hadn't gotten him, the AIDS would have). And very soon after that, Sabine finds out that Parsifal's family didn't actually die in a car wreck decades ago. They're alive and well in Nebraska. (Well, most of them are, anyway.) What follows is an evocative account of the relationships formed between Sabine and her newly-discovered family members. 

It seems like I ought to have a paragraph, or at least a sentence, to pithily wrap up this post, but I can't think of anything else to say, and really--how fitting if this review feels unfinished as it ends. Now you know how I feel. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

“Your Life Depends On It: What You Can Do To Make Better Choices About Your Health” by Talya Miron-Shatz, PhD

I actually got this book for my mom because it sounded like something she needed. She is one of those who first allowed politics to sway her decision about the COVID vaccine (when vaccination is a public health matter, not a political one) and next was swept away on a tide of skepticism toward all vaccines (about which I can only be glad that she is no longer making healthcare decisions for any children in our family. We don't want no polio! Sorry, I tried really hard to write neutrally about this but I obviously failed). Anyway--while I might (might!) give a novel I've never read as a gift, YLDOI is not the sort of book I would give to someone without having read it first. And of course I figured I might learn things from it too. So I read it. 

Tbh I didn’t come away from this book thinking, “Yes, these are definitely things I’m going to remember and do.” And I definitely didn't come away from it thinking, "Yes, this is just what my mom needs." Each chapter conveniently ends with a brief summary ("Takeaways"), which divides items for patients, for healthcare professionals, and for healthcare systems, but even a quick review of those didn't leave me with any amazing insights to share with you, although the overall impression I'm left with (patients should feel empowered to take an active role in their healthcare decisions; the doctor-patient relationship is important) is a good one. But really, the more I read, the more I thought it would be better suited for doctors to read instead of patients. In fact I started thinking I might send it to my stepson who just started DO school (until I realized there's no way he'll have time to read this book on top of all the coursework he's doing, and he'll probably never have time in his life again).

Just wanted to give a shout out to the SGU, which is where I heard about this book. I was never a podcast person before, but when a friend of mine introduced me to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, I was hooked by the first episode I listened to, and I've been listening ever since. If you are at all interested in science and critical thinking, you should try it out. While I might not be wildly intrigued by every single topic they discuss, there is always something (or several somethings) in every episode that I find fascinating. Not to mention that it's generally pretty funny too!

Saturday, September 3, 2022

“Our Endless Numbered Days” by Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller is one of those authors I've placed in a small group with the likes of Ann Patchett and Sally Rooney (and fifteen others. What? That's small): the "I'd Like To Read All Their Books" group. And guess what? With this book--her first written, my fourth read--suddenly Fuller is in a smaller group: the "I've Read All Of Her Books" group. (Though, of course, with any luck, eventually she'll have more than four books published and she'll move back to the larger group, at least temporarily.) 

The first thing I wondered about this book was whether it was named after the Iron & Wine album. (It was. Although I wasn't sure of this until after I finished the book and read the Acknowledgements at the end. But I often had "Passing Afternoon" humming through my head over this past week or so.)

The second thing I wondered--as soon as I read the blurb--was when this book was published. Was it before or after Island at the End of the World? Because a father living in isolation in the woods with his young daughter isn't a story you read every day. (Island came first. But it didn't take me long to realize the two books are as different as they need to be. And actually, as I read, OEND reminded me more of my recent read Gingerbread, although occasional similarities to Island kept bubbling up.)

Eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat, she of the British father James and German mother Ute, sets off from London with her dad for a summer vacation in a woodland cabin which he calls die Hutte. Only it’s not really a vacation, especially once they’ve eaten all the food they brought with them; and it’s not just for the summer—it ends up being more like seven of them. 

I know exactly when this book hit its stride for me: page 231, right at the beginning of chapter 21. Peggy (or Punzel, as her dad now calls her) has been aware of Reuben for a long time, but suddenly everything is different. 

So did I like this book? To be honest, I didn’t love the first twenty chapters. But the rest of the book made up for it. So, yes. Yes, I liked it. Yes, I’m still planning to read #5 when it comes out. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

“How Did You Get This Number: Essays” by Sloane Crosley

It was bound to happen. After how much I enjoyed Cake, there was no way Sloane Crosley's next book would be just as good. My head told me that, but my heart still hoped, and I followed my heart. 

Maybe if I’d read this book first, I would have loved it? (Or maybe I would never have sought out a second book by Crosley afterwards.) Each essay in Cake was so much fun. But comparatively, these essays seemed hurried, unfinished, unpolished. It was as if Crosley used up all her best material in the first book and then combed through the dregs and tried to mash them together to come up with a second book. I cruised through Cake, giddy and gleeful, giggling all the while, but more often than not in This Number my brow would crease slightly, I would stare off into the middle distance, and I would think, I do not think that means what I think it means. Then I would shrug and read on. 

Harsh, I know. I always feel bad publicly baring my negative opinions of the work of living authors (and then I do it anyway… though it helps assuage my guilt to know that only fourteen people are going to read this). But on a more positive note: the last essay in the book, “Off the Back of a Truck,” was the best one. Not the funniest! It was too heartbreaking to be the funniest. But it was the best, telling the twin stories of how Sloane furnished her studio apartment by serial purchases of beautiful high-end items at cut-rate prices from a fat guy named Daryl even though she was pretty sure everything she bought from him was stolen, and how Sloane spent about a year dating handsome and attractive Ben who had assured her that he and Lauren had broken up, only to find out (from Lauren herself) that he had lied. Yeah, that story was a little depressing but it did have a subtle, gentle humor (most of which I caught, I think) and it definitely felt relatable. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

“Circe” by Madeline Miller

I've always been interested in the stories of Greek mythology. This goes back at least as far as Ms Breitman's freshman English class in high school (maybe even farther, but it's difficult to remember such ancient history). I have my own copy of Mythology by Edith Hamilton, which is basically an encyclopedia of Greek, Roman and Norse gods, and which I devoured from cover to cover. (Granted, it's not as if I remember everything I read in that book, but I do feel like I know more about mythology than someone who doesn't know anything about mythology.)

So of course it is no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I was familiar with the name Circe, but I couldn't remember much about her, which was fine because the book reminded me of what I'd forgotten (she's an enchantress who has a hobby of turning sailors into pigs; Odysseus spends a year with her on his way home from Troy) and filled in all the gaps besides. This book does a wonderful job of fleshing out Circe's character, giving us the back story of how she ends up as a witch living in solitude on an island. And while I didn't take to the book immediately (I think I found it less interesting at the beginning, when Circe was young and spineless) it quickly became engrossing.

So, another great book! How have I become so lucky, to read so many good books in a row??

Saturday, July 30, 2022

“I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays” by Sloane Crossley

I remember, already an adult, being surprised by my cousin’s confident pronouncement that it was “every little girl’s dream” to live in New York City someday. That had never been my dream when I was a little girl. But I’ve since tried that dream on for size a time or two (only in my imagination, of course). I can see some appeal in the idea--enough to pique my interest, if not enough to sell my house and still not have enough money to pay a month's rent in Manhattan. But it's fun to imagine--or read about!--and here Sloane is living that dream, and it is just as great and terrible as Friends always promised it was. 

I had a lot of fun reading this book of essays. Right off the bat, I enjoyed the self-deprecating humor (but don't be fooled, because Sloane-with-an-e is happy to deprecate others as well as herself), and the same energy and engagement was maintained through every essay. Just like with Ann Patchett (though with quite a different tone), I felt like I was reading about Sloane's real life. I enjoyed it so much that the minute I turned the last page, I hopped online and ordered her second book of essays as well. Yeah, I did have a momentary thought--as you do before you pick up your fourth donut--am I really going to keep enjoying this as much as I think I am, or is it all going to end up being a bit too much? And then I clicked Buy Now. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

“The Martins” by David Foenkinos

I loved this little book. I read it in one day, which is something you can do when you're home sick but not quite dying. 

Originally published in France as La famille Martin and impeccably translated into English by the world's best translator (who, me, biased?), in The Martins the narrator is feeling devoid of inspiration for his next book and thus comes to a decision. He is going to walk out the door of his Paris apartment, head for the street, and write a book about the first person he sees. And . . . he does.

Madeleine Tricot is bringing home her groceries and ends up unexpectedly bringing an author with her. When Madeleine's grown daughter Valerie Martin drops by, she decides it would be too much pressure on her mother to be the sole subject of a book, so the author should include her family of four as well. And . . . he does. 

The rest of the book is a surprisingly engaging combination of the intriguing and the mundane. Who would have ever thought that the lives of a random Parisian family would be so interesting? And yet . . . they were. 

I hate to admit that this is probably the literary version of reality TV. That thought somewhat dampens my enthusiasm for the book. But never mind. Why be a killjoy? Though I do want to know . . . was it real? Was it made up? Was it some combination of the two, where reality and fiction are so closely intertwined that the truth is impossible to determine?

It seemed really real. I like that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

“The Country Life” by Rachel Cusk

This book was written a lifetime ago. (1997!). I've enjoyed (and been impressed by) Cusk’s more recent books, and was surprised to find that this one (her third published novel, though weirdly her second is not listed on the "Also by Rachel Cusk" page of this book) is a more typical novel than her later work. That said, I would definitely not classify it as garden-variety.

While The Country Life was unexpectedly different from The Outline Trilogy, it was no less good. The narration felt stiff and formal and quite British, worthy of a classic to stand the test of time. The characters were quirky and interesting (but thankfully, believably so).There were mysteries, some of which were never truly solved, and stories half-told and half-understood, and secrets merely glimpsed, and desires considered and abandoned. Nothing was as it should be and everything was as it could be, with a bizarre undercurrent through it all. 

The story starts with Stella Benson hurriedly preparing for her journey from London to the English countryside where she has been hired as an au pair for a wealthy farming family with a wheelchair-bound son. Foreshadowing as we meet the family makes it seem like she ends up spending ages with them, but as it turns out, the plot only covers one week in time. We are graced with Cusk's trademark introspection and brief shades of the deep conversations that form the substance of her later books, but in TCL these are a smaller part in the larger framework of more typical settings, characters and plot. 

What I enjoyed most about this book was the situational humor, in a so-awkward-it's-funny kind of way. I think quite possibly Rachel Cusk would be horrified to hear this, but at times Stella made me think of Bridget Jones--not only because she kept finding herself in mortifying situations, but because she seemed only able to make things worse. I read with mingled vicarious shame and relief that it wasn't me

Why has no one adapted this book for the screen? I would totally watch a TV series of The Country Life. I think it would be like a funnier and more normal-seeming Gormenghast

Sunday, July 24, 2022

“Gingerbread” by Robert Dinsdale

I don’t know how long ago I started reading this book. I have started and finished perhaps a dozen others in the meantime, maybe even more. 

So, yeah, it was slow going for me to start with, but I always intended to finish it. I just found myself reaching for a crossword puzzle more often than I reached for this book. But eventually I resigned myself to the cold and the dark and the hunger and the snow. And soon enough I found myself captured by the story. I was definitely rolling downhill with it during the second half. 

This is the story of a young boy in Belarus who lives with his mother. He is not close to his papa, her father, but the boy and his mother must go to live with him in his tenement. The boy doesn't realize it yet, but his mother is dying of cancer, and he will need someone to take care of him afterwards--and, just as much, the boy will need to care for his papa. 

Before he lived in the city, Papa used to live in a little house with Baba on the edge of the woods, and he takes the boy back there to see the place, but it is a rundown ruin. Even so, the woods are calling him back, and the boy and Papa move out of the city and into the forest. And the rest of the story teeters between fairytale and horror, with a number of well-known folk stories woven in.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller

We made another trip to the lovely Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe last week, and Sam found this new book for me there. I've read and enjoyed two other books by Claire Fuller, so it only makes sense that I would enjoy a third. 

The cover is not bad-looking, but unfortunately when I read the blurb on the back I found I was not interested in the premise of the story. However, I want to support independent bookstores, and it’s always nice to have a souvenir from a vacation, so I went ahead and bought the book, hoping that Fuller's amazing writing would bring me around.

Unfortunately it was not love at first chapter. As I got started reading, I found the characters boring, and everything was just so depressing and overwhelming. But I pushed on, because you know me. I can't not.

So I read and I read about middle-aged twins Julius and Jeanie, living in poverty with their mother. And I read and I read about their lives getting continually worse, even though everything was bad enough to start with. 

But as I read, a funny thing happened. Before I was halfway through, I’d reached critical mass. It was still depressing and overwhelming, and I'm not sure I ever necessarily identified with Julius or Jeanie, but I did not want to stop reading. Claire Fuller has done it again, folks. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

“The Woman in the Library” by Sulari Gentill

This was a fun book. And very meta! I came across it in the eighth issue of Oh Reader magazine (which, by the way, I have just realized I only tangentially mentioned once previously, and as such I am remiss. I have greatly enjoyed that magazine, and since you are a reader, I know you will too. Check it out! But back to the book). The Woman in the Library was one of the books featured in "Oh Reader's TBR: Some of the new and upcoming books on our to-be-read list." Which, of course, encouraged me to place it on my own TBR.

So, meta. Are you ready? Sulari Gentill is an Australian crime fiction author writing the story of a bestselling Australian author named Hannah Tigone. Hannah is in the process of writing a murder mystery whose protagonist, Winifred (Freddie) Kincaid, is an Australian writer in residence at Harvard, having won the Sinclair scholarship. Freddie in turn is writing a murder mystery, based largely on life, since a writer for the student newspaper was found murdered in the library the day Freddie met her new friends Cain, Whit and Marigold. Freddie works on her novel while she is simultaneously consumed by trying to solve the murder (and subsequent dangerous events) with her friends. Meanwhile, Hannah sends every chapter she writes about Freddie to her American novelist friend Leo, and he responds to Hannah with helpful suggestions for improving the plot.

I didn’t love this book from the very beginning. (Was it only because the characters in Hannah’s book had such silly names? Surely not; this actually didn't bother me much because I was able to blame that on Hannah rather than Sulari.) It took me a surprisingly long time to get into. But I think by about 80 pages in, I was in. It may not be great literature or a classic for the generations, but it was clever and I enjoyed its shades of Only Murders in the Building, which is nothing if not fun. I liked puzzling through the whodunit of Freddie's life while simultaneously being creeped out by Leo's increasing helpfulness and insistence. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

“Here in the Real World” by Sara Pennypacker

I found this pretty little hardcover book at Half Price Books (where else?) and really liked the artwork on the cover. It looked like it could be a kids’ book but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t really care either way so I didn’t try to figure out if it was. 

When I finally decided to read it, the first thing I noticed was “Ages 8-12” on the front flap. So that answered that question, while simultaneously lowering my expectations a bit. 

This was a perfectly nice and enjoyable book to read, telling the story of eleven-year-old Ware who thinks he'll be spending the summer with his grandmother Big Deal. But when she falls and breaks both hips and faces a lengthy recovery, Ware has to go back home where both his parents are working double shifts all summer long. This means Ware is expected to spend his days at the crowded and noisy community rec center, which is not the favorite place of a daydreamy boy who prefers to spend time alone. But when he realizes the rec center is right next to an abandoned and half-destroyed church, and no one notices if he's at the rec center or not, a summer full of possibilities opens up to him (as well as to a girl named Jolene, who has also noticed the potential of the abandoned churchyard).

I probably would not re-read this book, but it was worth reading once, and I may hang onto it just because it's pretty and someday an eight- to twelve-year-old might want to borrow it from me.