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

Sunday, December 6, 2020

"On the Blue Train" by Kristel Thornell

I'm a big fan of Agatha Christie's murder mysteries, though I read them in my pre-blogging days and have never tried to ensure that I've read them all. I really have no idea what percentage of them I may have missed. But I always loved how Christie led me to suspect almost every single character and still managed to surprise me at the end. Her mysteries are, to me, the epitome of the genre, and I compare all others to hers. (Needless to say most of them fall short.)

Though I love the novels she produced, I was never really especially interested in Christie herself--until I heard of the book Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade. I'd previously been completely unaware of this, but a blurb about that book told me that in 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared without a trace under (dare I say it?) mysterious circumstances. It wasn't a kidnapping (which was where my mind first went) and the true story never seemed to be adequately explained. Ooh! A real-life mystery surrounding the grande dame of mystery novels!

I've been meaning to read Cade's book ever since but have never gotten around to it, which may in part be due to the fact that I somehow acquired the impression it is somewhat tedious and dry. I was torn between wanting to know what happened and not wanting to be bored. So when I heard about Kristel Thornell's version of the story, I was quite excited to read it. From what I could uncover online, it promised to be much more readable.

And I definitely did enjoy it. On the Blue Train is really well-written and interesting. I'm not sure it truly satisfied my curiosity as it's obviously a work of fiction and I wanted to know what really happened, but I've come to the realization that that's probably not possible. I think the only person who knows what really happened is Christie herself, and evidently she never truly opened up about those eleven days. So I'm satisfied with the fact that this is the next best thing: what could have happened, in the guise of a novel that is enjoyable and engaging. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

I went into this book knowing nothing and expecting nothing. Well, that's not entirely true; Sam had read it before and told me it was definitely worth reading. Unsurprisingly, he was right.

This story is based in Dejima, a manmade island and trading post off the coast of Nagasaki, just at the dawn of the nineteenth century. Japan, still a very closed-off country, allowed limited trading with the Dutch East Indies company only through this port. The story begins with a change in management; the Company has sent inspectors and auditors to root out the corrupt officials who had been lining their own pockets. Of course this transition has an obvious element of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Except for Jacob de Zoet, a lowly clerk who is both clever and honest. 

The story is not all boring commerce and politics, however. The commerce and politics are enhanced by intrigue, and there is love (towards both the fiancee whom Jacob has left behind in Domburg, and the enticing new-ness of midwife and medical student Orito Aibagawa) and death and even a secret, evil cult. Because it wouldn't be a David Mitchell book without a secret, evil cult, right?

I turned the last page asking how much of this was real. There were parts I automatically assumed were fantasy (mainly related to Lord Abbot Enomoto's shrine on Mount Shiranui and the activities that take place there) but others seemed so real, I wondered. Dejiima itself? The trade agreement with the Dutch? The encounter with HMS Phaeton? Turns out that all of that was based on history. In fact, a quick wiki visit tells me the reason for the sense of genuine truth: "Small details, such as if people used shaving cream or not, could require [so] much time that a single sentence could take half a day to write." Mitchell spent four years writing this book, and I think his substantial research paid off. 

So let's talk about how David Mitchell's characters keep reappearing, like in Cloud Atlas but on a larger scale (between books rather than within one book). I've read The Bone Clocks and Slade House, and apparently Dr Marinus (who Jacob meets in Dejima) appears in both of those books too. Of course, being the literary amnesiac that I am, I have no memory of his character in either book and would not have been aware of his reappearance if the Internet hadn't told me about it. Ah well. I can't help but wonder how many of his characters will reappear in the Mitchell story that is buried with the Future Library. I suppose we will never know.

Speaking of reappearances, apparently I need to read Utopia Avenue now . . .

Sunday, October 11, 2020

"On the Shortness of Life" by Seneca

I read this essay due to the power of suggestion. And because it sounded worthwhile, and because it is super-short. (Much like life itself!) 

It was a good thing to read. I didn't come across any real earth-shattering concepts, but it was full of things to keep in mind if you're trying not to waste your life. I noted my favorites:

  • People are loath to squander their material possessions, but they think nothing of squandering their time. Time is treated as a mere trifle, but it is actually the most precious thing in the world. 
  • In a way, retirement does not make sense. Don't wait until the end of your life to live your life.
  • Many complain that they are wasting their lives, yet they take no action that will change that reality. 
  • The worst are those who spend all their time on lust and wine, because their waste of time is dishonorable. (To which I would add . . . sure, you shouldn't spend ALL your time on lust and wine, but we all need to relax every now and then!)
  • Plan out every day as if it were your last, and you will neither long for nor fear tomorrow. (I'm not sure how realistic this one is, or whether I'm just trying to apply it too literally; if tomorrow were truly my last day of life, I would not be doing what I am currently planning to do--which is going to work--but because the likelihood is high that tomorrow will not be my last day, I can't change my plans.) 
  • Just because someone has existed for a long time does not mean they have lived a long time.
  • I noted this last one more because I thought it was funny than because I agreed with it: The gathering of knowledge is basically a waste of time--unless you're gathering knowledge about philosophy. Studying the philosophers is a good use of time. 
Here is what I got from this essay that I would like to keep at the forefront of my mind: Embrace the past (don't forget it), use the present (don't neglect it), anticipate the future (don't fear it). Don't lose the day in expectation of the night, don't lose the night in fear of the dawn. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore

I broke my rule and didn't blog about this book before starting a new one. I've probably explained this before, but that rule is mainly to prevent me from lapsing into another blogging slump where I get so far behind that I'm afraid I'll never catch up (see The Lost Years) but it's also because my memory is already bad enough without waiting a week or two AND overwriting the old book with a new one. 
At least I can still remember that this is an interesting, well-written book and I enjoyed reading it. It tells the story of Futh, a middle-aged British man who is taking a "restorative walking holiday" in Germany while his soon-to-be-ex wife packs up all his belongings and has them moved out of their house. Unsurprisingly, Futh spends most of his hiking time in ruminating on his past, from the more recent (his failed marriage) to his childhood (and his father's failed marriage). Futh's story is interspersed with that of Ester, who runs the bed and breakfast where Futh spends the first night of his trip (but also where, mysteriously, he is not offered breakfast the next morning).  

The book is full of repeated themes: lighthouses (obviously), perfume and perfume bottles and scents (especially oranges and violets, with a little camphor thrown in), the name Angela, the wife who strays or leaves or both, the Venus flytrap, and likely a few others that I've forgotten due to my blogging delay. It would be interesting (if time-consuming and complicated) to draw a Venn diagram of all the characters and what they had in common. Sometimes I had to pause, realizing I was conflating one character with another just based on their echoed idiosyncrasies. 

I did feel like the penultimate chapter was maybe slightly overblown. Whereas until that point the common themes were treated with a lighter hand, all of a sudden at the end I was bombarded with all of them, one right after another, and instead of the previous clever and subtle effect it was a little overwhelming and claustrophobic. Luckily this did not hide the building sense of dread (though Futh himself was oblivious) and did not ruin the book for me. It's a good one! You should read it.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

"Hamnet" by Maggie O'Farrell

 Maggie O'Farrell is one of my favorite female authors, along with Ann Patchett and Geraldine Brooks. They all write flawlessly, and come up with such good stories! Hamnet is no exception.

This is a story about a boy named Hamnet in 16th century England. It is also about Hamnet's parents and sisters and grandparents and aunts and uncles. And it is about grieving the death of a child. I didn't put this in my blog title, but you may be able to see from the book cover that it has a subtitle "A Novel of the Plague". I feel like that subtitle is slightly misleading; the plague does not seem to me to be the focus of the book, for example, the way it is in Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders, though it does have a definite presence and directly affects the plot. I think, really, the book is mostly about Hamnet's mother. 

I have deliberately left out Hamnet's last name thus far, making his identity just as tangential as O'Farrell does in the story, but in fact Hamnet's surname is Shakespeare. And yes, his father's name is William (though I'm not sure those facts are ever actually mentioned directly). In fact, if I hadn't read the back cover I might not have known that Hamnet was anyone other than a random English lad from long ago (though I might have guessed, and wondered if I was right), until right up close to the end of the book.

The thing I am likely to remember most clearly about this book is the section of grieving. It was so incredibly intense and moving. It was almost too much; I reached a point where I'd nearly had enough. Normally I scoff at sad stories, priding myself on my dry eyes, and feeling annoyed when an author is obviously trying to manipulate my emotions, but there was none of that here. Tears streamed from my eyes as I read. When I reached the end of that section, rather than feeling manipulated, I felt wrung out. 

I can't believe I still haven't read all of Maggie O'Farrell's books. I need to remedy that soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

"Hemingway's Girl" by Erika Robuck


Funny that I'd been talking about my interest in more stories of Hemingway's women when I posted about Love and Ruin back in June. Earlier this month as I was scanning my bookshelves, looking for my next read, I pounced on this one as soon as it caught my eye. I have no memory of where or when I bought it (although the price tag on the front makes me think it was probably from a Friends of the Library bookstore, because where else can you find such amazing deals?) but I'm sure it was months (if not years) ago, and it felt as if I had wished it into existence.

This book wasn't exactly what I was looking for, as the titular female is a fictional one, but the story takes place during Hemingway's marriage to Pauline (or "Fife") in Key West in the 30s. And I feel like Robuck does just as good a job as Paula McLain in painting a picture of Ernest Hemingway as seen through others' eyes--so much so that the three books could all be of a series by the same author, the characterizations dovetailing nicely. The fictional character here, though she is the main character, doesn't eclipse Hemingway or relegate him to a bit part; rather, she serves to showcase his larger-than-life persona.

The "girl" of the title is a nineteen-year-old native of Key West, half Cuban, who is hired as a housekeeper for the Hemingways. Insatiable as he is, Ernest is of course attracted to her (and the feeling is mutual) but Mariella is also forming a relationship with a young WWI veteran who is working on the Overseas Highway. At times the book does inch dangerously close to a silly romance, but it never went far enough to earn my scorn.

I'm wanting to read How it Was and Ruth Hawkins' book about the Hem-Fife marriage even more now. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

"Hangsaman" by Shirley Jackson

This is a weird little story that I'd never heard of before, but its title caught my eye (helped along by the presence of the little penguin on the spine) and of course I've heard of Shirley Jackson, although perhaps her short story "The Lottery" and her ghost story The Haunting of Hill House may be the only works of hers that I've previously read. (I've definitely heard of We Have Always Lived in the Castle but, dang amnesia, I can't remember if I've read it.) I was also intrigued by the cover. Those blood splatters might be somewhat misleading but it would have been a boring cover without them.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite, a seventeen-year-old girl on the verge of leaving for college. Her father is a semi-famous writer who encourages her own writing talent, and right from the beginning it is evident that Natalie has a lot going on inside her mind, something more than just a vivid imagination. Not surprisingly, at college she is lonely and has trouble fitting in. By the time she befriends Tony it's almost impossible to tell what is actually happening outside of Natalie's head and what is only happening inside it. I was kind of hoping (but simultaneously fearing) that the book would end with another character explaining ("Here's what really happened . . . ) but I was disappointed (and relieved) to be left to figure it out on my own. 

I bought this book in a great but tiny used book store in Santa Fe, a fun place to browse if you ever have the time . . . I wish I could remember the name of it. Maybe Palace Avenue Books? 

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"A Hundred Million Years and a Day" by Jean-Baptiste Andrea

This is a really good book, and I'm not just saying that because I'm sleeping with the translator. I wouldn't have thought a story about a paleontological expedition would be my sort of thing (especially with a cover like this), but this one definitely was! I finished reading a week ago and have put off blogging ever since, hoping this would give me time to come up with something worthy to say, but alas, it appears that is not going to happen. 

This is the story of Stan, a professor of paleontology, who has been enthralled by fossils ever since he found his first one at the age of six. Now, in 1954, he is consumed with the idea of achieving fame and glory--not to mention the money that generally follows--by uncovering the remains of a previously-unknown dinosaur. Only problem is that the skeleton is high in the French Alps, its location only reported in shreds of anecdotal evidence. Oh, and Stan isn't much of an outdoorsman. Driven by his dream and aided by three other men (a friend, an assistant, a guide), the search is rife with subtle conflict and tension.

It was an odd but welcome contrast to read about such cold in the heat of summer, and the story was interesting, compelling, and suspenseful. As with most good books, the main character was brought to life by mixing in stories from his past, allowing the reader to see a lifetime of events that led him high into the mountains. It was really beautifully written (and, of course, superbly translated) and it's unfortunate to know that I never would have chosen this book from a bookstore, and I would have missed a true gem. 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

"Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know" by Malcolm Gladwell

Once again a book caught my eye that seemed to be a guide for making good conversation, and once again the book wasn't what I expected. But the unexpected is often a good thing.

I've never read anything by Gladwell before, but I get the idea that this book follows his typical format: he takes some interesting psychological or social principles and illustrates them anecdotally. This book seemed to be very thoroughly researched (and I noted no Igon values), but despite the presence of footnotes and an extensive index, it was in no way dry or dull. If all non-fiction were like this I might read more of it. Especially because while reading this one I noticed a weird thing: it's really relaxing to read a book I'm not desperate to finish, but which is interesting and worth reading.

Talking to Strangers was published in 2019 but seems all the more timely in the late spring and early summer of 2020 as the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum. The book begins and ends with the story of Sandra Bland, delving into the reasons why such a terrible situation arose and how it got out of control, and runs through a whole spectrum of issues that people have in communicating with each other.

Here are Gladwell's main principles:  

1. Humans default to truth. Generally, humans "operate from the assumption that [the person they are speaking with is] telling the truth," unless or until the listener is presented with an overwhelming number of clues that cause the listener to doubt the speaker. (Gladwell doesn't go into this, but I would add "unless the listener has a 'default to lies' gained by experience with a particular teenaged daughter, in which case the listener assumes that the person they are speaking with is lying every time she opens her mouth."  I guess the difference there is that Gladwell is discussing our reactions to those we don't know rather than those we do know.)

2. Transparency bias: we tend to believe statements made by those who appear to be telling the truth (even when they're not); we doubt those who appear to be lying (even if they're honest). People who are "mismatched" (seeming honest when not and vice versa) confuse us because we expect people to be "matched."

2a. Alcohol is an "agent of myopia" which "narrows our emotional and mental fields of vision." 
"It creates . . . 'a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.' Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant. It makes short-term considerations loom large, and more cognitively demanding, longer-term considerations fade away" . . . Without alcohol, one may be "willing to temper their own immediate selfish needs (to be left alone, to be allowed to sleep) with longer-term goals (to raise a good child). When alcohol peels away those longer-term constraints on our behavior, it obliterates our true self." 
So, maybe drinking alcohol is like meditation, albeit a less healthy version that may make you a bad parent.

3. Coupling: crime is closely tied to location. Suicide is closely tied to opportunity. When we fail to recognize these ties, we are overlooking an important factor in human behavior. 

I would sum up the book by saying we assume we know others better than others know us; we think we can trust our gut and our judgment and "read" strangers easily; but we are wrong. Communication is difficult and understanding is not a given. Interactions with strangers should involve caution, humility and restraint.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Look at the Birdie" by Kurt Vonnegut

It is possible, if shameful, that this is the first book I've read by Kurt Vonnegut. I mean, I've been *aware* of Slaughterhouse Five for at least three decades, but I have no memory of actually having read it. And I have no memory of actually having heard of most of the other books printed in the "Also by Kurt Vonnegut" list inside the front of this book. I sense a failure somewhere. 

But let's focus on the fact that I did read *this* book of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. And it was really quite good! I tend to find two things about short story compilations: 1) they're uneven. There may be a gem or two, the majority are mostly just OK, and there's always a stinker and a clinker. And 2) the stories are some combination of weird, bizarre, unsettling and shocking. They can punch you in the gut and make you uncomfortable. 

Look at the Birdie didn't match either of my expectations (which, especially as far as #1 is concerned, is not a bad thing)--at least not at first. Stories one through five even had a somewhat happy ending--no gut punches there. So I let my guard down, and then the gut punches came. (Even so, they were nothing like the Mike Tyson variety.) 

The rest of my post is not for you, dear reader, but for me. I took brief notes on each story so that I would remember what I'd read, and it may be slightly boring (though hopefully not spoiler-y . . . well, maybe a little bit) for you to read. It won't hurt my feelings if you skip the remainder. 

1. Confido: Like Siri or Alexa but it's actually just amplifying your inner thoughts. 

2. Fubar: Fuzz Littler hates his job until his new secretary shows him how to take what's available to him and make the best of it. (Come to think of it, that's a nice lesson for anyone to learn.)

3. Shout About It From the Housetops: Housewife writes poorly-disguised tell-all about her neighborhood and the resulting fortune and notoriety temporarily ruin her life.

4. Ed Luby's Key Club: Harve and Claire experience a real-life nightmare when trying to celebrate their 14th anniversary, but luckily the end up vindicated. 

5. A Song for Selma: A genius is told he is not. A dolt is told he is a genius. Their teacher, who is neither, helps them to see they are more than their IQ.

6. Hall of Mirrors: The murderous hypnotist may have met his match. In the end he isn't quite as clever as he'd thought.

7. The Nice Little People: Weirdest story yet, and the only one without a happy ending. On his seventh wedding anniversary, Lowell finds a paper knife that turns out to be an alien spaceship with six tiny people inside. That same day, his wife Madeleine tells him she is leaving him for her boss, and he kills her . . . with the spaceship.

8. Hello, Red: Kind of a sad and depressing story about an angry young red-headed man who has discovered he has a red-headed 8-year-old daughter, Nancy, who was raised by Eddie, the man his former girlfriend married. Red wants to take Nancy from Eddie, but is deterred in the only way possible: Nancy cuts off her red hair, her only link to Red, and has Eddie give it to him.

9. Little Drops of Water: Lothario music teacher ruthlessly seduces and discards a string of beautiful female students until there's one who won't let go.

10. The Petrified Ants: Russian archaeologists (actually myrmecologists) discover that ants once had a civilization to rival ours, and their fate is portentous.

11. The Honor of a Newsboy: Mean Earl probably killed waitress Estelle but there may be no proof . . . unless Charlie the police chief can prove that the newsboy delivered the Wednesday paper. In the end it doesn't matter; justice is served by a dog named Satan. 

12. Look at the Birdie: A murder consultant is actually an extortionist.

13. King and Queen of the Universe: A young and rich couple crosses paths with a down-on-his-luck scientist.

14. The Good Explainer: A man and his wife can't have kids. The wife finally arranges to have Dr Akebian tell her husband why. 

And one final thing I want to remember about this book: I read most of it in Santa Fe, while lying in the shade of the trees in Cathedral Park.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"Ghost Wall" by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall is my kind of book. It was weird--really weird--without being quirky just for the sake of quirkiness. It was suspenseful and tense, but not in a painfully uncomfortable way. And it was so evocative. It was amazing the way Sarah Moss did so much with so little; the writing wasn't flowery or overly descriptive, yet with writing that was almost spare, the heat and the fear and the hunger were real.

Ghost Wall tells the story of one small group in the countryside of northern England for an Experimental Archaeology course. Events are seen through the eyes of Silvie, the 17-year-old daughter of Bill (a bus driver whose hobbies are Iron Age Britain and living off the land) and Allison (who does all the cooking for the group--over an open fire, of course). Professor Slade has three university students on the course who never seem to take things seriously enough for Bill, and all sorts of interesting dynamics develop between the seven characters. The attempt to learn what life was like for ancient Britons starts as whole-hearted for some, half-hearted or light-hearted for others, and ends up in a sharp divide.

The contrast between The Silent Patient and Ghost Wall is stark. Maybe reading them back-to-back made the former seem worse and the latter seem better by comparison, but it's clear to me that I would have preferred Ghost Wall no matter when I read the one in relation to the other.

Overall, this book was a treat to read and it's a book I want to keep. I'd be happy to re-read it again someday; it doesn't hurt that it's super-short and can be read in just a few hours.

Friday, June 19, 2020

"The Silent Patient" by Alex Michaelides

I think I would have been more forgiving of this story if it had been a movie instead of a book. (I'm thinking about Final Analysis, which probably would have been a pretty crap book but which kept me on the edge of my seat as a film. Keep in mind that I was a teenager when I saw it the one time, just in case you've temporarily lost respect for me.) The Silent Patient was no Gone Girl; it wasn't even The Girl on the Train. I was not impressed by the writing, which is more genre than literary. But I have to admit I was drawn in by the story. 

Beautiful red-haired artist Alicia Berenson becomes a patient at an asylum for the criminally insane after killing the husband who she, by all accounts, completely adored. From the moment of the murder she never spoke another word. Years later psychotherapist Theo Faber is certain he can help Alicia open up and deal with her past. He also--like the reader--wants to understand why

So . . . now I know why. And while I don't regret reading the book, and I wouldn't go so far as to say you shouldn't read it, I've already put it in the box so it can go back where it came from (Half Price Books). 

Monday, June 15, 2020

"Love and Ruin" by Paula McLain

I read McLain's The Paris Wife a few years back and really enjoyed it. So what could be better than a book about another one of Hemingway's doomed marriages by the same author, right? 

Unfortunately I wasn't as entranced by this one. Personally, the main issue was that Martha Gellhorn never became real to me. Maybe this was my fault; maybe I didn't identify with her drive to experience war zones (admittedly, that drive goes against all my instincts and desires). Gellhorn seemed like a tough cookie, and somehow that didn't come through naturally on the pages; again, maybe my fault because she is so different from me? Or maybe I was thrown off by this statement on the colophon: " . . . the situations, incidents and dialogues . . . are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events." I mean, yeah, it's historical fiction, and I'm sure that was a necessary disclaimer, but it was difficult to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain after reading that.  

Reading about Hemingway through the eyes of his wives, however, is pretty intriguing. I find myself contemplating buying books about his second and fourth marriages. A quick search suggests perhaps Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage by Ruth Hawkins, which I assume is more historical than fiction, and How It Was which was actually written by Hemingway's fourth and final wife. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

"Kudos" by Rachel Cusk

Another brilliant book by Rachel Cusk which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I'm sad that I'm finished with the trilogy! I would definitely read them all again, which--in case you were wondering--is high praise. There are so many books in the world, and though many of them may not be worth reading, I will never have time to read all those that are. Because of this, my tendency is always towards choosing something new over going back to something familiar . . . except for a select few (but ever-growing number of) books.

Once again, as with Outline and Transit, I found myself both jealous of and slightly appalled by the conversations in Kudos. Jealous because I don't often have soul-baring conversations, appalled because I definitely don't have them with strangers. But I also realized (because Sam pointed it out) that the dialogue in this book can't really be called conversation; instead, the book is full of monologues delivered to the narrator. And (as Sam also pointed out) despite the natural feeling of these monologues, they're still fiction. Just because it seems like the narrator's actual experience doesn't mean her chats are as constantly scintillating as this book would make one think.

I want to memorialize page 200 here, because I strongly identified with it. I grew up in a household of silent, awkward family dinners, and I have a clear memory of one dinner where teenage me decided (without speaking the thought aloud, of course) that when I grew up I would have a family that talked at the dinner table. Page 200 raises the bar. "Huge comforting meals were served and . . . everything was discussed but nothing examined, so that there was no danger of passing . . . into the state of painful self-awareness where human fictions lose their credibility." Now I want to ensure that we both discuss and examine. Although this may have to wait until my seven-year-old is a bit more mature. 

The setting of this book is never revealed. I spent a good bit of the book trying to figure out where it might have taken place, and then felt a brief moment of annoyance that it wasn't specified, but then I imagined what the book would have been like if I knew where it took place, which made me realize this would have made it an entirely different book. The location really isn't that important, and it actually makes more sense for it to be anywhere/nowhere. But . . . ugh, but I'm still curious. 

Sunday, May 10, 2020

"The Driver's Seat" by Muriel Spark

This novella is stark and strange. Sam read it first and then wanted me to read it so we could talk about it but I don't know what to say.

The story follows Lise, who (though this is not explicitly spelled out) must be mentally ill. She flies from Copenhagen to Italy (or somewhere like it) in search of her "boyfriend" (who doesn't actually exist). She draws attention to herself wherever she goes, prompting stares of annoyance and discomfort rather than glances of admiration. The end is made evident from the beginning, but though there is mention of a "whydunnit" I don't feel like I got an explanation.

Should the story be taken at face value? Sam had an interesting idea. The only way he could make this book make sense is if Spark took the notion that "she was asking for it" and wrote this novella from the ridiculous perspective of what it would be like if the victim was actually asking for it. At least that does seem more feasible than imagining that this collection of bizarre characters (referring to Lise, Bill, Mrs Fiedke and her nephew) would actually intersect.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

"They Both Die at the End" by Adam Silvera

My eighth-grader practically begged me to read this book because they connected with it so strongly. I read it this weekend and now I don't have the heart to tell them it wasn't my kind of book. I appreciate the book's message--not just to live life to the fullest, but don't be afraid to live life to the fullest--but overall the book didn't make a significant impression on me and I'm not sure I can find a tactful way to express that to my child. I can see why it meant so much to them and I don't want to burst their bubble by trying to explain that I am callous and unfeeling.

But I don't have to be tactful for you! The writing wasn't terrible, and even though it was firmly rooted in YA territory, that's not what bothered me either. I think my biggest complaint is that the book is so obviously trying to wring emotion from the reader. I have consciously and intentionally resisted succumbing to tear-jerkers ever since watching the movie Fried Green Tomatoes (as I may or may not have mentioned before).

This book takes place in nearly-contemporary New York City, with only one thing that distinguishes the story from real life: Death-Cast, a system that gives everyone a notification between midnight and 3am on the day they're going to die. The entire story takes place during a single day where 18-year-old Mateo and 17-year-old Rufus have both received their alert. So obviously all kinds of bravery and heartstring-tugging and profundity ensue as they go about wrapping up their too-short lives.

I suppose I'm showing my age. I'll leave this one to the young whipper-snappers.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Weather" by Jenny Offill

Here's a book that I feel sure would only improve if it were sipped slowly . . . yet I couldn't help but gulp it down.

Weather is the story of librarian and amateur therapist Lizzie, who lives in an unnamed city which I assume to be New York. I use the word "story" loosely; it's really more of a slice of life, though I wouldn't refer to it as completely plotless. It's a brief book, and perfect for a reader with a short attention span as it's basically a series of clipped, loosely-connected paragraphs. A quick glance back through the book doesn't fully confirm this impression, but it's almost as if each little paragraph could stand on its own as a nanobook.

Lizzie has a small family (a husband and young son) and is "enmeshed" with her recovering-addict brother (which I suppose is the new way to say "codependent"). She is also hyper-focused on the eventual effects of climate change (hence the book's title), though she expends far more mental energy on how she will deal with its eventuality than on the possibility of effecting any sort of change to prevent or slow global warming.

Maybe it's difficult to gather this from what I've written so far, but I really enjoyed reading this book. Not in the way that I loved Once Upon a River; the two experiences were entirely different. But this is one of the rare books I would like to read again sometime, especially now that I know what to expect. Because, unlike a plot-driven book that is all the better for its unknown twists and turns, I feel like a second read would make it easier to focus on the writing and the ideas rather than wondering what might happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

"Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield


From the very first page I was drawn in by the storyteller's voice. It felt like a tale told aloud--maybe a fairy tale, maybe something even better. And, lucky for me, the rest of the book upheld the promise of its beginnings. 

I came within two pages of the end of this book last Thursday and could not bear to finish it. Because if I finished it, then there wouldn't be anything left of it to read. Not only that, but the unfortunate odds are that the next book I choose to read will not compare in the slightest.

Why can't all books be as enthralling as this one?

This book was not absolutely flawless; in my opinion, the climactic scene (with Robin and Robert Armstrong and the newly-revealed villain) becomes something of an info dump. All necessary info, to be sure, which I eagerly lapped up. But even as I read I wished for a little more show and a little less tell. A minor quibble, however.

This is a story that begins in the Swan at Radcot, an inn on the upper Thames. On the night of the winter solstice, the drinking and storytelling is interrupted by the arrival of an injured man carrying a drowned child. Who is the man and who does the child belong to? Before long, those in the inn have a new story to tell, and many more questions.

I read the last two pages just a moment ago. What had vaguely threatened to be a slightly mundane denouement turned out to be perfectly lovely after all, and was completed by the most perfect final paragraph possible.

And now it's time to choose a new book. I already feel sorry for it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie

This book has always kind of seemed like a mild joke to me. It's the sort of thing that is firmly rooted in pop culture, something that everyone has heard of but no one has actually read, nor does anyone really believe it can teach what it claims to teach, so no one takes it seriously. It's really only invoked when someone privately suggests to a third party that their hard-to-deal-with colleague ought to read it.

I wish I could remember what it was that inspired me to give it a try. I vaguely think maybe it was the idea that it might be useful in my job. I feel very confident and skilled in the "work" part of my job, but the "people" part of my job doesn't always go so smoothly because, well, you know what people are like.

Now that I've read it, I believe a more proper title would be How to Fake Friendship and Manipulate People. It is quite plausible that the principles of this book are a recipe for success in business, but I'm not looking to become a glad-handing good old boy who is busy giving and receiving back-scratchings. My work isn't such that becoming that type of personality would be very helpful. I mean, it might help a very little bit? But it wouldn't be worth the energy, discomfort and awkwardness of a full transition.

However, that's not to say the book is useless and I learned nothing from it. I will say, though, that I came across a tiny little mini version of this book (after I already owned and had started reading the full version)--at the time, and still, I wished I'd gotten that teeny tiny book instead. I think the mini-version would be just as effective in delivering the book's message to me.

Speaking of delivering the book's message, each chapter has a one-sentence summary, and I will list them for you here.

Fundamental techniques in dealing with people:
1. Don't criticize, condemn or complain.
2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.
In other words, Always Try to Be a Nice Person On the Outside Even When You're Actually a Nasty Person on the Inside.

Six ways to make people like you:
1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
2. Smile.
3. Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
5. Talk in terms of the other person's interests.
6. Make the other person feel important--and do it sincerely.
To me, this section applies more to small talk with acquaintances than to any deep meaningful relationships.

How to win people to your way of thinking:
1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, "You're wrong."
3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
4. Begin in a friendly way.
5. Get the other person saying "yes, yes" immediately [by asking them questions they will agree to]
6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
8. Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
9. Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
11. Dramatize your ideas.
12. Throw down a challenge.
I think this section might be most useful for a person who works in sales. Some of these principles don't feel appropriate for personal relationships, or for business relationships not related to sales. On the other hand . . . one of my favorite principles of this section is #1. No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone, in polite society it most often makes sense to drop the subject rather than bull-headedly argue your point. It pays to recognize when winning an argument is actually a loss in other ways.

Be a leader: how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment:
1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
2. Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
5. Let the other person save face.
6. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."
7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
9. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.
As a supervisor in my day job, this section is the one that could have been the most helpful to me. It's probably the area I need the most help in. I obviously have not always avoided giving offense or arousing resentment (this may or may not have happened as recently as Thursday, and I may or may not still be seeing passive-aggressive Facebook posts about it). But even after reading this section I still don't know what I could have done differently after I had stated expectations clearly, but those expectations were pointedly ignored, requiring me to firmly address the issue. Sigh. At least I think I learned one thing from this section, and that is number five. Maybe I'm right and I know I'm right, and maybe I know someone is telling me a big fat lie in order to make themselves seem less wrong, and maybe I can just let them get away with the big fat lie when it will make no difference to call them on it but it may make all the difference in the world to them to save face with it.

In summary: This book is geared towards the business world, not personal life, and I'm not sure how much I gained from it. Maybe I didn't learn its lessons well enough. Or maybe I just didn't want to incorporate them the way you'd need to do in order to see a difference. Maybe I will dip back into this book from time to time and see if any of the principles take root after a while? But if you are thinking of getting this book, I say go for the mini version, and then only if you're looking to work on your business relationships rather than personal ones.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"While You Sleep" by Stephanie Merritt


That's all I really want to say about this book. Unfortunately I can't allow myself to leave it at that, because later (when my literary amnesia takes over) I'll find myself trying to remember the story, and wondering what was so bad about it.

The story is about Zoe Adams, who is taking a step back from her marriage by temporarily renting an old house in Scotland. Of course as soon as she arrives she begins to get the idea that the house is haunted. Unexplainable things happen, blah blah blah, she almost drowns a few times, but is she going crazy or are there ghosts or is it the real people who are scary? Yeah, that old conundrum.

It wasn't really so terrible. If it had been truly awful I would have had a field day tearing it to shreds for all nine of my readers. (Hi, readers!) I would say the story was interesting enough to power me through it. I like ghost stories; this one didn't feel truly creepy to me, but at least it wasn't too laughable or dull. But I did find it predictable (though I'll never know if it was actually predictable or if the mention of an unreliable narrator on the back cover was too big a clue). And I found the hypersexualization (blamed on a house!) a bit false and awkward. In all, I never lost myself in this book and it didn't give me the chills.

Oh well. Moving on . . .

Saturday, March 14, 2020

"Machines Like Me" by Ian McEwan

This book is extremely well-written and compelling, which is no surprise coming from Ian McEwan. I bought it at the lovely Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse in Santa Fe last November (you know, back before it was socially irresponsible to travel) which was just as much a bookstore heaven as I remembered from my first visit.

Machines Like Me is the story of neighbors-turned-lovers Charlie and Miranda, living in an alternate England of the 1980s where technology had already far surpassed that of today, due in part to the aid of Alan Turing who had not died in 1954. Charlie purchases an Adam--basically a robot who can pass as human--out of curiosity more than anything else, and the book revolves around the impact this decision has.

As I look back on this book, for some reason my main thoughts are focused on one question: did each character get what he or she deserved? Not that I feel like they should or should not have; not that I feel like that was the book's main focus; but because, with these characters and their circumstances, that is an interesting and complex question and I'm not sure of the answer.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Clockmaker's Daughter" by Kate Morton

Did you know that Sam only gave me one book for Christmas because he noticed it was taking me so long to get through all the other books he had gifted to me on previous birthdays and Christmases? I feel like I'm being punished. But it's good incentive to prioritize the books he has given to me. I think this one was from my last birthday.

The Clockmaker's Daughter is very much in the same vein as the other Kate Morton books I've read: great story, secrets and mysteries, blending of past and present, multiple viewpoints, and generally fun to read. It's not unique enough to be mind-blowing, but I enjoyed reading it.

It's the story of a special house situated in a bend in the upper Thames, told by a number of characters with ties to the house. At the beginning I thought the narration would come from only two perspectives: that of Birdie, who was in the house when tragedy struck in 1862, and that of Elodie, an archivist who comes across the sketchbook of the house's former owner, Edward Radcliffe. But the farther in I got, the more narrators chimed in, each with their own secrets to reveal.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"Topics of Conversation" by Miranda Popkey

We spent this past week out of town, and I only brought two books with me. When Sam noticed that I was already almost finished with New Boy, he suggested we might want to find a bookstore so I didn't run out of reading material before we got home. (Just one of the many reasons he's so sweet and I love him! And he was right, because by the time we returned home I ended up finishing the two books I'd packed plus the one I'm going to tell you about.)

I chose this book at Writers Block Bookstore in Winter Park, Florida (which is a fun little shop to browse in, if you're ever in the area). I loved the pretty aqua color of the spine, and the title caught my eye (seems this is the third book I've read recently with "conversation" in the title!) and inside the dust jacket the writing is compared to Rachel Cusk's. The book passed my dip test (actually I didn't open to a random section this time; I just read the first few paragraphs and was satisfied). And it's a lovely compact size, perfect for travel.

Topics of Conversation feels a little like a book of short stories (in a good way), each chapter strong enough to stand alone, but also firmly linked by sharing the same narrator throughout. It's a series of vignettes, each focusing on a brief period in the narrator's life, with a very autobiographical feel (though I have no idea how much is fact--if any!--and how much is fiction).

I love the natural way Popkey writes conversations. I can imagine the characters actually speaking exactly like that, with the pauses and digressions and stream-of-consciousness jumps. This book definitely reminded me of Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk, and also of Lisa Halliday (Asymmetry).

Weirdly (I mention this because of the cover art) I don't recall a single part of this book taking place in a swimming pool.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

"New Boy" by Tracy Chevalier

This was another Half Price Books find. I have enjoyed a number of other books by Tracy Chevalier; she's one of a small handful of authors I am automatically drawn to as they consistently write high-quality books.

New Boy is part of a series by various authors, each book based on a work by Shakespeare--this one a retelling of Othello, with the twist that the main characters are children on the playground of an elementary school in 1970s suburban Washington, DC.

I was unfortunately not familiar with the plot of Othello, beyond the knowledge that the title character was a lone black man surrounded by white characters. In New Boy, Osei (Othello) has just moved to the area. On his first day of school, he befriends Dee (Desdemona) and they quickly become enamored of one another. But Ian (Iago), playground bully and puppet master, sets out to destroy their happiness by planting and carefully tending seeds of jealousy until they sprout and grow, monstrous and destructive.

I found as I read that I wished I knew the story of Othello better, although New Boy can certainly stand on its own. There were also parts of the book where I wished the conversations seemed more natural (usually during a cacophony of voices on the playground) and I figured those sections might have been based on Shakespeare's chorus. These minor detriments aside, I enjoyed the read.

It did cross my mind, though, to wonder if retellings such as these are necessary. Do they add anything to the original work? Or do they have a value all their own? My personal opinion (after reading the plot summary of Othello on wikipedia) is that New Boy seems more relatable and realistic to me. It's definitely more similar to the life I have lived, and the smaller-scale tragedies seem like something that could happen any day.

Monday, February 3, 2020

"Ulysses" by James Joyce

I did it. I'm done with Ulysses. It's been a long, long journey. Hundreds of miles, uphill in the snow in the dead of night. And now that I'm at the end, I'm wondering . . . did I really go anywhere at all?

My journey with Ulysses was a winding one. I don't remember when I started reading it, but it was literally years ago. Nearly ten, I would guess. When I first started, about once a week I would pick it up and read a few pages. (Well, it was on my Kindle, so there was that annoying thing where I really didn't know how many pages I'd read since it measures percent read rather than showing page numbers.) After two months I'd read about 20% of it, which was maybe 100 pages.

One hundred pages and most of it made no sense to me. Every now and then a beautiful moment of clarity would break through, but that didn't happen anywhere near often enough. Half of me was thinking maybe I needed some kind of guidebook, and the other half of me was thinking . . . if I can't read a book on its own then what good is it?

And then my Kindle broke. I have a feeling one of my many children stepped on it. My fault, of course, for leaving it in a step-on-able place. This was my second broken Kindle, and (unlike the first time) my luck (and my warranty) had run out, and I decided not to replace it. Despite the free-ness of all books in the public domain, I think I'll just never love electronic reading the way I love real paper books--maybe that's another blog post for another time. For now, back to Ulysses.

Newly Kindle-less, I did not want to give up on Ulysses, so I decided to continue reading it using the Kindle app on my phone. But, curses! The app did not know where I had stopped reading, and neither did I. (I actually tried to find my place! But failed miserably. It all seemed like unfamiliar territory!) So I did the only thing there was to do, and started over again at the beginning.

I tried to be smarter about it this time. I tried to actually follow what I was reading, and I even took some notes which I will reproduce for you here:

  1. Some guys who live in a tower by the Irish seaside eat breakfast.
  2. They swim.
  3. One of them (Stephen Dedalus) teaches schoolboys. He helps one of the more stupid ones with his sums, then talks with an older professor who hates Jews and who wants to make known a cure for hoof and mouth disease. 
  4. A bunch of gobbledygook nonsense, then Dedalus visits his uncle, then more nonsense.
  5. Did someone just pull a dead body from the sea? The possibility has been mentioned a few times before, but maybe now it's actually happening. I'm not sure, though.
  6. Some lady is in bed. Someone is going to Patrick Dignam's funeral but first cooks a kidney and then takes a crap. He is Flower or Bloom. Leopold Bloom? He snitched a letter from the lady because she was hiding it from him.
  7. Nope, he was hiding it from her. It was from his lover. He buys her a bar of soap and puts it in his pocket.
  8. Several men take a carriage to the funeral. It's possible that Dignam was the body from #5.
  9. "Far away a donkey brayed." Ha! Usually it's a dog barking in the distance.
  10. Someone (Dedalus Bloom? Is that even a character's name or am I mixing two of them up?) takes out an ad in the paper.
  11. A whole conversation at or about the newspaper just went right over my head.
  12. Did I just read a bunch of pages in which a handful of men sat around in a pub and had a conversation that made no sense to me? I'm not quite sure.
  13. Father Conmee leaves the pub (maybe?) and asks some boys to post a letter for him.
  14. Now it's skipping around to all these people I've never heard of before. 
  15. Some sort of Alice in Wonderland trial.
  16. A woman speaks for pages and pages without once pausing. This must be a record for the longest sentence ever written. (Yep, it is. I checked.)
  17. The end. 

I really have no idea whether I am pointing out the emperor's lack of clothing, or if I am just a plebeian swine, but I did not find this book worth reading. Though I'm not sure I can actually truly say I read it. Did I look at every single word in sequential order? Yes. Did it make sense to me? No. Am I glad I did it? Yes, but only because it was a challenge and I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I am sure there are people in the world who love this book (though that number of people is probably quite a bit smaller than the number of people who merely *say* they love this book). I am sure there are people in the world who are smarter than I am, who were able to read this book and make sense of it. I am sure there are people in the world who have devoted their whole lives to reading Joyce's works, as the author himself apparently once demanded. I am not one of those people. I'm just the person who thinks . . . it took seven years to write this book???

This may be the only book that takes longer to read than it took to write. And I'm not sure whether that says more about the writer or the reader.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

It's been a long time since I read a good story! I started off really enjoying this one . . . and then suddenly on Friday evening I realized this book was making me grumpy. I no longer sympathized with a single character. Weirdly, the things that made the characters unsympathetic were exactly the things that made them realistic and complex, which I would normally love. Not this time, though. I left the book alone for a little while after this epiphany. But tonight (since obviously I would rather read than watch football) I relented and we made up.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story of families and of mother-child relationships and of restriction and freedom and honesty and secrets and art and change. The conventional Richardsons are the central family, in the sense that every thread comes back to them, but Pearl and her mother Mia are truly the the ones the book revolves around. The storyline is complicated enough that I feel daunted by the thought of summarizing it, but at least I can say that the lives of these two families become so entwined that, by the end of the book, few are unaffected. 

However, if that's all I say, I'll be disappointed when my literary amnesia takes over and I want to return to this post to refresh my memory on the plot. So I will add that Mia is a free-spirited and semi-nomadic photographer who has rented a house from small-town journalist Elena Richardson, mother to four Shaker Heights high-schoolers, each of whom forms their own unique bond with Mia or Pearl (or both).

I was surprised to realize after reading that the setting of Shaker Heights (which was almost like a character in the book) is a real live town in Ohio--where the author grew up! That little tidbit almost made the book feel like historical fiction.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

"Cut Flower Garden" by Erin Benzakein

Here's a beautiful book that I spent a long time reading, just briefly dipping in on occasion. It's the sort of book that would look great on the coffee table and wouldn't even necessitate a cover-to-cover read, but that's not why I wanted it. I'd been hoping it would inspire me to grow more cutting flowers by filling me with the knowledge to be masterful at it. Instead, it filled me with the knowledge that I would need to do far more hard work than I am willing to do, and spend far more time than I have, in order to enhance the rooms of my house with home-grown blooms throughout the year (or even just throughout the summer). Especially considering that most of my yard is in shade, and the sunny parts are too far away from the reach of a convenient water hose. So I decided I would just have to be satisfied with living vicariously through this book.

Which was still quite satisfying! The photos are really gorgeous and it was a pleasure to read through this book.

Friday, January 10, 2020

"Salt Fat Acid Heat" by Samin Nosrat

I gave this book to Sam for Christmas and ended up reading it myself before he'd really even opened it. Yes, it's basically a cookbook . . .  I don't often read straight through cookbooks, but this one isn't just recipe after recipe. It's almost more of a cooking philosophy book (though it does include quite a few recipes as well--which, I must admit, I just skimmed over, figuring I would read them in greater detail if, at some point in the future, I decide to actually make any of the meals they describe).

I found this to be an interesting read (as cookbooks go) and I enjoyed the whimsical illustrations. However, I'm not sure how well it fits into our family. It's basically a learn-how-to-improvise-in-cooking book. Sam doesn't need it (he already makes up amazing meals) and I'm afraid I don't want it. I don't hate to cook, and I'm not absolutely terrible at it, but recipes are my security blanket. I neither can nor want to let go of them. I think theoretically I should be able to use the information in this book to make improvements on the recipes I follow . . . but I fear I'll just end up ruining a bunch of food instead.

Maybe if I actually learned the principles in this book well, it might help? As I read, I found myself wishing I'd taken notes, but by the time I'd realized that, it was too late. (I'd already missed too many note-taking opportunities and had no interest in starting over again.) BUT! Apparently there is a 4-part Netflix series based on this book! I'm planning to watch that, and hoping both that it will be like CliffsNotes (a quicker summary than rereading) and that it will help the main points to stick in my mind.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

"The Toy Makers" by Robert Dinsdale

This is a really magical book and I'm kind of disappointed that I can't see it as a movie. I imagine it would be like Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium (which, actually, I've never seen) but with more depth and conflict.

This is the story of an amazing toy store that opens every year with the first frost in London, and closes when the snowdrops bloom. It is run by Papa Jack Godman and his sons, Kaspar and Emil, who spend the rest of each year creating the toys that most children only dream of.

If that were all there was to the story, it would be a sweet book and a fun read, but it's more profound than that--mainly thanks to intense sibling rivalry and World War I. The magic of the toy store is described in delectable detail, but the candy coating is well balanced by the tangy, peppery relationship between Kaspar and Emil.