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

Saturday, March 11, 2023

“A Storm of Swords” by George R R Martin

Still really into these books. I couldn’t remember when Joffrey’s wedding feast occurred in the timeline of the TV series, so I’d been eagerly awaiting that scene (while simultaneously dreading Edmure’s) ever since I began reading the series, and book three delivers both. 

On to number four!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

“A Clash of Kings” by George R R Martin

I finished reading A Clash of Kings more than a week ago (specifically, on Friday the 17th) and am almost halfway through the next one already. I don't have much to say about the book itself (other than the fact that I enjoyed reading it just as much as the first one), but of course I want a record that I read it, hence the blog post.

Did I mention that Sam has been reading this series at the same time as me? Luckily we had two copies of each of the first two books. Unluckily we only have one copy of the third one. Partly because of this and partly because it's what we prefer, Sam is  interspersing his GoT reads with other books while I'm just racing straight through the series. But it's been fun to be immersed in the same story. 

Speaking of fun, Sam is super good at creating cocktails and he invented a George R R Martini in honor of our reading sessions. (The Rs stand for raspberry and rose.) I'm a lucky girl!

Monday, January 30, 2023

“A Game of Thrones” by George R R Martin

I know I'm a little behind the times, but I'm finally reading A Song of Ice and Fire, and I am LOVING it. Of course I've seen the entire TV series, which means (at least so far) I already know everything that's going to happen, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable to read. While A Game of Thrones is not necessarily a book to encourage deep thought and contemplation, it is one that I've been racing through, engrossed in the story. I've definitely been sucked in, and have been reading nothing else.

And I have the feeling I will be reading nothing else for months. This first book clocked in at 807 pages (which meant just under two weeks for me), and they only get longer from here. And I must admit I feel a sense of dread when I think of books 4 and 5. Years ago, Sam tore through books 1-3, but he stalled on 4 and never even read 5. This does not bode well. Not to mention the fact that I found this first book more and more depressing as it went along. Or maybe it was just the grim weather outside today? Either way, my plan is to power through, and I think I will enjoy it more often than not. All that to say--not that I blog with great frequency these days anyway--if you don't see much action here, know that it is because I am busy in Westeros.

Here's something odd I noticed as I read AGoT. Usually, if you're already familiar with a movie or TV show and then you read the source material, reading adds depth to the experience. You're rewarded with extra tidbits that weren't made plain in the show (or that just couldn't be fit in). Weirdly, I'm not finding that with these books. As Sam pointed out, that's a testament to what a great job Benioff and Weiss did with the HBO adaptation. 

I wanted to mention the actual physical books I've been reading. I was hoping to find a nice matched set that was good-looking, not a tie-in version to the TV show. I initially hesitated over this set which is smaller than most books; I worried that the type would be too small for my old eyes, but I finally took the leap and I'm so glad I did. It's such a good-looking little set, the size is just perfect to hold in my hands (I can even read them one-handed!) and my eyes are doing just fine. So if you have the opportunity to get your hands on the Special Boxed Bantam Edition pictured below, take it! Although I must admit . . . it makes me hope that Martin never finishes books 6 and 7. (Yep, I said it.) Unless Bantam is going to print matching copies to go with my set!

Saturday, January 7, 2023

“An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed” by Helen Tursten

The last one of these was more fun than this one. Somehow it didn't bother me so much to watch an old lady plan and execute cold-blooded murder just because it suited her (though I don't know why that should be). But in this second book, which includes reminiscences interleaved with what was happening in the present, suddenly Maud was given a conscience that I hadn't been previously aware of. 

The latter half of this second book is consumed by an obvious attempt at redemption, with Maud's incredibly thoughtful generosity a stark contrast to the insensitive narcissism she'd always shown before. It was hard to decide whether to see it as straightforward reformation, an incongruous impossibility, or interesting character development. But whereas her motives in the first book were of the basest human emotions (jealousy, selfishness and greed, or even just wanting to eliminate an annoyance), suddenly Maud's crimes are a result of protecting her sister or saving a young stranger from a rapist.  

That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy reading this book. It was still quite fun and I enjoyed the mysteries and suspense. But I was surprised that Tursten found the need to take a deliciously unscrupulous character and give her a heart. 

Sunday, January 1, 2023

“An Elderly Lady is Up To No Good” by Helene Tursten

I just read another cute little tiny little book. (They go so quickly!) But this one is very different from the book I blogged about yesterday, in everything but size.

I'm pretty sure I heard about this one in the most recent issue of Oh Reader. Or maybe that was actually the sequel (which I have also purchased and plan to read soon, and which is just as cute and just as tiny). 

This mini-book contains 5 brief murder mysteries that rate pretty highly on the Agatha Christie scale. In fact they remind me a lot of Christie's stories (with an f-bomb or two thrown in), and the elderly main character, Maud, reminds me quite a bit of Miss Marple, except for one key difference: instead of solving all of the mysteries, Maud is the one committing all of the murders . . .  

Saturday, December 31, 2022

“Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise” by Katherine Rundell

This tiny little hand-sized book showed up in my Christmas stocking, because what better, more magical place for it? It is a collection of essays extolling the virtues and praising the merits of children’s fiction. Its purported intent is to convince adult readers to give the genre a chance. In reality, anyone reading this book was most likely an avid reader as a child, and it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the books we loved way back when. To me, it's more of a summons back to what we knew and loved rather than a suggestion to try something as yet untried. 

Though there is a bit of name-dropping involved (or, I guess what I actually mean is title-dropping?), there wasn't as much as I expected. In other words, if you're coming to this book with the expectation that you will find myriad recommendations regarding which children's books you should read, you will be disappointed. But if you want to be bolstered in your desire to revisit the novels of your youth (or be encouraged to discover new ones), you'll find all the bolstering and encouragement here.

I finished reading this book before I intended to. I was on what I assumed was the penultimate essay, a half dozen or so pages from the end, and I had just told myself that I would finish that essay and read the final one later, when poof, Acknowledgements. Not that this was unsurvivable. Just thought I would warn you ahead of time: the essays end on page 63. But no worries: the subsequent excerpt from Rundell's novel The Explorer is a treat.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

“Little Nothing” by Marisa Silver

I spent a looo o o o ong time not reading this book. I can't even remember when I first picked it up, but it's entirely likely that it was in mid-September. The story did not immediately grab me, and I spent less and less time reading it until there was a period of weeks when I didn't touch it at all. And I'm really not sure why. It wasn't difficult, or poorly written, or boring. 

It was weird. In the style of a folk tale or legend, it tells the story of Pavla, born a dwarf (hence her nickname, Little Nothing) who has a beautiful face and golden hair. Pavla's parents are elderly, and they worry about how she will live after they die. Somehow they decide the best course of action is to get Pavla stretched to a normal height so that she can find a husband. The charlatan named Smetanka is actually able to do this stretching, thanks to an ingenious table-cum-torture device created by a resourceful young man named Danilo. The only problem is that Pavla ends up looking like a wolf girl, which kind of foils her parents' plans. Eventually Danilo and Pavla end up in a traveling carnival sideshow . . . and then Pavla kills and eats Smetanka and turns into a wolf. (That's almost 100 pages in, and probably counts as a huge spoiler, especially considering that it's not mentioned in the blurb, so I extend to you my deepest apologies. But I can't imagine how I can write about this book in such a way that I will remember it without mentioning the wolf thing.) 

The rest of the story brings in murders and wolf cubs and prisons for the criminally insane (or just for criminals) and escapes and clockwork and digging tunnels for water pipes and, quietly in the background, war. The ending is quite ambiguous. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

“What the Fact? Finding the Truth in All the Noise” by Dr Seema Yasmin

I didn’t know this was a young adult book until it was too late. I've been on the hunt for books that will help me hone my critical thinking skills and this was recommended as one, but I found the juvenile tone off-putting. I tried to see past its efforts to catch the attention of someone less than half my age and just glean what I needed from it, but I found myself wondering if it might even insult an intelligent high-schooler. It's definitely full of useful information that I wish more people knew and understood, but I would have preferred to find it in the style of, say, Malcolm Gladwell, who gets his point across in an engaging and entertaining way without a bunch of different fonts and with a slightly more challenging vocabulary. 

I feel like I should at least gloss over some of the main points of the book. 
  • Fake news isn't new--it's been around for years; when looking at journalism as a whole, it's also a lot less common and more nuanced than some people claim. (I'm looking at you, Smugly.)
  • Fake news, as well as bad news, spreads much farther and faster than good news. This is generally because fake or bad news plays to peoples' emotions (typically those of outrage or fear), and people are more likely to share information that outrages or scares them--it's just human nature.
  • People tend to believe what they're told first, and they are more likely to cling to these first-held beliefs, even if they're incorrect. 
  • There's a whole spectrum of "fake news," and almost all of it has at least a kernel of truth.
So . . . what can the average person do about fake news?
  • Try not to be part of the problem--don't further the spread of fake news. For example: don't re-post information on Facebook if you don't verify it first. 
  • Take a good look at the news you are consuming, and its sources. You may want to expand your range of sources, even if only temporarily, in order to confirm the reliability or veracity of your usual sources.
  • When appropriate, push back against people in your circle who are spreading fake news. Yasmin gives Ten Steps for Effective Disagreements, and this may be the most helpful part of the book:
  1. Pick your battles. It may make more sense to have a discussion with a family member than with the lady behind you in the line at the grocery store. 
  2. Prepare for more than one chat. In most cases (see bullet point above, about people clinging to first-held beliefs) it's going to be difficult to impossible to change someone's mind; you're certainly not going to manage it over the course of one single conversation.
  3. Ask questions, then listen. If you think you're going to just give someone a lecture and change their mind, you're doomed to failure. You need to hear them out, and actually *hear* them rather than just using the time while they're speaking to plan your counterattack.
  4. Use the principle of charity. Don't assume the worst interpretation of someone's argument--instead of getting mired in thinking they are being illogical or selfish, try to see that they probably think their argument is as logical and strong as you think yours is.
  5. Ask for evidence. That statement may sound a bit like we're now going on the attack, but it may be phrased better if you say it this way: "What information and evidence did you use to form your point of view?" (I still think it would be hard to do this in a way that doesn't make the other person defensive.)
  6. Look for common ground. You may never agree on the big picture, but there are almost always aspects that can be agreed on.
  7. Don't shame people. You'll never change anyone's mind with shame; you'll only cause them to dig in deeper.
  8. Don't pour facts onto polarized conversations. Instead, you should focus on helping people to shift their perspective by . . . 
  9. Harnessing the power of stories. This is actually something that fake news often includes--a story that tugs at your emotions--but the truth can spread more easily by playing on emotions as well.
  10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You don't have to use all ten of these strategies all the time. Different people or times or topics call for different methods (or different combinations of methods). 
I am still on the hunt for books about critical thinking skills. If you know of a good one, tell me!

Friday, December 23, 2022

“Confidence Man” by Maggie Haberman

I am grumpy today, and that should not be the case. I am off work at the beginning of a four-day holiday weekend, Christmas is two days away, and I have finished a long book which means I get to choose a new one to read. Yet my brow is furrowed and I am short-tempered and irritable. And I can't help but lay at least part of the blame on the book I've just finished reading. (Although I'm more than certain that part of the blame also lies with the fact that the water pipes in our house are currently frozen and all I can do is hope that they have not or will not burst.) But maybe I can make myself feel better by avoiding using the T-word in this post (although it's in the photo, but that can't be helped).

I have now read two books about this former president. That is enough. No more. I can't stand any more rehashing. At least the first half of this book was new, giving a bit more history and background about how this man ever came to the presidency, but the second half was almost like re-reading The Divider with slightly different wording. I am no closer to understanding how the political events of 2016 - 2020 could have happened, but I have reached the conclusion that I have to put it behind me.

That's not to say that I found this book in any way boring or unreadable. I did not have to force my way through it. Somehow, even having heard most of the second half before, I could probably describe it as riveting. And whereas it seemed to me that The Divider was consistently negative, Haberman was pretty unstinting in both praise and criticism. Although, specifically, I did wonder if it was petty to report that the man made sure to receive one more scoop of ice cream than his guests were served? (Or was it just petty that the man made sure to receive one more scoop of ice cream than his guests were served?)

One last thought before I'm done with this topic for good: if "smugly" didn't already have a different meaning, it would be a great portmanteau to describe the face pictured on the cover of this book.

Monday, November 21, 2022

“Marple: Twelve New Agatha Christie mysteries”

This book was SO much fun to read. I don’t know how you feel about Agatha Christie, but I love her mysteries and tend to compare all others (unfavorably, most of the time) to hers. So this book definitely caught my eye, although I was aware that it could go badly wrong: it’s a collection of mysteries in short story form, each written in the style of Agatha Christie with Miss Marple as the main character. As good as that sounds, if it's not written by Christie herself you never know. 

Luckily the risk paid off! Each author did a great job channeling Christie. I was afraid they might go too far trying to “make it their own” but instead it seemed like each author’s goal was faithfulness to the original material. Sometimes so much so that each story appeared to mention the same things (nephew Raymond, a polite tipple, how constant human nature is) which had both the positive effect of making them seem like real Miss Marple stories and the negative effect of making me wonder if all the authors were told ahead of time which elements they were required to include. (This was ok, though, and did not dampen my enthusiasm for the book.) Besides, I’m sure Agatha Christie herself never wrote a Miss Marple story without mentioning human nature more than once!

Recently the short story format has worked so well for me, as it’s easy to dip into briefly whenever I have a moment. And it was fun to have something I was always so eager to pick up. Now I need to find something new to take its place! 

Saturday, November 19, 2022

“Minimalista” by Shira Gill

While I am by no means a minimalist and really have no desire to become one, I do love the idea if simplicity in my life and home. And, after a few friends of mine had to spend ages sorting through the belongings of their departed parents, I have adopted the (slightly morbid) mindset of trying to make it easier for my children after I die. In general, this means getting rid of junk and only keeping what I need or love or both. So a book about minimalism that promised a "step-by-step guide to a better home, wardrobe and life" sounded like just the thing for me.

When I first opened this book I had every intention of actually DOING EVERYTHING IN IT. Very early on it posed a bunch of questions for me to answer, and I actually answered all of them. And while you, one of my few readers, may not be interested in the specifics, I'm actually going to list all of my questions and answers here. 

1. What do I want to create a space for? Relaxing, reading, spending time with Sam (and, to a lesser extent, other relatives and friends)

2. What do I want more of? Comfy cozy seating, beautiful light (natural or electric), warm blankets, squishy pillows, space to store books, beautiful things that draw my eye so that I can admire them

3. What do I want less of? Clutter, chores, ugly things that draw my eye and make me think of the work I need to do

4. What new results do I want to create in my life and home? Efficiency that allows me to maintain my home with minimal effort, allowing more of my time to be spent in relaxation and enjoying the beauty of my home

5. What is my primary motivation for making a change right now? I have a beautiful new book to read. I want to spend more time enjoying life and less time doing chores.

6. What is my most compelling why? Life is short, and I've lived half of it already. I want to make the most of the rest of it. 

My takeaway was that it all seemed too vague to be useful but I remained open-minded (actually, what I said was "we'll see"). 

Next the book asked me to list obstacles and challenges. I had two.

1. I find it hard to get rid of stuff that is mostly right but not exactly right

2. I find it hard to FIND stuff that is exactly right, and I tend to accumulate a lot of contenders along the way. Sometimes I never find what I'm looking for and I merely gather possibilities. And then I feel guilty for getting rid of all those things I spent money on during the search (because inevitably I wait too long to decide whether to return them).

I also noted the suggested questions to ask when editing (shades of Marie Kondo here, minus specific mentions of sparking joy):

1. Would keeping this object help me meet my goals? Does it reflect and support my core values?
2. Does it add value, or does it add clutter? Does it energize me, or drain me? 
3. Would it impact my daily life to not have this item? Would I want to take it with me if I moved?
4. Is this item worth the space it takes up?
5. Is there a legal reason to keep it? (insurance papers, receipts)
6. Could this item be more useful to someone else? 

I didn't realize this would be a thing when I bought this book, but about halfway in, we ended up with the opportunity to redecorate one room in our house. We chose to create a guest bedroom, and with inspiration from this book, I actually wrote a list of words I wanted to describe the vibe for the room: tranquil, peaceful, calm, simple, Zen. It was nice to have touchstones to guide us in our decor decisions, and (although we are not quite finished with the room yet) we love the way the room has turned out!

While it was a fun idea to read something new, in the end I still prefer my old favorite home decorating book, The Inspired Room, (which I actually re-read--for the third or fourth time!!-- synchronously with this one). And really, before I had even gotten halfway through Minimalista I had already decided I would probably sell it at Half Price Books when I was done reading it. Maybe this is mostly because I found it odd that a book purportedly about minimalism seemed to repeatedly suggest that I go out and buy a bunch of new stuff. (What you have isn't exactly the right thing? Well, get rid of it and then go buy the right thing. I'm paraphrasing rather than quoting, but that's definitely the message I got, and that is NOT a message I need to hear.) Or maybe it was when, on page 209, I was asked, "could you or any member of your family quickly locate a lightbulb, a battery, a band-aid or a hammer?" and my answer was, Um, yes, yes, yes, and yes! giving me the feeling that this book was not for me. 

Ultimately I realized . . . this book looks quite nice in the new Zen guest room! It fits the vibe. So my plans for its destiny changed, and that is where it now resides. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

“The Divider” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

When I started hearing about this book in the news, somehow I got the impression that it was just a factual, unbiased account of Trump’s presidency. I hadn't read any of the myriad memoirs that have cropped up over the past few years, I guess partly because none of them seemed comprehensive enough, and partly because they all seemed to be written either by someone with an axe to grind (too anti-Trump) or someone obsequious and fawning (too pro-Trump) and I wanted to read something more neutral.

Well, as soon as I got this book and read the back cover I knew it wouldn't be as neutral as I'd hoped (maybe the title should have clued me in?), but I read it anyway, and boy was it a page turner. (Back when I'd been hearing about it on the news, someone had remarked on its excessive length at 600-some pages, and one of the authors responded that it was a fast 600 pages; she was right.)

Are you on the edge of your seat to hear what I thought of the portrayal of Trump's presidency in this book, or which side of the divide I fall on? I'll be honest with you, I'm not brave enough to put my thoughts on this matter in a public forum. Or maybe it's less a matter of cowardice and more a matter of preserving my sanity? I am not interested in inviting an argument on this topic. There's been enough division in our country and I don't need to add to it. But this book was well-written, and I recommend it if you look back on 2017-2021 and think to yourself, WTF just happened? This book pretty much covers it all.