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

Saturday, July 17, 2021

"The Wife" by Meg Wolitzer

This is, I think, my first Wolitzer, although I've had The Interestings waiting in the wings since we first came across it at Emerald Isle Books & Toys just over five years ago (no idea why I haven't read it yet). 

The Wife is a good read (if somewhat bitter). It's well-written and compelling and I wish I had more to say about it. It's the story of Joan Castleman and her life with her famous writer husband, delving into both the inception of their relationship (which was when Professor Castleman--young, handsome, and married--was Joan's creative writing instructor at Smith College) and its demise years later, during a trip to Finland where Joseph Castleman is to be awarded the Helsinki Prize (not a Nobel, but close enough to be a distinction). 

It's short, I enjoyed it, but I think what I will remember most about this book is that there is a twist (maybe more of a shift of perspective?) revealed towards the end, and I'd been suspecting it for a long time. I mean, my suspicions started with the mention of a "shocking revelation" on the back cover. How can you not look for a promised revelation, and if you're looking, how can you avoid seeing it before you're supposed to? 

Have you read it, and did you guess? 

Monday, July 12, 2021

"Dad's Maybe Book" by Tim O'Brien

Here's a book that caught my eye at Half Price Books, mainly because I recognized the author's name; I read his Tomcat in Love--wow, nearly 12 years ago? (And no, I would never have remembered those specifics without the help of my blog.)

This is basically a book that O'Brien wrote for his young sons. He became a father later in life (at an age more typical for becoming a grandfather) and, with the knowledge that Timmy and Tad may not have as many years with him as kids who are born to a younger dad, he wanted a way for his kids to get to know him after he was no longer there. 

The result is . . . well, I couldn't help but see it as self-indulgent. The book is a very sweet idea (for Timmy and Tad) and it's a really nice thing for them to have, but to me it's also the sort of thing you maybe only self-publish, giving a limited number of copies to family and friends. It's fully of clever and funny things they boys said in their childhood (which the parents found wildly clever and funny; to me, only mildly so) and sappy late-night ramblings about how much he loves his sons and how heartbreaking it is that he could die at any minute. 

And (if you know anything about Tim O'Brien you won't be surprised to hear this) it includes way too much about war. I know O'Brien's experience in the Vietnam War is a big part of who he is, and the book's whole purpose was to tell his sons who he is, but you know how I feel about war. 

Saturday, July 10, 2021

"How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy" by Jenny Odell

What this book is not: how to back away from the feeling that you always have to be getting something accomplished, how to meditate, or how to lie in a hammock without purpose (without reading, without intentionally napping, without worrying about all the things you should be doing instead). I'm pretty sure Sam thought this was what he was getting when he bought this book for me, and it's certainly what I expected. 

What this book is: a treatise for being aware of "nothing" activities of little value (mainly, social media and other ways to kill time that involve scrolling on your phone) and increasing your "nothing" activities of high value (like bird-watching and enjoying nature) which give your brain the gift of time for rumination. 

I do feel like the "How To" part of the title is a bit misleading, though I see that it sounds better and probably sells more copies than "Why You Should" would have. It's interesting reading, and it got me thinking about why we are better off contemplating more deeply rather than constantly reacting to a barrage of falsely equivalent and out-of-context information. This is not something I was previously unaware of, but it is something I had never addressed in this level of detail. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

"From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine-Year Old Self" by Katherine Langrish

This book was a very thoughtful anniversary gift to me from Sam. Have I ever told you how much I love the Chronicles of Narnia? Well, even if you didn't know, Sam certainly did. Of course he also knew there was a chance I might not enjoy this book, but the topic was a perfect one for me and it was a risk worth taking.

When I was about halfway through reading, Sam asked what my impressions were. I started by saying, "It's what I imagine Cliffs Notes must be like--" at which point Sam interrupted me to ask, "It's dry and boring?!" in a horrified voice. But he hadn't let me finish, and NO, it's not dry and boring; I just meant the main structure is a brief synopsis of each of the seven books in the set. But it also brings in the author's memories of her impressions as she read the books as a child, contrasted with her impressions from re-reading them as an adult (quite a few of which pointed out problematic themes when viewed through the lens of our current century--though not quite to the same degree as Philip Pullman!), as well as pulling in references that surely influenced Lewis's stories. 

This book was fun as a quick retrospective, and it was interesting to hear about all the stories, books and poems that fed Lewis's imagination, but my very favorite parts of the book were the endpapers (a photo of Langrish's handwritten Narnia fanfiction from her childhood--I was so disappointed to find the same photo at the back, instead of a continuation--I want to read more of that story!!) and the very last paragraph of the book where Langrish shares where she now stands. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

"This is the Story of a Happy Marriage" by Ann Patchett

I like to come to a book with a blank slate: no preconceived notions, no spoilers, no expectations. That statement is completely true. But it is also true that I like to read books by authors whose previous works I have appreciated, or books that Sam recommends to me, or books that my mom does not recommend to me . . . which kind of means that I do like to have preconceived notions and expectations about my future reads. This sounds contradictory, but it all makes sense together when you think about it this way: I don't want to know about the plot or characters ahead of time, but I do want to know that I'm likely to enjoy the book. 

Funny thing is, sometimes coming to a book with no preconceived notions means the book turns out to be something completely different from what I thought it would be. That happened to me with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I did expect a memoir-style book rather than fiction (although the possibility of fiction did cross my mind), so that wasn't the issue; where the incongruity lay was in the fact that I actually thought the book would be about marriage. When I saw the title listed inside the front cover of The Dutch House, I thought, Oh how sweet, Ann Patchett has had a happy marriage like mine, and she's written a book about it. So of course I wanted to read it, because all happy marriages are alike, right? So surely reading this book would be like looking in a mirror and seeing me and Sam reflected back. 

Surprise! This is a book of short stories, and the title comes from just one of them. Throughout most of the book, marriage is barely mentioned. In fact, after the first few stories I started to wonder whether the titular "happy marriage" referred to Patchett's relationship to writing. (I still think that's a plausible interpretation.) But this surprise was quickly revealed to not be a disappointing one, because I enjoyed reading this book so much. Most of it comprises essays and articles that Patchett wrote for various magazines over the years, and it's such a treat to read them all together like this, because I never would have come across so many of them on my own. 

And you'll never believe this. When my copy of this book arrived, Sam said, "But I already gave you that book for Christmas!" and after a little bit of "no you didn't" and "yes I did" we discovered that Sam was right. (What more can you expect from a literary amnesiac?) Ah, well. It's a really good book and it deserved to be bought twice. 

Friday, June 18, 2021

"Census" by Jesse Ball

Here's a book that caught my eye at (can you guess?) Half Price Books. I'd never heard of it before, or its author, and at this point I really can't remember what drew me to it, unless it was these two sentences on the back cover: "Wrenching and beautiful, Census is a novel about free will, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love. It is also an indictment of the cruelties of our society by a major writer." 

Well, to be honest, now that I've read the book, I find I never would have described it that way. Maybe I've let too much time lapse since I finished reading, but I don't remember anything in it about free will, though I do remember a conversation with friends about determinism from the evening of June 12, 2021. And I don't remember anything in it about the power of memory, though that may be due more to the weakness of my own. And while the book centers on the narrator's relationship with his child, I would call his love kind, gentle, maybe slightly bemused, but never ferocious. And while at times he brushes up against the cruelties of our society, "indictment" is a pretty strong word for what is presented here. 

Census is the story of a widower who has had a successful career as a surgeon but who has just been told that he has a terminal illness. He needs to figure out how he wants to spend the brief remainder of his life, and who will care for his disabled son when he is gone. So he decides to become a census-taker, traveling through neighboring towns (from A to Z) with his son. This census is somewhat different from what you're used to: people are counted, yes, but then rather than gathering further demographic information, census-takers gather stories and impressions, asking questions that probe a person's essence rather than just collecting facts about them. And then each individual is given a tattoo on the correct rib to show that they have been counted. Kinda weird. 

Even more weird is the narrator's late wife's profession. She was what he calls a clown, but the description is not like any clown I've ever seen. I guess a more appropriate name for it would be "performance artist." I found myself searching for a point to these weirdnesses and not finding one. 

The power of this book lies in the very last chapter. "The train has left . . ." I had to step away from the book for a little while at that point . . . kind of return to real life and take a few deep breaths. But I gotta say that truly the best thing about this book was that I read most of it at the beach. 

Monday, May 31, 2021

"In the Dream House: A Memoir" by Carmen Maria Machado

It has never benefitted me to put off writing about the books I read. This time was no exception. I finished reading Dream House several days ago, not quite knowing what to say about it, and I haven't come up with any great ideas since then.

When I finished reading this book, my reaction was, "I really liked that and I don't know why." By which I partly meant that I can't put my finger on exactly what it was that I liked, beyond the fact that the writing was great and it was basically a compulsive page-turner; and I partly meant that the subject matter doesn't necessarily seem like something to be enjoyed; and I partly meant that there is a lot that I don't have in common with the narrator, though that fact was easy to ignore as I read. 

This book seems pretty unique to me (and I suppose that's another thing I liked about it). It's the story of an emotionally abusive lesbian relationship, told from the perspective of the abused, in the format of a series of very short chapters--each of which is written in a slightly different style that is introduced in the chapter titles. 

At first I was put off by those chapter titles, finding them distracting as I tried to match up what I knew of the mentioned genre with the text. However, it didn't take long before I was just going with the flow, and I really just could not stop reading. Every time I turned a page to another short little chapter I told myself, ooh, just one more!  

My impression is that the author's purpose in writing this book (other than, surely, catharsis) was to raise awareness about abuse in female relationships, as the typical thought when abuse is mentioned is that it's a male abusing a female. I can't help but wonder if Machado's abuser is aware of this book and has maybe even read it? I can imagine she either pretends this record doesn't exist, or she denies its veracity. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

"The Dutch House" by Ann Patchett

Have I come to expect too much of my favorite authors? First Geraldine Brooks, and now Ann Patchett. Up until now, I have really loved every book I've read by Ann Patchett (although I admit that has only added up to three--two novels and one work of non-fiction--of her fifteen). 

Don't get me wrong--I'm definitely not saying I did not like The Dutch House. It's a book you can sink into. The writing was impeccable. The characters were interesting and well-developed. The story was generally engaging. I was just . . . prepared to be amazed, and in the end I was merely entertained. It's a solid, good read, but not transcendent. 

Sam (who read this book a few months back) and I discussed our thoughts and he pointed out that too much happens at the end, in a way that seems quite rushed, and I agree with him. It may be a satisfying ending in some ways, but it also had a vibe of, "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened the end." 

Sorry, Ann! I still want to visit Parnassus Books someday and hang out with you. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

"The Secret Chord" by Geraldine Brooks

This is the fourth of Geraldine Brooks' five books that I've read. I really loved the first three and have thought of Brooks as one of my favorite authors for years. So I am sad to report that, while I enjoyed reading The Secret Chord and I have no serious complaints about it, I just didn't love it like I expected to. 

This is the story of King David from the Bible, as told through the eyes of his prophet and advisor, Nathan (or, as Brooks chose to use Hebrew transliterations for many people and place names, Natan). Some of the story is told to Natan by family members of the king, who has tasked the prophet with recording his history. 

I definitely didn't find this book boring, but it never really drew me in. I can't help but wonder if it was the subject matter. I know the story of David well, and because of that, the book held no surprises. (OK, I take that back. In Sunday School, I was always taught that David and Jonathan were best friends, which does not quite match the book's take on their relationship.) But also, looking back now, I don't think I identified strongly with any of the characters. 

Kind of makes me worry for Caleb's Crossing. I still plan to read that someday but now I'm even less eager to do so.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres

I have this new thing. I pick a small handful of books (three or four) from my massive TBR pile to be my next reads. I put them on my end table in our reading room. Then I pick the one I'm least interested in to read first, and work my way through the small pile until I've read them all. Then I get to make a new pile. 

Captain Corelli's Mandolin was the book I was least interested in from my newest pile. I've known about this book for a long time (mainly due to the movie, which I've never seen) and had always meant to read it someday, and then I feel sure it was mentioned in glowing terms in Oh, Reader magazine (but of course now that I'm looking for it I can't find the reference). Meaning to read it and glowing reference aside, I knew it was set in wartime and you know I don't like reading about war. But I did it anyway. 

And throughout most of the book I was . . . SO BORED. Is it just me? Isn't this supposed to be an amazing book? I ended up forcing myself to meet a quota of 25 pages every evening so that I would eventually make it through. Some evenings I didn't read at all. And then, three quarters of the way through--ugh, all the horrors of war, culminating with that awful firing squad scene. And then the death of Father Arsenios! Why do people like this book? It's horrible. This was followed by more boredom, as the feeling of denouement continued for pages upon pages upon pages. And so many years of youth and beauty are wasted, which I found far more annoying than romantic. 

So what about the movie? I'm even less interested in watching it now. Though I must admit that most of my resistance stems from the fact that Nicholas Cage plays Antonio Corelli. I can't imagine that being a good thing.

"How to Read and Why" by Harold Bloom

I first started reading this book years ago and (no idea why) abandoned it relatively quickly. But, as usual, I've always intended to come back to it.

My first impression, then and now: this book would more accurately be titled, "What to Read and Why." There are general nuggets about reading throughout the book, but the main structure comprises reviews of specific selected works that are either short stories, poems, novels, or plays. However, I chose to read this book because I expected to learn what its title states, so that's what I'll focus on in this post.

Regarding the general nuggets about reading, first there are five principles to restore the way we read:

  • Clear your mind of cant (not can't, but "speech overflowing with pious platitudes, the peculiar vocabulary of a sect or coven")
  • Do not attempt to improve your neighbor or your neighborhood by what or how you read (instead, reading is meant for self-improvement, at least until "primal ignorance has been purged")
  • A scholar is a candle which the love and desire of all men will light ("if you become an authentic reader, then the response to your labors will confirm you as an illumination to others") 
  • One must be an inventor to read well (I take this to mean that you must be willing and able to read between the lines, and to have confidence in your interpretation)
  • Recovery of the ironic ("the loss of irony is the death of reading")
Bloom says one of the reasons why we should read is that "it makes us wish we could be more ourselves." I take this to mean it allows us to learn more about ourselves, which is supported by later statements in the book: "We should read to strengthen the self . . . only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self."

Bloom says the "how" of reading is to read "only the best of what has been written." (Unfortunately, if he addressed the question of how we determine which works achieve that category, I didn't make a note of it and I've forgotten. Although obviously Bloom considers all those works covered in his book to be worthy.) In reading we should also "be vigilant, apprehend and recognize the possibility of the good, help it to endure, give it space in your life . . . read with wise passivity," which is to say, pay attention to what you're reading, and think about it. How to think about it? "Ask, do the principal characters change, and if they do, what causes them to change?" Bloom also encourages re-reading: "Perhaps to some degree you become what you behold the second time around." 

So, how should How to Read and Why be read? I read this book through from beginning to end, not diverting to the referenced works in between. But regarding the works I'm unfamiliar with--am I really going to remember what Bloom said about them once I get around to reading them? Should I go back and review the applicable portion of Bloom's book after I read each work? Would it have been best to wait and read Bloom's book after I became familiar with all the works it refers to? Maybe it should be read piecemeal: Review the table of contents, make a list of works to read, and alternate between reading works and reading Bloom's chapters. It does seem that for How to Read and Why to be of greater value, the specific works should be fresh on your mind as you read each applicable section of Bloom's book.

Why should this book be read? I think that the general consensus would be that it enriches the reading experience . . . though it could also possibly come with some unintended negative consequences. For instance, being told I should read "only the best of what has been written" momentarily caused me to more intensely regret the time I've already wasted on unworthy books. And, as Bloom is obviously incredibly well-read--probably to the extent that it would be impossible to catch up--I feel envious of  Bloom, in awe of his superior knowledge of the written word. But even these bleak thoughts can be turned around: why not start now and aim to read only the best? Why not try to catch up, even if it will be impossible? After all, as with many things, it's the journey that matters more than the destination.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

"Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall" by Kazuo Ishiguro

It was quite brave of me, don't you think, to immediately pick up another book of short stories after how much I didn't enjoy the book of short stories I read immediately before this one.

My bravery was rewarded, because I liked this one a lot. (Not that this should surprise me, coming from Ishiguro, but I had expected as much from Calvino and was disappointed.) Nocturnes comprises five stories, all of which revolve around musicians or music lovers (or both), and some characters are shared between them. Each story is slightly different in tone, with threads of humor or sadness or tension, and each story is equally strong (whereas many short story compilations have clunkers). I tried to choose a favorite and could not. The aging singer serenading his soon-to-be-ex wife in Venice? The music buff who sees himself through the eyes of old friends from university and discovers that he may be a loser? The self-absorbed guitar player living with his sister and trying to do as little work as possible in her restaurant? The talented saxophone player who has never made it big because he's just a little too ugly? Or the cellist who is tutored by a theoretical genius? Each has its own merits.

I'd already finished four of the stories before I looked closely enough at the cover to realize that the birds on the wires were like musical notes on a staff! I actually tried to play them on the piano but they didn't make a recognizable tune (not to mention the fact that it was difficult to determine what the rhythm should be). 

Friday, April 9, 2021

"Difficult Loves" by Italo Calvino

I didn't expect to dislike this book. I suppose at this point I have only read one other Calvino (Baron in the Trees), but I loved that one, and I thought all other Calvinos would follow suit. So it was a slight shock, and somewhat disappointing, to read these short stories. 

"Dislike" is probably somewhat strong a term. I certainly didn't hate this reading experience. But it did not match my expectations of short stories. I remember crazy Mrs Van Patten teaching us that short stories are a distillation of the novel: greater impact in a smaller format. Calvino's stories strike me more like excerpts. Not completely unworthy of reading, but certainly not sharp or strong. 

The book is divided in to three sections: Riviera Stories, Wartime Stories, and Postwar Stories. I'd say my favorite story of the book was "The Adventure of a Reader", where a man enjoys reading on the beach until he is distracted by a beautiful woman, at which point his interest in his book is in conflict with his attraction to the woman. I found it humorous, and I also related to it, because the pull of the book is stronger! But, in general, I would not call these stories memorable--and that is not solely due to my literary amnesia.

I did notice a striking resemblance to Hubert Mingarelli's writing, especially in the middle section ("Wartime Stories"), with their quiet subtlety. But the Mingarelli books I have read evoke more tension, in their own soft and spare way, and I find them more intriguing. 

I have been meaning to read Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler for years. I think the time grows nigh (despite the fact that it's no longer winter, and it seems like I ought to curl up with that book on a winter's night). Luckily Difficult Loves has not put me off. 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"The Trick to Time" by Kit de Waal

This is not my kind of book.

I should have known better than to even try it. Sam bought our copy, mainly because everyone was talking about how great de Waal's first novel (My Name is Leon) was, but this one had a more interesting title. He tried to read it but found it boring and didn't get very far through it before he gave up ("it just goes on endlessly about dolls"). I thought maybe he was being unfair, and maybe he didn't give it long enough. Plus, it was published by Penguin! They're usually pretty good at picking books I like. 

Oh well. Not this time. 

This is the story of Mona the middle-aged Irish dollmaker. Actually there's a carpenter who makes the dolls, and Mona dresses them and paints faces on them. Mona's mundane life in her doll shop is interspersed with memories from forty years before, when she was newly married to William. At least there is some element of mystery that propels the reader to find out what happened in the intervening time.

So why was this book not a good match for me? Part of it is the overall general sense of the book. It seems to be a typical example of Women's Fiction (not to be confused with a Beach Read, though I am sure there is some overlap). There is something that bothers me about writing that is targeted to women readers. I want to read something that doesn't try to pigeonhole me.

Specifically, there were several other things that rubbed me the wrong way. I found the characters flat. And for the ones that were slightly more dimensional, their facets were incongruous. I think back to books I've read where the characters were utterly real. I can't pinpoint the difference between those and these, but there definitely is one. These characters were all acting parts, and not very good at it. Maybe I would have felt more drawn to the main character if I'd been through what she had; lucky for me, I have not. However, most really good books can make me feel the experience I'm reading about even if I've never experienced it myself. 

I thought at times the writing was quite cliched--of course the main character gets a new, short, chic haircut halfway through the book. And of course when her love interest sees her for the first time with her newly shorn locks, her hand immediately "flies up" to touch her new 'do. 

And yes, there's a trick to this book (not just to time), and yes I guessed the solution long before it was revealed. I blame the cover quote, which made me aware that the book has "one of those endings that makes you want to reread the whole book." That, put together with my tendency towards speculation, set me on the right track. But rather than a feeling of satisfaction when I found out I was right, it was disappointing. Not least because the ending certainly did *not* make me want to reread the whole book.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise" by Brix Smith Start

This was not a typical read for me, as a quick glance at the rest of my blog would tell you. I definitely gravitate more towards novels, and if I were to get a wild hair and want to read an autobiography or memoir, I would probably choose one by someone I've heard of before. But Sam, who has been a fan of The Fall since he was 14, idolized Brix Smith. He's the one who bought this book, and read it first, then told me he thought I should read it, because Start's is a pretty amazing story.

And he's right. It's pretty incredible, the circles Start has traveled in and the successes (and not just in one field) she has experienced. Although my initial impression of the book was that it was a bit disjointed and full of name-dropping, I'd say by the time she met Mark E. Smith she'd found her rhythm in writing and in relaying her memories, and even for someone like me (clueless about the history of The Fall) it was interesting to read. I wouldn't label it as a Must-Read for the random person in general, but I do think that anyone interested in The Fall would love it.

It's a bit disorienting, knowing that Sam actually interviewed Mark E Smith (twice!) and came away with the sense that he was a nice person ("almost avuncular," Sam says) when obviously, on the whole, he was pretty horrible to Brix and the other band members. Sam has also read Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith" and says Smith doesn't even mention Brix (they were married for five or six years!) and just glosses over the albums they created together, despite the fact that many think they're the best of The Fall's albums. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

My lovely husband surprised me with this book just over a week ago. Surprise books are the best! Especially when it's a beautiful brand new hardcover by a can't-miss author. I believe it was Marie Kondo who once said the time to read a book is as soon as you get it. And I think she's right. There are some unread books on my shelves that I've had for years, and I can't help but wonder if I'll ever actually get around to reading them. I think, unlike travel which is only enhanced by spending time looking forward to it, I am probably at peak excitement about a book when I first acquire it. Waiting to read something doesn't make me more eager to read it; it just makes it more likely that I'll come across something I'd rather read in the meantime. 

Anyway, in case you hadn't guessed, I wasted no time in diving into Klara and the Sun. The story is told from the point of view of an AF (Artificial Friend), which is basically a life-size solar-powered robotic companion doll (albeit one that is quite technologically sophisticated). Klara starts out in a store in the city, until she is purchased to live with a girl named Josie. 

To me the most interesting thing about this book is the exploration of the thoughts found in an artificial mind. Klara is not completely emotionless, but she does not experience feelings with true human intensity. She is very observant and can make logical connections based on her observations, but she doesn't necessarily understand everything she sees, and the reader is limited by the boundaries of Klara's realizations.

Overall the story had the feeling of a parable or a fable, as if what was on the surface was simple and straightforward but floating on top of deeper, hidden meanings. Though I must admit if there were deeper, hidden meanings . . . I did not get them. Did you?

Sunday, March 7, 2021

“Night Waking” by Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss is three for three with me. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. And the great thing is that she has four more novels just waiting for me to read them! 

In Night Waking, Moss tells the story of Oxford history fellow Anne Bennett, inextricably trapped in motherhood and an exile of sorts on an isolated Scottish island. She never has enough time to work on her book (an academic work on the history of childhood), or enough sleep, or enough support from her husband whose priority is counting puffins, and (though she would never admit this or maybe even realize it) she is addicted to the extent of her young sons’ need for her. 

Anne’s story is interspersed with excerpts from her writing, quotes from people like Anna Freud whose works are referenced in her book, and the history of the (fictional) island of Colsay on which her family is living. Throw in a police investigation regarding the bones of an infant that turn up in the garden and you’ve got yourself a pretty intriguing mix. 

Though the book has elements of mystery that any good police investigation would indicate, the dominating force of this story is Anne’s fraught relationship with motherhood. And Moss’s writing is so intensely real that I had to remind myself I was not Anne, and that I had no cause to be irritated with my husband who (quite unlike Anne’s Giles) is a superstar of a husband and father and doesn’t care a lick about puffins.

I wonder why I am so partial to female authors? Though I have certainly enjoyed books written by men, my list of favorite authors is (with one obvious exception) almost exclusively female. I think it must be, as happened with this book, that a female writer is naturally more able to write in a way that connects with my female mind. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

"Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam

Here's another book that my sweet husband gave to me for Christmas. I'd never heard of it, or the author, which I suppose means I didn't peruse any Best Books of 2020 lists. 

Clay and Amanda have temporarily left the bustle of New York City behind and rented a house in a quite part of Long Island where they plan to spend a relaxing week with their children. Late one night, not long into their stay, they are startled by a knock on the front door. It's G.H. and Ruth, who say they're the owners of the rental; they've fled Manhattan after a widespread and unexplained blackout. 

The book delves into tensions between the strangers, and their fears of the unknown; Ruth and G.H. don't bring much news with them, and due to the remote location of the house they are basically cut off from society, which means no news in the Information Age--though in this case, no news is almost certainly not good news.

The book is written from an omniscient point of view. With every line of dialogue, each character's unspoken thoughts are shared as well. The effect, to me, is the distinct opposite of subtle; but despite the lack of subtlety, the story is still mysterious and compelling. The omniscience does not give the reader a complete view of what is going on in the world; we get a bit more information than the frightened group at the vacation rental, but not much more.

There was a nice side effect to the anxiety induced by the book: when I finished reading, I felt a sense of relief as I returned to the real world. So, yeah, we're in a pandemic and America is divided politically, but things could be worse!

Does the cover art remind anyone else of the scene where Barb disappeared in Stranger Things? No? Just me?

Sunday, February 28, 2021

"The Invisible Land" by Hubert Mingarelli

I'm pretty sure I finished reading this book a week or so ago, and I'm pretty sure too much time has passed for me to do it justice in a blog post. I really need to be more careful to blog when a book is fresh on my mind (AND before I've allowed it to become eclipsed by reading other books). 

This is another of Mingarelli's subtle but powerful books (that is, of course, impeccably translated). It's novella-sized and, I think, better consumed in one sitting. It tells the story of a photojournalist and the young soldier assigned to drive him around the German countryside in July 1945 in order to photograph German families in front of their houses. As the days pass, apprehension builds quietly. 

Hubert Mingarelli, who sadly passed away just over a year ago, has written a number of novellas centered on or around the Europe of World War II. He is certainly not alone in writing about that time period, but he is unique in his treatment of the topic: oddly serene while simultaneously rife with tension.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

"Big Macs & Burgundy: Wine Pairings for the Real World" by Vanessa Price with Adam Laukhuf

I told Bookworm Child (who I suppose will technically be Bookworm Adult in a few short months?) that the only thing I wanted for Christmas was for her to tidy her bedroom. Well, her bedroom is still a mess, but she gave me a lovely gift bag stuffed full of all kinds of things that she knew I would like. This book was one of them. 

I'd actually seen this book somewhere in the weeks leading up to Christmas (maybe at Target?), picked it up and gave it a look, then put it back down, I guess mostly because I don't eat many Big Macs anyway. But of course if my child gives me a book as a gift, I'm going to read it. 

Unfortunately I'm going to have to hope that my children don't read this blog, because (while wine is for me, and food is for me) this book was not for me. It's cute, and it's funny, and I love the drawings and photos, but ultimately I had to force my way through it, fighting boredom and feelings of pointlessness. In fact, I ended up skipping over most of the descriptions of pairings (though I at least read the title of each one) because, after the first few, they felt a bit meaningless. They struck me the same way as the back labels of wine bottles: sometimes it seems like the writer just made up a bunch of crap. Crap that sounds amazing, of course! But crap nonetheless. 

The first portion of the book is educational, which would be helpful except that for me it did not stick. It's all about levels of acid, sugar, tannins and alcohol, and how these affect the flavor (and other characteristics) of a wine; different wine-growing climates; how to describe the way a wine tastes; and different types of wine. It's obvious that Vanessa Price knows her stuff. But (despite the light-hearted tone and humor) I found it dull reading, and even after reading it, *I* don't know her stuff. 

Then we get to the pairings (which are myriad, and which is where the pointlessness comes in). I'm sure the majority of the food suggested is meant to be accessible for Everyman, but so much of it is crap! I'm not about to eat Marshmallow Peeps or Honey Nut Cheerios just so I can see how great they taste with the wines they're paired with. Not to mention the fact that most of the wine in this book would be impossible for me to find. (And why would I bother trying to find it if I don't want to eat the food it's paired with?) 

I did read all of the "Winesplaining" and other brief articles interspersed throughout the book, which was fun and informative but mostly served to belie the purported accessibility of these pairings. I mean, really, I think the cover and title of this book are misleading. They make you think it's going to be down-to-earth, but it's not. It's hoity-toity and out of my wine league. But it was fun to read about how the "other half" lives! One example of this, which is probably the one part of the book that will stick in my mind, is from Chapter 15 ("Expense-Account Prep Course: For Ladies Who Power Lunch," which obviously is not for Everyman): a dessert called the Arctic Bird's Nest that is served at Aquavit in New York City. I'd like to try that someday. And if I ever have the chance to do so, maybe I can pair it with a Cypriot Commandaria (like Keo St John, which is fortified, or Tsiakkas, which is not). 

I must admit that Sam and I are in a wine rut. We each have a favorite chardonnay, and we share a favorite red and a go-to champagne (ah, excuse me, actually prosecco), so this book temporarily gave me a slight impulse to be a little bit more adventurous, like I was in my wine blogging days. But what was I doing in those days if not looking for my favorite wines? And now that I've found them, why would I start looking again? Besides, I never could decide which wines I liked best unless I tasted several together, and I never could remember what I thought of each without writing it down, but also I never could really put wine descriptions in writing--I was just making crap up like the people who write the back labels for wine bottles. 

Vanessa knows why Sam and I drink champagne every Friday

Friday, February 12, 2021

"So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell

This is a beautiful little book, a novella really, that is both subtle and intense. The unnamed narrator, an old man, relates memories from a brief period of his childhood. The writing is evocative and utterly real-seeming, surely because the story is partly based on the author's life (e.g. the narrator's mother dies of the flu in 1918; William Maxwell's mother died of the flu in 1918) which blurs the line between fact and fiction and made it impossible for me to see where the divide occurred. The story deeply but quietly explores the themes of guilt, divorce, trauma and grief. 

Most of the plot occurs at a remove from the narrator; he is an observer rather than an active participant. He tells the story of his classmate, Cletus Smith, and the love affair between Smith's mother and the farmer next door that causes the fracture of both families and the death of the farmer. The narrator puts his memory of what he was aware of as a child together with newspaper accounts and realizations that occur to him as an adult, and fills in the gaps with speculation. 

This is one of those books that doesn't spell everything out clearly--it requires some reading between the lines, which I appreciate because I feel it is a sign that the author has respect for the intelligence of his readers. I enjoy the challenge of reading books like this. However, I also find it mildly frustrating, especially if I am uncertain as to whether I am interpreting everything the right way. My solution in this case? After finishing this book, I literally immediately reread it to try to parse out more of its secrets. (This didn't take long, at 135 pages.) It's a sure sign of the quality of this book that I didn't find the re-read boring, and I do feel like it solidified my confidence in my interpretation. For instance, in my first read-through I thought I detected hints that the murder was committed by someone other than the character everyone suspected; my second read helped me determine that wasn't the case.

I just have two question remaining. First, on page 5 of my copy, the narrator says, "one of the crimes mentioned in that book took place in a house on Tenth Street, one street over from the house we lived in when I was a child." I tried to make this crime out to be something that is described in further detail later in the story, but I think I have come to the conclusion that it's merely tangential and is never mentioned again. Second, the ear (also mentioned on page 5) . . . I don't understand why this was done (or where it ended up). After reading the book twice, I'm pretty sure it's up to me to decide the answers to the ear question.

Monday, February 8, 2021

"Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill

You know that song "Up the Junction" by Squeeze, that covers the whole arc of a relationship from its happy early days to its sad death? Dept. of Speculation is that song in book form, only not quite so upbeat. 

Not that this is a bad thing. I found it a really good book, in spite of or along with or because it is heartbreaking. It's written in a very similar style to Offill's newer book Weather, with the same brief, loosely-connected paragraphs. And of course it has the same clean, concise, evocative writing. 

I would definitely read this again someday. Despite the fact that I am approaching (or possibly even already in) the second half of my life, despite the fact that I'm feeling the pressure of too many books and not enough time left in my life to read them all, I would spend part of what remains of my precious reading time in re-reading this book. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

"The Sociopath Next Door" by Martha Stout, PhD

This book caught my eye on a recent trip to Books-A-Million. I definitely prefer fiction over non-fiction, but I picked this one up and read a few tidbits from it and was interested enough that I couldn't just put it back down and forget about it.

Before reading this book, I was never very clear on the difference between a sociopath and a psychopath. Since reading, I've decided I'm pretty sure that they're the same thing except that the psychos aren't disguised as normal humans. 

According to this book, a sociopath is a person with no conscience. They feel no guilt or shame and have the freedom to do whatever they want with no moral restrictions. Some dominate the business world, some operate out of envy and try to bring others down, some are incredibly lazy and feel no compunction about sponging off others. Some are unusually charming, hiding the hollow interior where normal human attachments are ordinarily formed; some are more irritating and grating. Contrary to popular belief, not all are criminals (though those who are feel no remorse). 

I'm just speculating here, because obviously I'm far less knowledgeable than the clinical psychologist who wrote this book, but I wonder if it's more nuanced than that? Maybe some sociopaths just have an underdeveloped conscience instead of completely lacking one. Maybe some people have some sociopathic tendencies or sometimes engage in sociopathic behavior but aren't always completely inhuman. Either way, reading this book has led me to identify three likely sociopaths: one that I know personally, one that I know tangentially, and one that I know from the news. Obviously I'm not gonna name any names here. And I could be completely wrong! But it's definitely food for thought.

Monday, February 1, 2021

"The Girl Who Reads on the Métro" by Christine Féret-Fleury

This is another little perfectly-sized book. I love the look of it, and I love the feel of it--the weight of it in my hand, and the velvety smooth dust jacket--but as far as the actual reading of it      . . . meh. 

The tone of the story is mostly light-hearted and quirky, and utterly French, all of which makes me think of the movie Amélie (even though it's been so long since I watched it that I really don't remember anything about it). And it's all about books, and loving books, and reading books, which is of course right up my alley. But it kind of gave me the impression that it's also intended to be deep and meaningful, like some sort of parable, though really it's just weird. And it never really hooked me. Case in point: I bought it (at Half Price Books!) last November and started reading it right away, then kind of forgot about it for a few months before rediscovering it and finishing it this week. 

This is the story of Juliette, who lives in Paris and works at an estate agent's and seems kind of bored with her life except when she reads. One day while on her way to work she happens upon a gate that is wedged open with a book, so of course she goes inside. And there she finds Soliman and his young daughter and piles and piles of books. Soliman supplies the passeurs of Paris: people who leave books throughout the city for passersby to take. Can you guess who then becomes a passeur? It all sounds magical, doesn't it? But unfortunately somehow, for me, the whole was lesser than the sum of its parts. 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"Simple Acts to Save Our Planet: 500 Ways to Make a Difference" by Michelle Neff

The title of this book says it all. This is a list of earth-friendly changes to make or actions to take, most of which just about anyone can do. The book does not go into great detail about any of the ideas, which in several cases was a detriment as I was left wanting more information, but it was pretty comprehensive in terms of what individuals can do. The majority of the ideas were small, easy baby steps (in contrast with what I have gathered from Greta Thunberg: don't eat meat or dairy, don't fly, and don't buy new things--huge changes that many would balk at). 

I took notes and organized the ideas as I read. Everything fell into one (or more) of eight categories: Produce less trash, buy less stuff, reduce emissions, conserve water, reduce use of chemicals, use less electricity, influence public policy, and help nature. Some were things I'm already doing (which made me feel good), some were things I've been thinking about doing and reading this book was the impetus I needed to take action, some were things I'd never thought about, and a few were . . . well, I laughed a few times. (Avoid steel-jaw traps. Done!! Also, don't buy a tiger, lemur or lion for a pet. Never crossed my mind!) Overall I found this book a good resource or jumping-off point for anyone who is interested in trying to do their part.

I must say I'm not really sure how much difference most of these ideas will make. I do wonder if the greatest effect is in virtue signaling or feeling good about yourself for making an effort to save the planet. I also worry that changes may have unexpected and unintended negative consequences that cancel out the good we're trying to do (I swear this is not just an excuse to avoid taking action; I really do worry about this). On the other hand, I think this is the sort of thing where cumulative effect makes a difference. After all, cumulative effect is the way the planet got in the shape it's in, right? So it makes sense that it's going to take cumulative effect to fix anything.

I'm about to do something I don't usually do on my blog. I'm about to share my thoughts on something that is not related to books. If reading others' thoughts on climate change makes you angry, or if you're only interested in reading about books, you may want to stop here before I go off the rails. Here we go . . . 

Yes, I am aware that climate change is a natural process that was happening long before humans started negatively impacting the earth. Yes, I believe climate change would still be happening--likely outside of human control--even if we all "did everything right." However, I also believe that in the past century the climate has changed in unnatural ways, to a degree and with a rapidity that would not have happened otherwise, caused mainly by human reliance on fossil fuels together with a thoughtless form of consumption (and I mean that in a very broad sense). I believe that if we want future generations to remain able to live comfortably on Earth, we need to be willing to make some sacrifices and changes in the way we live. In some sense we may need to redefine comfort. I read this book in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the sacrifices and changes I may need to make.

To take this a step further: I see many people posting lists online of all the useful and necessary items that are made using petroleum. I also see many people lamenting the loss of jobs in the oil and gas industries due to proposed changes. And I see many people posting about what a ridiculously terrible idea the Green New Deal is. Here is my thought process: first of all, is anyone (I'm talking about those with the power to effect such a change, not random people posting on the Internet) suggesting that we should completely cease using fossil fuels? My assumption is that, while the aim is to drastically reduce consumption, we would continue to use petroleum for necessities (medications, for example) that can't be produced in any other way--while also, perhaps, looking for other ways they could be produced. (I do worry, however, whether the oil industry is resilient enough to contract and still exist.) Second of all, changes in industry have always occurred throughout human history: some sectors shrink, some grow, new ones are created. I know if my job were being phased out I would not be happy about it, to say the least. I can totally understand people wanting to hang onto their careers. but that's where the Green New Deal comes in. I'm not super familiar with it (but I do have a book about it that I plan to read soon!) but it is my understanding that, like FDR's New Deal that helped to end The Great Depression, it is intended to aid and employ those whose jobs will be affected in the shift away from fossil fuels. 

OK, I'm done. I will leave you with one fun fact: the author of this book, Michelle Neff, is the friend of a friend of a friend of mine! I'm pretty sure she doesn't know that, though. 

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"Summerwater" by Sarah Moss

I love tiny little books like this. They fit so nicely in my hand, which makes it so easy to cozy up with them. Of course what's inside them has to measure up, or what's the point? The only problem is that they go by too fast. 

This one more than measured up (and certainly went by too fast). I read this author's Ghost Wall a few months back and it was really great; it's always nice to "discover" an author who has already published several books, because I can make my way through their back catalog as quickly or slowly as I'd like instead of having to wait to see if and when they come out with something new. It's even nicer when books from their back catalog meet the expectations made high by my initial experience with the author's writing. 

Summerwater takes place in a "holiday park" of rented cabins in Scotland, and despite the fact that it is summertime, this book is as waterlogged and chilly as Ghost Wall was scorching and parched. The story takes place over just one day, as described by a dozen different narrators sharing their string of thoughts which is sometimes woven together with those of the other characters. The whole thing is imbued with a nameless dread: You know something bad is going to happen, just not to whom or when. But at the same time it is darkly funny. I mean, who wouldn't laugh knowing that Josh is so studiously intent on a simultaneous orgasm with Milly when Milly's mind is clearly not quite so focused? 

I love how clear a sense of each person we get from just one chapter of narration each. It is truly a pleasure to read a book that has such fully-realized characters. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

"Arlington Park" by Rachel Cusk

By this point in my reading life I would basically read anything by Rachel Cusk without question. I mean, if I see a book by her that I've never read before, I'm getting it without even bothering with the Dip Test. 

That's how I ended up surprised. Having only read The Outline Trilogy, A Life's Work, and Aftermath, I think I expected all of Cusk's books to be . . . well, I was about to type "similarly plotless" (with the understanding that I don't at all mean that in a negative way) but I paused to reflect, and realized Arlington Park doesn't have much in the way of a plot either. But it is quite different from the other Cusk books I've read--different enough to surprise me. 

This is certainly the type of book that reviewers would call "brilliantly incisive." The entire novel takes place in one day and gives flashes of the lives of ten or so women who live in Arlington Park, outside of London. We only get into the minds of about half of the characters, but the glimpses we get are ripe with the kind of despair and misery that only suburbia can breed. It's gripping in its honesty and its juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

It makes me feel inadequate, ignorant and uninformed to learn only from Wikipedia that this book is a retelling of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (a book I've never read, though it is on my TBR list). I wish I had been able to recognize that on my own. I have some work to do! Not to mention there are six other novels Rachel Cusk has written that I just wasn't even aware of, plus a seventh coming out this year. Lots to look forward to!

"I Know This To Be True: Greta Thunberg" by Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday

I totally did not expect to finish this book thirty minutes after I first picked it up. I thought it might be something I dipped into occasionally and ultimately spent weeks reading bit by bit while I devoted the majority of my reading time to novels. But as it turns out, the content of this book is not much more extensive than a long read in a magazine. (And I must admit I did wonder how good it is for the environment to put something so brief in book form . . . )

Sam and I watched the documentary "I Am Greta" a few weeks back, and while it was an engaging human interest piece, it ultimately left me wondering, "but what can we actually do?" There were very few proposals of concrete actions we can take to save the environment. In fact, I only picked up on three things: don't eat meat or dairy, don't fly, and stop buying new things. (Admittedly those are three very BIG things.) I was left wanting to learn more specifics about what Greta is fighting for. 

Knowing this, Sam gave me a couple of related books for Christmas, one of which was the Greta book in the I Know This To Be True series. And while I am glad that I read this, ultimately it wasn't what I was looking for. It's very much in the same vein as the documentary, almost like the CliffNotes version of it. I don't feel like I gained any new information from the book, although it did make Greta's main aim more clear: reduce carbon emissions. As far as specific actions to take in order to accomplish that goal, neither this book nor the documentary serve as that sort of guide. Greta's focus is on getting lawmakers to shift policy rather than in teaching individuals how they can help. So now I've moved on to the other book Sam gave me for Christmas . . . stay tuned.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

"The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person" by Frederick Joseph

Bookworm Child (who, really, is no longer such a child after all these years) bought this book for herself a week or two ago. I was a mixture of proud, impressed and surprised that she chose to learn more about this topic, and I asked to borrow it after she was done. Just a day or two later the book was on my bed and I thought she had given up on it, so I was pleased to find out that she'd actually read the whole thing. 

To be honest, I don't want to discuss this book in detail right now as it's such a sensitive topic (for the same reason that I don't use my book blog to express my opinions on politics or religion). Maybe I'll come back and add thoughts at some point? In the meantime, I will only say that this book is very thought-provoking and definitely worth reading.