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

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

"Home Fire" by Kamila Shamsie

Sam read this book first, told me it was quite good, and put it on my pile of books in the Reading Room. (Speaking of which, my system has broken down. Remember that great plan where I would pick a group of four books to be my next reads, then read them from least interesting to most interesting, then pick another group of four books to be my next reads? Well, somehow that group of four has become a teetering stack of seventeen. I mostly blame Sam, but also I don't blame him, and I don't really mind.) 

I was hesitant as I first began to read, mostly because I did not feel like I identified with the characters. Maybe that is partly because the main characters are Muslim, and Islam is so far from what I know. But more broadly than that, any intensely held religious faith makes me uncomfortable

As the story evolved, it started to seem more like a Sally Rooney relationship book (not that there is a single thing wrong with those). I mentioned this to Sam at that point, and he disagreed pretty strongly. And now that I've finished the book, I can see that he was right. Because wow. This book became its own thing. And what an ending! 

This story is about a British family of Pakistani descent: the older sister Isma, and 19-year-old twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. They'd been orphaned seven years previously, and now that the twins were no longer children, Isma can finally pursue the education that she had put off for so long. Soon after arriving in Massachusetts to study, Isma runs across Eamonn Lone, who she actually already knows because of his politician father, though Eamonn does not know her. They form a friendship of sorts that is truncated when Eamonn returns to London. There, he hits it off with Isma's sister Aneeka . . . until it is revealed that Aneeka's twin brother Parvaiz left England to join ISIS, making Aneeka part of a family that the son of the new home secretary should not be associating with. And it was just about at this point where the book really took off.

One of the best things about this book is how hard it makes you think. Between the character development and the situation (encompassing huge themes of relationships, politics, religion), there are few clear villains and no pure heroes. I'm glad Shamsie did not attempt to make her story didactic; that would have been a huge turn-off. She is not trying to point to any of the main characters and say, Here's your bad guy, and here's who you should root for. Instead, she creates complicated, real characters, and those are always the best kind.

Monday, December 20, 2021

"Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett

I spent most of this book not enjoying myself. Which is odd, because (as I'm sure I've mentioned before) I really like Ann Patchett's writing. I think I didn't like the book even before I started reading it, just based on the premise: the guests at a fancy party in a nameless South American country are taken hostage at the home of the vice president. All of the women and children are allowed to leave the next morning, with the exception of the famous and beautiful opera singer, Roxane Coss, who is retained by the terrorists as a bargaining chip. And most of the book is exhausting, as the story drags by in palpable boredom and minutiae.  

But all of a sudden, twenty pages from the end, I was surprised by the realization of what a beautiful book it had been all along. And all of a sudden, the story that had been occurring at a snail's pace was moving forward at breakneck speed. And all of a sudden, the illusion of security that I had been lulled into was shattered. The beautiful future that I had come to trust in was revealed for the impossible fantasy it always had been, though I had failed to recognize it. And my faith in Ann Patchett was restored. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

"My Phantoms" by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is narrated by Bridget, but we don't learn much about her through the course of the book; rather, we are treated to an intense character study of Bridget's parents (but mostly her mother). 

The pictures painted of Lee and Helen ("Hen") are so vivid--quirky, detailed, solid--that I am low-key consumed by trying to figure out if Gwendoline Riley is describing her actual parents. They seem so real (if not necessarily likeable). My only problem was trying to hear Lee make his constant obnoxious pronouncements in a British accent; he kept sliding into an American voice in my mind. Anyway, a quick internet search for an answer to this question has not provided me with a satisfying conclusion. I suppose it's most likely that the characters are a conflation of Riley's parents, other people she's known or come in contact with, and her imagination. 

This book is a short, absorbing read, with its engrossing depiction of Bridget's non-relationship with her dad and strained contact with her mom, but I found it fell apart somewhat towards the end, through Hen's illness. Still real, but almost too real, with the sense that I was reading about mundane boredom which was . . . kind of mundane and boring. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

"The Man in the Picture" by Susan Hill

I really enjoyed this creepy little story. I think it would lend itself well to a creepy little movie, which is not surprising as Susan Hill also wrote The Woman in Black

I probably should have read this on a dark and stormy night instead of in the thin sunlight of Thanksgiving Day, but it was still plenty of fun to read about a haunted painting and the story of revenge behind it. The writing was very atmospheric even without help from my surroundings. 

I find myself with two big questions after reading, and I'm not sure whether they are plot holes or intentional ambiguities. Why didn't Mr Parmitter appear in the picture? And what did Clarissa have against Oliver? (I can satisfy myself with explanations for my second question, but not for my first.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

I am proud of myself for having read something by Virginia Woolf. (Now you know that I am not afraid.) However, I do not think I am interested in reading anything else of hers. Except that I do feel somewhat obliged, as a woman, to read A Room of One's Own

Mrs Dalloway takes place all in one day. The narrative follows a meandering path, always returning to Clarissa Dalloway and her preparations for the party she is throwing that evening, but diverging regularly into the minds of side characters. The stream- of-consciousness style of writing reminded me of Ulysses, but thankfully I did not find Mrs Dalloway quite so baffling. (Side note: I did wonder whether the difference was heightened by the fact that I read Ulysses on a Kindle? To me, it's just so much easier to find your bearings, or flip back and refresh your memory on what you've previously read, in a real book made of paper.) 

As I mentioned here nearly a year ago, Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park was inspired by this book. And as you can see from the book cover pictured here, it also inspired The Hours (though I have neither read that book nor seen that movie, and now I feel driven to do at least one of those two things). I definitely enjoyed my reading experience more with Cusk, but I am also glad to have read Woolf. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

Sam suggested that I should read something I knew I would enjoy for my birthday weekend. I think he meant that I should re-read something I had enjoyed in the past, but I preferred to pick something new. There’s always the risk that I would end up choosing a clunker, but really—with so many books and so little time—I would rather try a new book (and not like it) than do a re-read. Especially considering the possibility that the re-read wouldn’t live up to my memory of it!

This book totally worked for me. It was a lot of fun. Not necessarily a book that invited deep thought, but it was engaging and a pleasure to read. The only problem was that I finished it before the end of my birthday weekend!  

There was a lot of chatter about Bernadette in the blogosphere when this book first came out, but I'm nearly a decade behind the times by reading it in 2021. In case you missed it the first time around too (AND missed the 2019 Cate Blanchett movie), here's the story: Bee Fox is a highly intelligent young teenager about to finish middle school in Seattle. Remembering a promise they'd made years before based on her perfect grades, Bee's parents offer her anything she wants as a reward, and she chooses (of all things) a family trip to Antarctica, despite the fact that her mother (the titular Bernadette) is basically agoraphobic and really only leaves the house to get Bee to and from school. After a series of unfortunate events and before embarking on the planned voyage, Bernadette disappears. The story is told in a compilation of emails and a variety of other notes that Bee is collecting to try to figure out just exactly what happened. 

By now you know I'm one of those weird people who reads every single word in a book (ok, well, maybe I skip most of the colophon). So it should be no surprise to you that I read all the advance praise found in this book even though there were a dozen pages of it (or at least four). The odd thing is that almost every line claimed that this book was laugh out loud funny. I'm here to say no, it was not. I will agree that it was amusing and mostly light-hearted, but I'm pretty sure not a single giggle escaped me as I read, and that's not because I was intentionally keeping my giggles prisoner. Just trying to temper your expectations. You may smile on the inside as you read this book, but I won't promise that you'll laugh out loud. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

"Luster" by Raven Leilani

I feel I'm at a loss for words over this gritty, quirky, dark story told from the point of view of Edie, a young black woman in New York City. But Sam read this book before I did, and I am feeling lazy today, so I am going to turn this post over to him. 

SAM: Okay, since it's your birthday, I will write it for you! I really enjoyed this novel. I think what stood out for me, particularly considering it's a debut, was the vibrancy, consistency, distinctiveness and sheer confidence of the narrative voice. It was itself, all the way through. It also feels very compressed: it's only 227 pages long, but reading it is an experience. Every sentence feels charged, sometimes to the extent that you have to read them two or three times to unpack all the meaning. And even then, I felt like there were quite a lot of references that I didn't get. Maybe because I'm not American, or I'm too old.

Luster is a very 2020s novel in terms of its diction, frames of reference, subject matter, themes, and so on, but in other ways it's quite classical/traditional. It reminded me -- and I know this will sound incongruous, but it did --  of writers like John Updike, Philip Roth and Martin Amis. Partly it's the verbal pyrotechnics, partly the dark wit (sections of the book read almost like a highly poetic stand-up routine), and partly the unflinching, unsentimentalized, deglamorized (but still erotic) sex scenes. I'm pretty sure the title is intended to have a double meaning: not only sheen or gleam, but one who lusts.

KATHY: Thank you, Sam! I'll just add "yeah, what he said." And I'll try not to continue abusing my birthday powers too much throughout the rest of the day.

Monday, October 25, 2021

"Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can" edited by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti

I had two main purposes in reading this book. First, to discover what the Green New Deal actually comprises (because all I really knew up until now was what I'd seen its detractors post online, which basically amounted to the idea that we should all be limited to very infrequent toilet-flushing). Second, I wanted to determine whether there was anything that I as an individual can do. 

While I do now have a better understanding of the purpose and goals of the Sunrise Movement and their Green New Deal, I was disappointed to find that they don't actually have a lot of specifics planned out yet. They are currently focusing more on gathering support (both in the private sector and within the government) than on hammering out the details of what needs to be done once they've acquired the power to take concrete action. And as far a what I as an individual can do--this book reinforced my prior thought that the changes necessary to have a positive impact on the environment will have to be of the huge, sweeping variety that can only be effected by organizations with incredible manpower and financial backing (i.e. the government). Unless I want to completely reinvent my apolitical self (hint: I don't) there's not much I can do beyond what I'm already doing.

This book enriched my knowledge of the hoped-for scope of the Green New Deal. I knew the GND involved changes to benefit the environment, along with ensuring that workers who lost their jobs due to these changes would be provided with equivalent (but greener) jobs. What I had not previously realized was that the ambitions of the Sunrise Movement are far greater, encompassing not only climate change, but also social movements, social justice, economics and politics. The aim of the Green New Deal is not merely to halt global warming and ensure that everyone who goes into this with a job also comes out of it with a job; the aim of the Green New Deal includes social equality and an end to injustice for all. This sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky. Not that I don't want what the GND calls for--who wouldn't want what they're suggesting??--but I am too cynical to believe that these lofty goals are possible to reach. 

It's obvious why the Sunrise Movement has chosen the Democrat party to be their champions in a simple big government vs small government calculation, but it's depressing to realize that most of the Democrats currently in office don't support change of this magnitude. I thought with a Democrat as president we would see progress for the environment, but that's not looking likely. It will take, as Sunrise knows, a realignment into a new coalition, supported by change from within (voting old party members out and voting in GND supporters). Disturbing as my lack of faith may be, once again I circle back to the feeling that this will be impossible. I feel like the American government never gets anything done, and what they do accomplish is only by half measures. 

I wish I knew more about the original New Deal. My vague understanding is that it was a big government intervention to restore the American economy after the Great Depression, and that it was a good and successful thing. I am sure that there are strong supporters of small government who think the New Deal was terrible, but (other than it being a prime example of big government) I wish I knew specifics of why they think it was terrible. Also, I can't imagine anything like the New Deal being enacted in today's political climate. (Yes, this is me once again saying that I find it hard to imagine that the Green New Deal will find success.) But . . . is the impossibility of reaching a worthy objective any reason not to try? Surely it's better to aim high and fall short than to remain where we are now. I know people who say that it is incredibly arrogant to believe that humans can have an effect on the environment; I say it is even worse to see the deterioration of our planet and not take steps to make the world a better place. Even if it turns out that nothing works, that possibility shouldn't be an excuse for inaction.

Big talk from me as I sit at my laptop bathed by air conditioning and sipping fresh clean ice water . . .

"The Night Tiger" by Yangsze Choo

The Night Tiger is a story of weretigers, Confucian virtues and murder in 1930s Malaysia. It is told from two points of view: that of Ren, a small houseboy for a recently-deceased doctor who moves to a new post to fulfill the last request of his old master; and that of Ji Lin, a smart young woman who has been prevented from reaching her potential due to her gender. There are missing fingers, a number of deaths (two natural, others not) and even a little bit of lovin'. 

I'm not sure why I never really got into this story. It had a relatively intriguing mystery at its heart (or actually a small collection of interrelated ones) but I wasn't sucked in the way you'd expect. Maybe it's because Ji Lin seemed to have the voice of a modern American. (No, I don't mean she talked about Twitter or wanted to be an "influencer." But also, I don't know how to put into words exactly what I do mean.) You would think (as I am a modern American) that this would help me identify with her. Instead, it made her seem less real to me. 

Another thing that I think kept me from really sinking into the story was that I would have preferred more subtlety. Yes, that same subtlety that can drive me crazy at times, as I wonder, "what did that mean??" and then I spend an inordinate amount of time speculating about possibilities. An example: Ren meets someone at the train station. There are hints about who she is, but then we are actually told her name. And then back at the hospital, there are hints about who is leaving on a stretcher . . . and then we are actually told her name. Please just let me guess! It's what I do!

Friday, October 22, 2021

"Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals" by Oliver Burkeman

Despite its title, Burkeman's is not the usual time management book. If you want a 1-2-3 for "here's what you do to make the most of your life," this is not that.

The purpose of this book is more to encourage a shift in perspective. Burkeman baldly states that for each of us, there just isn't enough time. There will always be too much to do. But far from allowing this to be a depressing realization culminating with "and everybody dies, the end," Burkeman pushes us to embrace the limits. Our time and attention are finite, therefore valuable.

Throughout his writing, Burkeman reminds us that "our lives are outrageously brief but full of shimmering possibilities . . . the world is bursting with wonder--the ultimate point is to experience more of that wonder . . . make room for engaging productively with your fellow citizens, current events, or the fate of the environment."

We can't "do it all," and we shouldn't even want to. Being more efficient and getting more done, far from giving us a calm and tranquil life with increased leisure time, actually leads to more anxiety and a greater possibility of feeling too busy. What we need to do instead is to pare down what we do to only what is important or necessary, then be fully present for it. This works better than what many people seem to do, which is to live mentally in the future, trying to reach a point where they have beaten back the chores enough to address whatever it is that they truly find important. That point is impossible to reach, so we need to be sure to incorporate those things we find truly important into our lives now

Burkeman asks a few questions at the end of the book, and one of them stuck with me. Is there anywhere in life I am pursuing comfort when what's called for is a little discomfort? What Burkeman means by this: Am I not pursuing life projects that matter the most, because it's easier not to? But I added my own spin. Is there any issue I am not addressing because doing so would cause me discomfort? It's a good question to contemplate.

Burkeman also makes some final suggestions, one of which is to keep two "to do" lists: one open (everything you'll ever want to do goes on here) and one closed (a limited list of perhaps ten things that you actually plan to do very soon). As you mark things off the closed list, you can move other items to it from the open list. This was my favorite suggestion, both because it is something I was already doing before I read this book (yay me!) and because it's a solid, reasonable method that I have found works well. 

Did this book change my life? I am thinking more about my finitude. I intend to be more mindful of the ways I choose to spend my time. And this pushes me one step closer to the freedom of not finishing books that I'm not enjoying. Still not there yet, though. 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

“Remember the Alamo?” by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale

Here’s a little book I picked up a while back and have been reading very slowly ever since. When I first saw it at Books-A-Million, I thought reading "American History in Bite-Sized Chunks" sounded like a worthy use of my time. My grasp of history has always been abysmal; maybe I would finally learn something! And when I was flipping through the book and came to the list of US presidents on page xix-xx, my decision was made immediately. The list ended more than ten years ago. I had to have this book. 

So, yeah, I bought this book because it was out of date. Which makes it perverse of me to complain about the weirdly abrupt ending, with Watergate in 1974. That seems an odd year to halt a book on American history that was first published in 2009. Had nothing historically important happened in the intervening years? I mean 9/11 is a huge one. Even Reaganomics and the War on Drugs would seem to merit a mention.

Overall, did this book do what I wanted it to do? Well, if I had any kind of memory it would have. It seems like a pretty comprehensive (at least up until 1974), if not in-depth, overview of our nation’s history. But I don’t feel like I retained any of it. It’s like when I read it, it’s all totally familiar—there wasn’t much in here that I hadn’t at least heard of before. But as soon as I read it, it was gone out of my head again. I’m thinking about re-reading the book. (You might say I’m doomed to repeat it.) But just exactly how many times will I have to go through this?

Saturday, October 2, 2021

"Second Place" by Rachel Cusk

I liked this less than other books by Cusk that I've read. I somehow found it less easy to identify with or engage with. It's the story of a middle-aged woman, M, wife of Tony and mother to Justine (from M's first marriage; Justine is now a woman herself, married to Kurt). M had discovered the paintings of L years before in Paris. Now, living with Tony at the edge of a beautiful marsh, M decides to write to L and invite him to stay for a time in the guest house on the marsh. L actually does come to stay, but it's nothing like M imagined. L is harsh and rude and ungrateful, not to mention accompanied by a young woman named Brett.  

As with Arlington Park, Second Place was inspired by a work of literature I'm unfamiliar with (in this case, one I've never even heard of: Lorenzo in Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan; thus, L is inspired by DH Lawrence). I can't decide if I'm curious enough about that book to actively pursue finding a copy, but I'm definitely curious enough to put it on my TBR list. 

Oh, and who the heck is Jeffers

Friday, September 24, 2021

“Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney

This book wrecked me. And not in the cathartic way that Where the Red Fern Grows or Year of Wonders could move me to vicarious tears of grief. No, Sally Rooney put me in a place where I had to stop and think and focus in order to remember the love and happiness and joy in my life. 

Not that I didn't enjoy the reading experience as I was being destroyed. Rooney is three for three in Books I Could Not Put Down, and FSG should be happy to hear that I will probably buy anything she writes from here on out (and I'm sure I'm not the only one). 

This is, unsurprisingly, another relationship story--not just a love story, because it encompasses friendship and, tangentially, family. Alice (a famous but somewhat reclusive writer) and Eileen have been best friends for years; the bulk of the book consists of their email correspondence, but their connections to Felix and Simon are often in the forefront. I feel like a main theme of the story is tension--the type that exists when you try to pull someone closer (especially when they resist) or push someone away (especially when you don't intend to). 

Once again (just like Rachel Cusk does), Rooney has created characters who have these deeply intelligent conversations (though in Beautiful World, most of them are actually conducted by email rather than face to face) and I’m stuck telling people that after I got home from work this weekend I realized that the butt seam of my scrubs was ripped wide open so no wonder I'd been freezing all day. And I just have to make myself feel better by telling myself that sometimes I have deeply intelligent conversations, though definitely not constantly; and surely no one at work actually saw my butt. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

"The Ebony Tower" by John Fowles

Here's a book that was heralded by the New York Times as "THE MOST ENJOYABLE FICTION OF THE SEASON!" in 1974. Sam read it first and he thought I would like it (at least the naughty bits) and I did. Not sure I would have rated it as The Most Enjoyable, but I guess I don't know what it was up against at the time. 

The Ebony Tower is a collection of five long short stories, or maybe even mini-novellas (at least one of them, for sure):

  • The eponymous story, "The Ebony Tower," was the long one. It faintly reminded me of The Magus. The dialogue was frustratingly truncated, to the point where half the time I didn't know who was being discussed because the subjects were left out of the sentences, but I got the gist. It's a story about a young artist and critic who goes to the French countryside to interview a reclusive old painter who lives with two nubile protégés. 
  • "Eliduc" is a retelling of an old French poem by Marie de France, with shades of Tristan and Isolde. 
  • "Poor Koko," I think, may be the author's own nightmare. A writer staying alone in a friend's isolated country house is surprised by a burglar who ends up burning years of his work. (Oops, I think that was a spoiler. Sorry!) 
  • In "The Enigma," the disappearance of an MP is the focus of the story until the lead investigator falls in love with the MP's son's girlfriend. (OMG did I just give another spoiler? Well heck. But hey, this book is nearly fifty years old and I think there should be a statute of limitations.) 
  • "The Cloud." A group of Brits enjoys a lazy summer day in--oh, again?--yes, the French countryside. I think this story may be the one that sticks with me the longest (at least the bit where Peter and Kate get naughty, anyway). But WHAT HAPPENED AT THE END? Maybe this one should have been called "The Enigma." 

I have deviated from my typical book cover photo with this post, partly because the copy I read was almost as old as I am and looking rather tattered. And partly because as I read I noticed that my nailpolish color maybe should have been called Old Paperback Book Page and I was inspired to take a picture for posterity.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

"Nicotine" by Nell Zink

As I finished this book and put it down, my exact words to myself were, "Well, that was weird." 

I didn't like Nicotine anywhere near as much as I liked The Wallcreeper, which is unfortunate but not surprising. I mean, I really really liked The Wallcreeper. It would be amazing for another book (even one by the same author) to live up to the expectations it set. But saying I didn't like this one as much as I liked the other one doesn't mean I didn't like this one. This one was just . . . weird. 

So, weirdness. Nicotine is about a bunch of weird characters from weird backgrounds in weird situations. It had never even crossed my mind that there may be groups of activists squatting in abandoned houses throughout the US. Meth-heads or soap-making fight club members, sure, but political statement-makers? Nah. (Guess it hadn't crossed the mind of the main character, Penny, or anyone else in her family, either, until they were actually confronted with the reality.) 

Nicotine starts with the weird Norm Baker, founder of a weird quasi-cult for the terminally ill, who has become terminally ill himself. His daughter Penny (whose mother was formerly Norm's unofficially-adopted daughter . . . yeah, weird) is by his side for his weeks-long death, after which she finds herself somewhat homeless. So she goes to check out the house Norm grew up in (which he still owned at the time of his death, but had ignored for years) and finds it full of the aforementioned squatting activists. And of course she falls in love with the first one she sees: beautiful golden boy Rob with an embarrassing secret in his pants. 

I feel like the weirdest thing about this book, though--the thing that left me with the lasting impression of its weirdness--was how everyone lived happily ever after. I'm not going to list actual spoilers here (you're welcome), but it's basically the fact that everyone gets what (read: who) they want. (Well, except maybe Susannah?) That just felt surprising to me. I kind of expected more angst and torment. 

Monday, August 16, 2021

"In Five Years" by Rebecca Serle

I can't believe I spent seventeen dollars on this book. Not that there's inherently anything wrong with the book itself. But it's a ROmance. Ugh. 

This book caught my eye because every now and then I like to do this thing where I imagine what my life will be like five years from now. And then when I read the premise (the main character gets an unexpected glimpse of her life in five years, then goes back to life as she knew it) I was intrigued. (I can imagine that if, in 2007, I had jumped ahead to 2012, it would have blown my mind.) 

But when I brought this book home and showed it to Sam, he looked slightly bemused and asked, "Isn't that a romance?" I gasped. He was right. How could I have overlooked all the clues?? It was definitely a romance, firmly in the category at which I scoff. At least it was relatively short, so I was able to get it over with quickly. 

Here's one good thing about the book, though. It inspired me to write an email to myself. I'll receive it in five years.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

"The Saturday Night Ghost Club" by Craig Davidson

I tagged along to a bookstore with a friend, not intending to buy anything. (Yeah, right. Like that's ever going to happen! I should have known better.) That bright orange Penguin spine always catches my eye. And I'm a sucker for ghost stories, and for the dark mysteries promised by the back cover. So what if this is probably a YA book? (Who actually decides that, anyway? Isn't it more in the marketing than anything else?)

Anyway, this book was fun to read but I don't have a lot to say about it. It's the story of 12-year-old Jake Baker who is somewhat of an ostracized nerd growing up in Niagara Falls. His best friend is his Uncle Calvin, who owns a store of the occult and who believes in things that most adults have outgrown. When Billy Yellowbird moves to town and it seems like Jake might finally have a friend his own age, Uncle C decides it's time they join him in some ghost-hunting. They spend a summer visiting the sites of several creepy myths and legends around town, hardly stopping to think about the possible truth to their origins. 

I'd say this book rises above the level of what I used to find at Scholastic book fairs, but it doesn't match something like What Dies In Summer

Monday, August 9, 2021

Two birds with one stone: Susanna Clarke

Books like these are unfair to all the other books. 

I wish I hadn't done this, but I didn't blog about either of these books right away. When I finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Sam had just finished reading Piranesi and he was eager for me to read it immediately, so he encouraged me not to take the time to blog about Strange & Norrell but to wait and do one blog post covering both books. I figured it wouldn't hurt for me to break my rules for once. The only problem is that now I'll not end up doing either book justice . . . though I have a feeling that I never could have. 

Both books were so well-written and so engaging. Strange & Norrell was, to me, everything that Grossman's The Magicians had promised me but had failed to follow through on. It tells the story of the return of magicians to nineteenth century England. The book was looooong, and yet it went by so fast! And now I'm eager to watch the TV series. Piranesi, though quite a bit shorter, was every bit as intriguing (or possibly more so, as it had more of an element of mystery), one of those stories that begins with everything cloaked in secrets, leaving you to puzzle your way through. Neither book caused me to deeply contemplate The Meaning of Life, but both were completely engrossing, and the reading experience was the way I wish it could be with every book. 

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 the 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 quiet 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