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

Monday, October 2, 2023

“Birnam Wood” by Eleanor Catton

Sam read this book recently and loved it. And a few years back I read Catton's The Luminaries and really enjoyed that (although I never did get into the TV series, for some reason). So, with motivation both internal and external, I figured I needed to read this book too. 

Well, I didn’t love it like Sam did, but I'm not really sure why. It is a pretty compelling story, and basically what I think could be considered a literary thriller. It's about a group of young socialist gardeners in New Zealand (they call their group Birnam Wood) and what happens when they align themselves with someone who is basically an Elon Musk-esque American billionaire. 

My favorite thing about this book was the fact that the characters had some really interesting and intelligent conversations. Specifically, my favorite quote was this: Democracy isn't about everyone voting the exact same way, it's about whether you agree to go along with the outcome of the vote even if it turns out you're in the minority. 

Hmmmm, I wonder who that was directed towards??

Sunday, September 3, 2023

“What Now?” by Ann Patchett

Before I got started reading Ann Patchett's most recent novel, Tom Lake, I glanced at the list of her other publications and noticed I had already read all but three. Just three! Totally do-able. So I ordered copies of them, and the completist in me rejoiced. 

Once my three new books arrived, I chose to read What Now? first. This is partly because it is just a little slip of a book (112 small pages with huge print!) but it is also because I really love Ann Patchett's nonfiction, maybe even more than her novels. Or, definitely more than some of her novels, and at least as much as my favorites. I have never found fault with Patchett's writing, but she is really good at writing about reality.

It's not surprising that this book is teeny tiny, because it basically comprises a commencement address Patchett gave at her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, in 2006. (I have just realized I have absolutely no memory of any speakers at my college graduation. I feel sure none of them were remotely as interesting, or as famous, as Patchett.)

As someone who has already found a path in life that I am happy with, this book was not something that deeply inspired me, but it was encouraging and uplifting and fun to read. It would make a nice gift for a graduate (along with a lovely check, please). The next time you are tempted to purchase yet another commencement copy of Dr Seuss's Oh The Places You'll Go, you ought to opt for What Now? instead.

I do have one tiny complaint about the book. The text is interspersed with black and white photos, all in the same vein as the one on the cover (people on paths, in mazes, leaving footprints in sand, trying to decide which direction to go), but the placement of these photos was a bit distracting. I wish they had been more like punctuation than interruption.

Friday, September 1, 2023

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin

Video games are not my thing. It's not like I've never played any (I really enjoyed The Dig, like, a quarter of a century ago!) but gaming is not something I ever got into, and back when my high school friends tried to convince me to play Super Mario Brothers, I don't think I ever got beyond the initial "doot doot doot" of the music before some kind of evil mushroom jumped on my head and I had to start over. So, a book that is all about video games and game designers? If Sam (also not a gamer!) hadn't read it first and loved it, I might never have been interested in reading it. I care nothing about video games, but this book grabbed me from the very beginning. (And, in case you were worried, it did not creep in a petty pace.)

TaTaT is one of those epic stories that is really about deep and enduring (if intermittent) friendship. Sadie Green and Sam Masur met as children, when Sam was recovering from a grave injury to his left foot. Their connection was instantaneous, and they spent hours (690, in fact!) bonding over video games and the vagaries of life until, in one of those aforementioned vagaries, they experienced their first rift. The real story picks up when they meet again during their college years and decide to design a video game together. Funnily enough, despite my lack of interest in video games, Gabrielle Zevin managed to make their creation intriguing and compelling (helped along by leaving out programming minutae and focusing on storylines). As Sam said, this book opened our eyes to the creative and artistic aspect of video game design. But for me, it was the relationships that made this book. 

I also liked the big words! There were not an annoying number of them, but there were enough to make me feel like I was reading a smart book. I even kept a list! It's been years since my last "Words of the Day" post, and I don't feel especially driven to create one now, but if I did, the words from TaTaT would have been perfect. It's a great mix of ones whose definitions I think I might know (but I'm not certain) and ones I'm not sure I'd ever heard before: cicerone, echt, ersatz, ludic, grok, bromide (not in the chemical sense), Weltschmerz, collogue, trenchant, kenophobia, Torschlusspanik, viridescent, itinerancy, roundelay, Zweisamkeit, deictic, jejune, eidetic. 

After having enjoyed this book so much, we of course are interested in reading more by Zevin. But here is where we diverge: I want to read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac (despite the fact that it is marketed for teenagers; it's that reference to amnesia that grabs me), while Sam has already purchased a copy of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

Friday, August 25, 2023

“Tom Lake” by Ann Patchett

I just finished reading Ann Patchett's pandemic project, which causes my own (paint-by-number) to pale in comparison. (Actually I'm not sure that Patchett really wrote this book during lockdown, but it was partially set then.) 

First, I just want to ask: How in the world did Ann Patchett publish a new book and I had no idea it was coming? I didn't even hear a peep about it before I saw it on the shelf at Target two weeks ago. I must be reading the wrong news. Although I did feel a bit better when I saw it was only released on August 1st, so it's not as if it's been out there for months. 

I'll tell you a secret, though. I didn't buy it when I saw it at Target. You know why? I don't like the dust jacket. It looks so shiny and cheap! I thought surely it was just the shiny cheap Target version and figured I would find a nicer one to buy online. But nope, this is it. Shiny and cheap. But you know what they say about books and their covers, and that's, like, a thousand percent true here.

Because this book is super awesome. I enjoyed reading it so, so much. It tells the story of Lara (formerly Laura) Kenison, one-time ingenue who starred in a famous movie but ended up finding her happiness and her life on a cherry farm in Michigan. During the summer of 2020, when all three of her twenty-something daughters have come home to weather out the pandemic and help with the harvest, Lara finds herself telling them of that long-ago summer at Tom Lake when she played Emily in a summer stock production of Our Town. And whereas the story of that summer alone could have been a novel, here is where Ann Patchett reveals her genius: what might have been melodramatic or cloying if told on its own becomes so much more when viewed through the hazy lens of time and nostalgia. It's a gripping story, and as I read I almost felt like I was Lara's fourth daughter. I was definitely absorbed by this book, which Sam can attest to after seeing me wander around the house with it glued to my face. 

SO here's something really weird. You know that I tend to read every single word in a book--especially books I really like--from the Advance Praise to the author's bio. So of course I noticed that Patchett's author photo in this book appears to have been taken in her bookstore, as do some of her previous author photos, but in this one I can see several stacks of multiple copies of the same book (not uncommon with new bestsellers in bookstores). One of these looked so familiar to me--cream colored book, dark frame on the spine--so much so that I thought for sure I owned a copy of it. I literally scanned all my bookshelves looking for it, only to discover that no, I do not have a copy of this book, although Wicked and The Mysterious Benedict Society are probably the reasons I found it familiar-seeming. I figured that I needed to make like Elsa and let it go. BUT as I was scanning the interwebs just now to make SURE there isn't a less shiny and more luxurious-looking version of Tom Lake, I FIGURED IT OUT. It's Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (which I don't have a copy of, but probably should). It's weird to me that that book just popped up in relation to Tom Lake. I wonder if there are other weirdos like me who had to know what book that was. And now they're inextricably linked. Or maybe it was just the Pulitzer thing.

The staycation continues! Well, for a few more hours, anyway . . .

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

“Take What You Need” by Idra Novey

I did not expect to finish this book in less than twenty-four hours. (And of course I would not have, except for the fact that I am on staycation, which is basically synonymous with read-a-thon and also synonymous with awesome.)

Take What You Need tells the story of a complicated character named Jean, an older (though not elderly) woman who has lived her whole life in a small town in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Her story is told in alternating chapters, half through her own eyes and half through the eyes of her estranged adult stepdaughter Leah. The important things in Jean's life are her love for Leah that arose from the nine years she spent as her mother figure, Elliott who is her short-term next-door neighbor, and the Manglements she welds in her living room--metal boxes that are her Art and her form of expressing herself. And I feel like it's impossible to say more about this book, because it's so tightly woven and evocative that it seems impossible to express in a sentence or two.

One of my favorite things about this book (though it's a minor aspect, and really just serves as a backdrop to the setting) is the thinly veiled references to hated political figures. It was kind of like reverse name-dropping, as no names were actually named, but it was oh so satisfying. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

“My Dear I Wanted to Tell You” by Louisa Young

What is it with Sam continually giving me books that make me want to cry? (If you can refer to two in succession as "continually.") Is he just testing my resolve? Well, I'll tell you what. I've come up with a new system, even better than disguising tears as sweat. I lean back in my chair and raise my book above me so that I have to tilt my head back while I read. This way the tears disappear back inside me, somewhere behind my eyeballs, rather than coming out in front of them. I'm destroying the evidence. It's quite clever, really.

But yeah this was another moving story. Also encompassing unspeakable tragedy (but this time the Great War rather than Aberfan), and also so terribly British. The main character is Riley Purefoy, a handsome but lower-class young British man who, despite (or maybe because of) his love for upper-class Nadine Waveney, runs off to Flanders to join the army and fight against the Huns. It's all very horrors-of-war which you know I hate, but as it was heavy on the humanity and light on the strategy, I managed. There are also three other characters who are almost as main but not quite: Riley's commanding officer, Peter Locke; Peter's beautiful but vapid wife waiting for him at home (she was so silly and yet I still felt sorry for her); and Peter's homely but so very helpful cousin Rose, who works as a nurse during the war. Three guesses whose nurse she ends up being.

It's funny how much I liked this book in the end, because I was not impressed when I first started reading it. I actually put it down and read two other books before I picked it up again. 

Sunday, August 13, 2023

“Rich and Pretty” by Rumaan Alam

As promised 55 pages ago, here's my break. Total beach read. (Except, unfortunately, I did not read it at the beach--although there is a section of this book where the main characters travel to Turks and Caicos. Which is not quite the same as me being at the beach, but vicarious is better than nothing.) 

This is definitely not my usual type of book. How did I end up with it, you ask? Well, it all started (as this sort of thing often does) at Half Price Books. My habitual method there is to head straight to the Fiction section and peruse spines until I get a crick in my neck. What catches my eye? Interesting titles, Penguin orange, and the names of familiar authors. In this case it was the latter. One year into the pandemic I read Alam's Leave the World Behind and found it interesting enough to give another one of his books a try.

Rich and Pretty tells the story of Lauren (who is pretty) and Sarah (who is rich), thirty-something New Yorkers who have been best friends (at least in name) since the age of eleven. About the time we make it through Sarah's beautiful, forty-page fairytale wedding with no mishaps, I started to realize: there really is no point to this book. Nothing has happened, and nothing is going to happen. My assumption that Dan and Meredith were having an affair? Pfffft. Way off. Dan really is exactly as predictable as he seems. But then there is a point, and it's the best one of all: Relaxation. Escapism. Just the pure enjoyment of reading a story. A bit like vegging out in front of the TV except it feels slightly more intellectually healthy just by virtue of the act of reading. And that is exactly what I needed. 

Saturday, August 12, 2023

“A Terrible Kindness” by Jo Browning Wroe

I still have a deep stack of books to read on my end table, and it still seems impossible to pick which one should be next, but after Flaubert's Parrot, Sam chose this novel for me. He had read it not long ago and found it incredibly moving and wanted me to experience it too. 

I think I finished reading it about a week ago, but I’m just now getting around to writing about it. That's never a good thing. It may indicate laziness, or a lack of things to say about my reading experience, or an inability to put my feelings into words. In this case it was really none of those--it was more of a lack of time to sit down and compose something coherent. For a day or two I stuck to my rule (don't start the next book until you blog about the last one) but, sensing my anguish, Sam told me to give myself a break, so I did. And soon (after about 55 more pages, in fact) you will see just how much of a break I gave myself. But not yet. 

Sam was right about this book being moving, especially Part I. I mean, it's about Aberfan. Only the Queen of England could fail to shed a tear when confronted with that tragedy (and that's only if The Crown is to be believed). You know me, though; I sternly resist crying over stories (but maybe that doesn't necessarily apply to stories so deeply rooted in reality). Luckily it is summertime, possibly the hottest one ever, and I was sitting outside wearing sunglasses while reading. If anyone had asked, I would never have admitted it was more than just sweat running down my cheeks.  

It must be said that this is one of those books where the main character can be annoyingly obtuse or self-flagellating. But it was still beautifully written and a really, really good book. 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

"Flaubert's Parrot" by Julian Barnes

Before reading this book, all I knew of Flaubert was Mme Bovary and all I knew of Julian Barnes was Arthur & George, although I do have a copy of The Sense of an Ending that I fully intend to read someday. Even considering my minimal knowledge, Flaubert's Parrot was kind of a shock to my system. 

This was not a story to sink into. Instead, it was a weirder but somehow deeper and more clever biography than any I’ve ever read. The writing reminded me of Milan Kundera (although all I know of Kundera is The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and I appreciated the dry, wry humor.

In this book, somehow Barnes gathers up everything that can be known about Gustave Flaubert and forms it into a sort of novel-like expression. It's the farthest thing from your typical encyclopedic biography, and yet I feel like I came away with a better sense of who Flaubert was as a real human than I could have otherwise. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2023


How can I possibly choose which one is next?


Sunday, July 16, 2023

“The Marriage Portrait” by Maggie O’Farrell


I have always loved Maggie O'Farrell's books (...always? ohhhhhkay there was one exception), but for some reason I initially put off reading this one. Despite my love for Italy, and despite knowing there is a wealth of intriguing stories to be found in its renaissance era, the synopsis of this book made me drag my feet. It just sounded a bit . . . dull.

I don't know what I was thinking.

This book was so good! Based on actual historical characters, it tells the story of Lucrezia de'Medici and her short-lived marriage to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara. I think part of my resistance to reading this book stemmed from the fact that you go into it already knowing that Alfonso ends up killing his teenage bride. How can the story be anything but hopeless and depressing? Well, that's where Maggie O'Farrell comes in to work her magic. Whereas Sam said the first half of the book felt too claustrophobic to him, steeped in the foreknowledge of the impending murder as it was, I was gripped from the first page. 

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and Other Writings

I have been reading this book little bit by little bit over a number of months (YES, okay, if you must know, I kept it in the bathroom. This is one of those books that I felt obliged to read because I knew it would make me a better person, but it is also one of those books I knew I would never actually read unless I was forced to.)

I'm sure this is a case of stating the obvious, but Benjamin Franklin was a pretty impressive man. Maybe I've always known these things but forgot? But it's amazing how many institutions Franklin had a hand in creating. Lending libraries? Check. Fire departments? Check. UPenn? Check! And all of this squeezed in between creating a successful printing business, being a US ambassador to France, running a postal service that I can only imagine must have been more efficient than the current USPS, and flying a key on a kite string into a thunderstorm. 

I don’t think I was left with a super clear overview of Franklin's life (but of course that was not the intent of this book). I feel like it zoomed in on a number of interesting aspects but left the remainder vague and amorphous, and I might have found a biography more balanced. But what I had really wanted to get from the book is a sense of the man himself in his own words, and I think I did. I found Franklin to be pithy, witty, humble and wise.