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

Monday, November 21, 2022

“Marple: Twelve New Agatha Christie mysteries”

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2022

“Minimalista” by Shira Gill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 28, 2022

“The Divider” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

"Happy Orchid" by Sara Rittershausen

This is a pretty little book. I have a few Phalaenopsis orchids that I’ve managed to keep alive for several years, but I have not discovered the secret of getting them to bloom regularly. I feel lucky and excited when just one of them blooms over the winter. So when I saw this book I was even more excited--I hoped it might teach me how to get all of my orchids to bloom every year! 

Unfortunately the majority of this book is composed of brief entries on many different varieties of orchids, and at this point I’m not really interested in expanding my collection beyond my easy-care moth orchids. But it was fun to look at all the pictures. The shapes and colors of these flowers get pretty wild. 

I did take a few notes that may help, though (like, maybe I need to get some high potash fertilizer to encourage blooming). Hopefully sometime within the next month or so I’ll see a little baby flower stem poke out its tiny, pale green, mittened hand. Maybe there will even be more than one! 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

“The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett

I'm working on the next inductee to my "I've Read All Her Books" group. This one takes a little more effort than the last one, considering Patchett has had more than three times the number of Fuller's books published. But, nine down and four to go! And here's a little sampling of how this one went: 

P38… this hasn’t grabbed me yet. But it’s Ann Patchett. I’ll keep going. 

P299… how did I get so close to the end?

P357… The end? How could that be the end?? I hated the end. What a letdown. How anticlimactic. 

Overall (like probably from pages 39 to 356) it was good. It was Ann Patchett and her writing is always brilliant. I can even forgive the ending. But this won’t rank among my favorites of hers. Although it’s possible it will surprise me and stick with me. Those were some pretty vivid characters. 

This is the story of Sabine Parsifal, who has spent most of her adult life in unrequited love with the magician she assists. She is actually married to the magician, and he does love her in his own way, but for him the marriage is really only a way to make sure she can inherit his wealth after he dies, since he has no other family. (Although, as very few magicians can actually make a living by performing, Parsifal and his wife are financially supported by the two rug stores he owns and runs.) The story takes place very soon after Parsifal dies of an aneurysm (though if the aneurysm hadn't gotten him, the AIDS would have). And very soon after that, Sabine finds out that Parsifal's family didn't actually die in a car wreck decades ago. They're alive and well in Nebraska. (Well, most of them are, anyway.) What follows is an evocative account of the relationships formed between Sabine and her newly-discovered family members. 

It seems like I ought to have a paragraph, or at least a sentence, to pithily wrap up this post, but I can't think of anything else to say, and really--how fitting if this review feels unfinished as it ends. Now you know how I feel. 


Saturday, September 10, 2022

“Your Life Depends On It: What You Can Do To Make Better Choices About Your Health” by Talya Miron-Shatz, PhD

I actually got this book for my mom because it sounded like something she needed. She is one of those who first allowed politics to sway her decision about the COVID vaccine (when vaccination is a public health matter, not a political one) and next was swept away on a tide of skepticism toward all vaccines (about which I can only be glad that she is no longer making healthcare decisions for any children in our family. We don't want no polio! Sorry, I tried really hard to write neutrally about this but I obviously failed). Anyway--while I might (might!) give a novel I've never read as a gift, YLDOI is not the sort of book I would give to someone without having read it first. And of course I figured I might learn things from it too. So I read it. 

Tbh I didn’t come away from this book thinking, “Yes, these are definitely things I’m going to remember and do.” And I definitely didn't come away from it thinking, "Yes, this is just what my mom needs." Each chapter conveniently ends with a brief summary ("Takeaways"), which divides items for patients, for healthcare professionals, and for healthcare systems, but even a quick review of those didn't leave me with any amazing insights to share with you, although the overall impression I'm left with (patients should feel empowered to take an active role in their healthcare decisions; the doctor-patient relationship is important) is a good one. But really, the more I read, the more I thought it would be better suited for doctors to read instead of patients. In fact I started thinking I might send it to my stepson who just started DO school (until I realized there's no way he'll have time to read this book on top of all the coursework he's doing, and he'll probably never have time in his life again).

Just wanted to give a shout out to the SGU, which is where I heard about this book. I was never a podcast person before, but when a friend of mine introduced me to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, I was hooked by the first episode I listened to, and I've been listening ever since. If you are at all interested in science and critical thinking, you should try it out. While I might not be wildly intrigued by every single topic they discuss, there is always something (or several somethings) in every episode that I find fascinating. Not to mention that it's generally pretty funny too!

Saturday, September 3, 2022

“Our Endless Numbered Days” by Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller is one of those authors I've placed in a small group with the likes of Ann Patchett and Sally Rooney (and fifteen others. What? That's small): the "I'd Like To Read All Their Books" group. And guess what? With this book--her first written, my fourth read--suddenly Fuller is in a smaller group: the "I've Read All Of Her Books" group. (Though, of course, with any luck, eventually she'll have more than four books published and she'll move back to the larger group, at least temporarily.) 

The first thing I wondered about this book was whether it was named after the Iron & Wine album. (It was. Although I wasn't sure of this until after I finished the book and read the Acknowledgements at the end. But I often had "Passing Afternoon" humming through my head over this past week or so.)

The second thing I wondered--as soon as I read the blurb--was when this book was published. Was it before or after Island at the End of the World? Because a father living in isolation in the woods with his young daughter isn't a story you read every day. (Island came first. But it didn't take me long to realize the two books are as different as they need to be. And actually, as I read, OEND reminded me more of my recent read Gingerbread, although occasional similarities to Island kept bubbling up.)

Eight-year-old Peggy Hillcoat, she of the British father James and German mother Ute, sets off from London with her dad for a summer vacation in a woodland cabin which he calls die Hutte. Only it’s not really a vacation, especially once they’ve eaten all the food they brought with them; and it’s not just for the summer—it ends up being more like seven of them. 

I know exactly when this book hit its stride for me: page 231, right at the beginning of chapter 21. Peggy (or Punzel, as her dad now calls her) has been aware of Reuben for a long time, but suddenly everything is different. 

So did I like this book? To be honest, I didn’t love the first twenty chapters. But the rest of the book made up for it. So, yes. Yes, I liked it. Yes, I’m still planning to read #5 when it comes out. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

“How Did You Get This Number: Essays” by Sloane Crosley

It was bound to happen. After how much I enjoyed Cake, there was no way Sloane Crosley's next book would be just as good. My head told me that, but my heart still hoped, and I followed my heart. 

Maybe if I’d read this book first, I would have loved it? (Or maybe I would never have sought out a second book by Crosley afterwards.) Each essay in Cake was so much fun. But comparatively, these essays seemed hurried, unfinished, unpolished. It was as if Crosley used up all her best material in the first book and then combed through the dregs and tried to mash them together to come up with a second book. I cruised through Cake, giddy and gleeful, giggling all the while, but more often than not in This Number my brow would crease slightly, I would stare off into the middle distance, and I would think, I do not think that means what I think it means. Then I would shrug and read on. 

Harsh, I know. I always feel bad publicly baring my negative opinions of the work of living authors (and then I do it anyway… though it helps assuage my guilt to know that only fourteen people are going to read this). But on a more positive note: the last essay in the book, “Off the Back of a Truck,” was the best one. Not the funniest! It was too heartbreaking to be the funniest. But it was the best, telling the twin stories of how Sloane furnished her studio apartment by serial purchases of beautiful high-end items at cut-rate prices from a fat guy named Daryl even though she was pretty sure everything she bought from him was stolen, and how Sloane spent about a year dating handsome and attractive Ben who had assured her that he and Lauren had broken up, only to find out (from Lauren herself) that he had lied. Yeah, that story was a little depressing but it did have a subtle, gentle humor (most of which I caught, I think) and it definitely felt relatable. 

Monday, August 8, 2022

“Circe” by Madeline Miller

I've always been interested in the stories of Greek mythology. This goes back at least as far as Ms Breitman's freshman English class in high school (maybe even farther, but it's difficult to remember such ancient history). I have my own copy of Mythology by Edith Hamilton, which is basically an encyclopedia of Greek, Roman and Norse gods, and which I devoured from cover to cover. (Granted, it's not as if I remember everything I read in that book, but I do feel like I know more about mythology than someone who doesn't know anything about mythology.)

So of course it is no surprise that I really enjoyed this book. I was familiar with the name Circe, but I couldn't remember much about her, which was fine because the book reminded me of what I'd forgotten (she's an enchantress who has a hobby of turning sailors into pigs; Odysseus spends a year with her on his way home from Troy) and filled in all the gaps besides. This book does a wonderful job of fleshing out Circe's character, giving us the back story of how she ends up as a witch living in solitude on an island. And while I didn't take to the book immediately (I think I found it less interesting at the beginning, when Circe was young and spineless) it quickly became engrossing.

So, another great book! How have I become so lucky, to read so many good books in a row??

Saturday, July 30, 2022

“I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays” by Sloane Crossley

I remember, already an adult, being surprised by my cousin’s confident pronouncement that it was “every little girl’s dream” to live in New York City someday. That had never been my dream when I was a little girl. But I’ve since tried that dream on for size a time or two (only in my imagination, of course). I can see some appeal in the idea--enough to pique my interest, if not enough to sell my house and still not have enough money to pay a month's rent in Manhattan. But it's fun to imagine--or read about!--and here Sloane is living that dream, and it is just as great and terrible as Friends always promised it was. 

I had a lot of fun reading this book of essays. Right off the bat, I enjoyed the self-deprecating humor (but don't be fooled, because Sloane-with-an-e is happy to deprecate others as well as herself), and the same energy and engagement was maintained through every essay. Just like with Ann Patchett (though with quite a different tone), I felt like I was reading about Sloane's real life. I enjoyed it so much that the minute I turned the last page, I hopped online and ordered her second book of essays as well. Yeah, I did have a momentary thought--as you do before you pick up your fourth donut--am I really going to keep enjoying this as much as I think I am, or is it all going to end up being a bit too much? And then I clicked Buy Now. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

“The Martins” by David Foenkinos

I loved this little book. I read it in one day, which is something you can do when you're home sick but not quite dying. 

Originally published in France as La famille Martin and impeccably translated into English by the world's best translator (who, me, biased?), in The Martins the narrator is feeling devoid of inspiration for his next book and thus comes to a decision. He is going to walk out the door of his Paris apartment, head for the street, and write a book about the first person he sees. And . . . he does.

Madeleine Tricot is bringing home her groceries and ends up unexpectedly bringing an author with her. When Madeleine's grown daughter Valerie Martin drops by, she decides it would be too much pressure on her mother to be the sole subject of a book, so the author should include her family of four as well. And . . . he does. 

The rest of the book is a surprisingly engaging combination of the intriguing and the mundane. Who would have ever thought that the lives of a random Parisian family would be so interesting? And yet . . . they were. 

I hate to admit that this is probably the literary version of reality TV. That thought somewhat dampens my enthusiasm for the book. But never mind. Why be a killjoy? Though I do want to know . . . was it real? Was it made up? Was it some combination of the two, where reality and fiction are so closely intertwined that the truth is impossible to determine?

It seemed really real. I like that.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

“The Country Life” by Rachel Cusk

This book was written a lifetime ago. (1997!). I've enjoyed (and been impressed by) Cusk’s more recent books, and was surprised to find that this one (her third published novel, though weirdly her second is not listed on the "Also by Rachel Cusk" page of this book) is a more typical novel than her later work. That said, I would definitely not classify it as garden-variety.

While The Country Life was unexpectedly different from The Outline Trilogy, it was no less good. The narration felt stiff and formal and quite British, worthy of a classic to stand the test of time. The characters were quirky and interesting (but thankfully, believably so).There were mysteries, some of which were never truly solved, and stories half-told and half-understood, and secrets merely glimpsed, and desires considered and abandoned. Nothing was as it should be and everything was as it could be, with a bizarre undercurrent through it all. 

The story starts with Stella Benson hurriedly preparing for her journey from London to the English countryside where she has been hired as an au pair for a wealthy farming family with a wheelchair-bound son. Foreshadowing as we meet the family makes it seem like she ends up spending ages with them, but as it turns out, the plot only covers one week in time. We are graced with Cusk's trademark introspection and brief shades of the deep conversations that form the substance of her later books, but in TCL these are a smaller part in the larger framework of more typical settings, characters and plot. 

What I enjoyed most about this book was the situational humor, in a so-awkward-it's-funny kind of way. I think quite possibly Rachel Cusk would be horrified to hear this, but at times Stella made me think of Bridget Jones--not only because she kept finding herself in mortifying situations, but because she seemed only able to make things worse. I read with mingled vicarious shame and relief that it wasn't me

Why has no one adapted this book for the screen? I would totally watch a TV series of The Country Life. I think it would be like a funnier and more normal-seeming Gormenghast

Sunday, July 24, 2022

“Gingerbread” by Robert Dinsdale

I don’t know how long ago I started reading this book. I have started and finished perhaps a dozen others in the meantime, maybe even more. 

So, yeah, it was slow going for me to start with, but I always intended to finish it. I just found myself reaching for a crossword puzzle more often than I reached for this book. But eventually I resigned myself to the cold and the dark and the hunger and the snow. And soon enough I found myself captured by the story. I was definitely rolling downhill with it during the second half. 

This is the story of a young boy in Belarus who lives with his mother. He is not close to his papa, her father, but the boy and his mother must go to live with him in his tenement. The boy doesn't realize it yet, but his mother is dying of cancer, and he will need someone to take care of him afterwards--and, just as much, the boy will need to care for his papa. 

Before he lived in the city, Papa used to live in a little house with Baba on the edge of the woods, and he takes the boy back there to see the place, but it is a rundown ruin. Even so, the woods are calling him back, and the boy and Papa move out of the city and into the forest. And the rest of the story teeters between fairytale and horror, with a number of well-known folk stories woven in.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

“Unsettled Ground” by Claire Fuller

We made another trip to the lovely Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe last week, and Sam found this new book for me there. I've read and enjoyed two other books by Claire Fuller, so it only makes sense that I would enjoy a third. 

The cover is not bad-looking, but unfortunately when I read the blurb on the back I found I was not interested in the premise of the story. However, I want to support independent bookstores, and it’s always nice to have a souvenir from a vacation, so I went ahead and bought the book, hoping that Fuller's amazing writing would bring me around.

Unfortunately it was not love at first chapter. As I got started reading, I found the characters boring, and everything was just so depressing and overwhelming. But I pushed on, because you know me. I can't not.

So I read and I read about middle-aged twins Julius and Jeanie, living in poverty with their mother. And I read and I read about their lives getting continually worse, even though everything was bad enough to start with. 

But as I read, a funny thing happened. Before I was halfway through, I’d reached critical mass. It was still depressing and overwhelming, and I'm not sure I ever necessarily identified with Julius or Jeanie, but I did not want to stop reading. Claire Fuller has done it again, folks. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

“The Woman in the Library” by Sulari Gentill

This was a fun book. And very meta! I came across it in the eighth issue of Oh Reader magazine (which, by the way, I have just realized I only tangentially mentioned once previously, and as such I am remiss. I have greatly enjoyed that magazine, and since you are a reader, I know you will too. Check it out! But back to the book). The Woman in the Library was one of the books featured in "Oh Reader's TBR: Some of the new and upcoming books on our to-be-read list." Which, of course, encouraged me to place it on my own TBR.

So, meta. Are you ready? Sulari Gentill is an Australian crime fiction author writing the story of a bestselling Australian author named Hannah Tigone. Hannah is in the process of writing a murder mystery whose protagonist, Winifred (Freddie) Kincaid, is an Australian writer in residence at Harvard, having won the Sinclair scholarship. Freddie in turn is writing a murder mystery, based largely on life, since a writer for the student newspaper was found murdered in the library the day Freddie met her new friends Cain, Whit and Marigold. Freddie works on her novel while she is simultaneously consumed by trying to solve the murder (and subsequent dangerous events) with her friends. Meanwhile, Hannah sends every chapter she writes about Freddie to her American novelist friend Leo, and he responds to Hannah with helpful suggestions for improving the plot.

I didn’t love this book from the very beginning. (Was it only because the characters in Hannah’s book had such silly names? Surely not; this actually didn't bother me much because I was able to blame that on Hannah rather than Sulari.) It took me a surprisingly long time to get into. But I think by about 80 pages in, I was in. It may not be great literature or a classic for the generations, but it was clever and I enjoyed its shades of Only Murders in the Building, which is nothing if not fun. I liked puzzling through the whodunit of Freddie's life while simultaneously being creeped out by Leo's increasing helpfulness and insistence. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

“Here in the Real World” by Sara Pennypacker

I found this pretty little hardcover book at Half Price Books (where else?) and really liked the artwork on the cover. It looked like it could be a kids’ book but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t really care either way so I didn’t try to figure out if it was. 

When I finally decided to read it, the first thing I noticed was “Ages 8-12” on the front flap. So that answered that question, while simultaneously lowering my expectations a bit. 

This was a perfectly nice and enjoyable book to read, telling the story of eleven-year-old Ware who thinks he'll be spending the summer with his grandmother Big Deal. But when she falls and breaks both hips and faces a lengthy recovery, Ware has to go back home where both his parents are working double shifts all summer long. This means Ware is expected to spend his days at the crowded and noisy community rec center, which is not the favorite place of a daydreamy boy who prefers to spend time alone. But when he realizes the rec center is right next to an abandoned and half-destroyed church, and no one notices if he's at the rec center or not, a summer full of possibilities opens up to him (as well as to a girl named Jolene, who has also noticed the potential of the abandoned churchyard).

I probably would not re-read this book, but it was worth reading once, and I may hang onto it just because it's pretty and someday an eight- to twelve-year-old might want to borrow it from me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“Bellman & Black” by Diane Setterfield

Sam read this book first, and he absolutely loved it. We haven't really discussed the details yet (I'm sure he didn't want to give me any spoilers) but he was excited for me to read it, and I was excited for me to read it--not only due to Sam's recommendation, but also because of how much I loved Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale and Once Upon a River. 

I fear that, for me, Bellman & Black fell prey to high expectations. I liked it. (It kills Sam to hear that.) I did not love it. I did not race through it. It did not consume me. Unless you count my absorption with hunting for what it was that Sam loved so much about it. 

This is the story of William Bellman, beginning in childhood with a stone and a sling and a rook he never really meant to kill. Somehow that one careless act at the age of ten followed him throughout his entire life, from success to great loss and back again. But Bellman's story did not grab me, and while the writing was good and I can't point to any specific complaints, for some reason I just wasn't feeling it. And I'm more disappointed in myself than in the book!

Friday, June 10, 2022

“The Candy House” by Jennifer Egan

I’ve never read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I’ll have to remedy that soon. For those of you who aren’t so remiss—apparently you’ll recognize a similar format here, with vivid stories delving deeply into the lives of a broad cast of characters, each with their own chapter and each related to the others in some way, whether tangentially or more directly. 

I really enjoyed this story. The overarching concept is that social media has been taken one step further: you can now upload your entire consciousness (including forgotten memories) and share it with whomever you choose. We hear about an entire range of reactions to this new technology: from those who created it to those who embrace it or shun it or are ambivalent. The title refers to that forest dwelling of a fairy tale witch: something that looks very tempting and draws you in, but then you're caught in something unexpected.

The writing was solid and the book was really engaging. There was, however, an underlying current of desperation or depression. Or maybe that's just this gloomy, rainy day talking?   

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

“Five Tuesdays in Winter” by Lily King

Here’s another one from my recent buying spree. I read and enjoyed King’s Euphoria a while back, and bought (but inexplicably still haven’t read) her Writers and Lovers, so it wasn’t a leap to assume I would also like her new book of short stories. And there’s a statement at the top of the front cover that confirmed it for me: “I loved this book.” Who said it? None other than Anne Patchett!

This is a book of 10 unrelated short stories that showcase King’s range in their wide variation of characters and setting. Whereas typical short stories may be like a full novel in compressed form, most of these stories seem as if they could appear as a chapter in a novel. With the exception of the last story (“The Man at the Door”) they all feel vividly real; the last story is still vivid, but adds shades of the surreal. I love this sort of book, where the writing is impeccable and I can disappear into the story (or stories). 

Friday, May 27, 2022

“Brood” by Jackie Polzin

Remember how I said I’d recently gone on a spree and ended up buying about 11 new books? It was kind of Sam’s idea. Sam wanted something new to read for our upcoming vacation (which has now become our current vacation). What he really wanted was something like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, or Bellman & Black (the connection not the ampersand in the title, but the bigness, awesomeness and fun. Not exactly how Sam described it, but close enough).

How do you go about finding big, awesome, fun new books? Here was my method. I wrote a list of our favorite authors, then looked online to see if they had any new books out. Most of them did not, but the internet is nothing if not good for “if you like this, then you’ll like that” suggestions, and while I don’t specifically remember what led me to Brood, the internet was right. I liked it. 

Polzin’s writing reminded me of several authors I’ve read (and enjoyed) recently. It was like Sarah Moss, or like Rachel Cusk (albeit without the intelligent and soul-baring conversations with strangers). It was like Nell Zink, but more The Wallcreeper than Nicotine.  It was simple, calm and quiet, but also powerful. 

Brood is narrated by a married woman with a flock of four chickens. (I have chickens, so this drew me to the book, but for Sam—who appreciates the eggs but not the hens—a storyline involving chickens was not a plus.) The chickens, and the narrator’s quest to keep them alive, are a major thread throughout the book, but other parts of her life (her relationships with her husband Percy, her mother, her best friend Helen, her non-existent children) are woven in as well. 

Here are four random things I want to mention about this book. 

1. I love its size. This is one of those smaller-than-usual books that fit so nicely in my hand. 

2. All of the writing was great except at the very beginning. In the first three pages we are introduced to Helen, who asked such odd questions about the hens that the only explanation that made sense to me was that Helen must be a child. (She was not.) This, to me, was the only false step, which kept me outside of the story, but not for long. The rest of the writing was great.

3. This was not a funny book, but it made me laugh out loud at least three times. However, when I read these things aloud to Sam, he did not even crack a smile. Hm.

3a. One of these three things was about the raccoon with a briefcase. Percy prefaced the scene by saying, “You’re not going to believe this.” And he was right. I didn’t believe it. It must have been intended literally, since everything else in the book was as well, but it was a little too fantastic. Could it actually have happened to the author? If it didn’t actually happen, I can’t believe it would happen.

4. About 3/4 of the way through this book, the author bio caught my eye, and I saw that she has children. Sam says this was an overreaction on my part, but I almost felt betrayed, having assumed that the book was heavily autobiographical and thus that the author was as childless as the narrator. Looking at this in a positive light: I love when authors are able to make books seem so real that I believe they are real. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

“Notes on an Execution” by Danya Kukafka

I found this book through one of those Buzzfeed articles that so often convinces me to waste time. The article in question was a compilation of the best first lines of books (see here, if you're curious), which means it was an article more worthy of reading than is typical for Buzzfeed, although most of the lines mentioned were either from books I'd already read, or they did not grab me. This one… well, tbh the lines quoted seemed more inscrutable than amazing, but they did pique my curiosity, and I recognized the author's name from when I read and enjoyed her previous book, Girl in Snow. So I gave this new one a go.

And it was definitely a good choice! This is the story of Ansel Packer, abandoned by his parents at the age of 4 and raised in the foster system, who at age 17 goes through a brief stage of killing girls before settling down to a more acceptable existence with his future wife. The story leaps nimbly from death row to Ansel’s childhood and everything in between, told mostly from the perspective of Ansel’s mother and wife, plus the detective working the case of the murdered girls. While at times the story was unsettling, it was always very compelling.

Despite my enjoyment of the reading experience, I do have one complaint about the book. While I am aware that conventional wisdom disparages the use of adverbs in writing, surely this doesn’t mean we need to eschew them entirely? The first few times an adjective was conspicuously used where tradition indicated an adverb, it seemed quirky and experimental (in a good way), but the more often it happened, the more annoying and pretentious it seemed. Like, if it had only been done two or three times, it would have seemed like a positive, even impressive, thing. Or maybe if it was only used in relation to a single one of the narrators? But by the time I noticed it was happening every ten pages or so (fingers twitching nervous, dangling graceless, averted uncomfortable, the air tinged lavish…) the lack of ly was sticking out like a sore thumb and was definitely rubbing me the wrong way. 

But that’s the worst thing (in fact, probably the only bad thing!) I have to say about this book. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

“What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty

The spell has broken. After having enjoyed the Nine Perfect Strangers TV series and the books Apples Never Fall and Big Little Lies, this one missed the mark for me. It was just so . .  . silly. I mean of course I like to have fun while I read! But this book felt like it was firmly in the Chick Lit category which I always suspected Moriarty's books belonged in, and which I typically can't stomach (even if I can't explain why). 

What Alice Forgot is the story of Alice Love, a soon-to-be forty-year-old mom of three, who comes to on the gym floor thinking it is 1998 instead of 2008. She remembers her first thirty years of life perfectly normally, but it's as if the bump on her head knocked the past decade right out of her memory. Her children are strangers to her, and what's this? She and her husband have separated? AND she's in charge of Mega Meringue Day, which will put the local school in the Guinness Book of World Records? Ahahaha lol blech. 

I think I have reached the point where I’ve read enough of this author’s books. To be fair . . . I really enjoyed her other stories, and possibly my enjoyment increased with their chronological releases? (Like, I've enjoyed the newest one the most, etc.) I could be wrong but it seems like the books have become more clever as they've gone along, and it's the cleverness that draws me in and that makes me more accepting of the Chicky-Litty aspects. Also, maybe I had some personal issues with this book? For instance, the thought of getting back together with my ex makes me gag. And the idea of my best friends being a couple named Mike and Gina is laughable (inside joke). But my gut instinct is currently telling me to move on. 

And part of the reason I need to move on is because I have too many other books I want to read more. Actually I know just exactly how many unread books I have in my house at the moment (and I think I might possibly have ordered eleven more yesterday . . . ?) thanks to something super cool: my favorite new app, BookBuddy. (And I don't even get any kind of compensation for telling you about it, but I'm telling you about it anyway. That's how much I love it.) I have scanned all of the books I own into this app, and it's like my own little super-useful digital card catalog. I can see how many are read, unread, or being read; I can view them by author, or by title, or by genre (and then some); I can mark books as favorites or "loaned out"; I can search for books by key word, title, author. Using this app I even discovered I unintentionally had a half dozen or so duplicate copies of books! Anyway, if you are a reading this blog I assume you are a reader, and I just thought you might appreciate this app as much as I do. 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

During our most recent foray into Half Price Books, Sam discovered two more Liane Moriarty books for me. (I really enjoyed watching her Nine Perfect Strangers TV series, and I had fun reading Apples Never Fall. Both stories were suspenseful and engaging and tightly plotted and peopled with interesting characters and maybe a little bit fluffy but so much fun that the fluffiness was entirely palatable.) So Sam was right in suspecting that I would like more Moriarty books. 

And Big Little Lies was just as fun! I’m not sure what sets Moriarty’s stories apart from the women’s fiction or Chick Lit or beach reads that I typically scorn (maybe nothing?) but somehow they go down easy and don’t leave me feeling ill and remorseful. 

BLL has a huge cast of characters, most of whom have a kindergartner starting at Pirriwee Public. There’s a lot of drama going on, both among the kids and their parents, and from the very beginning we know that someone is going to die on Trivia Night, but we don’t know who or how or why. 

Moriarty really manages to balance the lighthearted and the serious in a way that the novel I read just before this one, which I can now see was heavy-handed, did not. As I read BLL I became interested in the characters; in the previous book I felt like I was being forced to care, which did not work. 

We just started watching the BLL TV series last night. So far it's not as good as the book, but it's good enough that I plan to keep watching.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

“Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House” by Cheryl Mendelson

Why, oh why did I think I would want to read this book?

Actually (uncharacteristically for me) I remember exactly what drew me to this book. It was the statement that appears on its front cover: “Home Comforts is to the house what Joy of Cooking is to food.” I thought this book might provide me with some reasonable guidelines in conjunction with effective but rapid techniques to elevate my housekeeping efficiency as well as the quality of my results. (But, never having perused JoC, maybe my expectations were skewed?)

I think this book is probably not meant to be read cover to cover and is intended more as a reference to dip into as needed; nevertheless, reading it cover to cover is what I set out to do. And it worked until I got to chapter 14, The Fabric of Your Home. OMG. I will never need to know that level of detail about ALL the different types of materials that exist. I was totally derailed.

But I managed to tough it out, for the most part. I definitely skimmed over sections that I was pretty sure would never apply to me, but I read everything that seemed like it might be helpful. And most of the way through this book, my assumption was that once I finished reading it I would hang onto it as a reference just in case. But the closer I got to the end, the more I noticed that I was not finding any information that I would actually make use of in my life. And you know what else? There's this thing called the Internet. As it turns out, I've found the Internet to be a pretty dang good reference. Not to mention that it can typically give me an answer that doesn't go unnecessarily deeply into details, AND that doesn't make me feel bad because I will never vacuum my curtains weekly. Not until they make a Roomba capable of doing that. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

"The Dilemma" by B.A. Paris

I have been in a reading slump. For some reason all I’ve been able to do recently is crossword puzzles. It has certainly not been for lack of good books waiting for me to read them. I don’t really know how to explain it, but there it was. 

Until last week, when obligations brought us past our nearest Half Price Books store (two hours away) where I gathered a teetering stack of (almost) new books. On the way home (I promise I wasn’t driving!) I chose the one I was least interested in and started reading. Forty-eight hours later (minus two full work shifts), I’d finished it, a reader once again. 

This is the story of Adam and Olivia, who are preparing for her 40th birthday bash—something that’s been in the works for years. Their 22-year-old son Josh is there to celebrate with them and help out, but their 19–year-old daughter Marnie is studying in Hong Kong for the year. And of course everyone has secrets… Adam has a surprise for Livia, not realizing she might not be pleased by it; Marnie is hiding something from her parents, though she doesn’t know Livia has already figured it out, and Livia knows she should have told Adam but hasn’t yet; Josh has changed his plans and is afraid to tell Adam; so everyone has A Dilemma of their own. And then Adam realizes something terrible may have happened, but he’s not entirely certain yet…

Given the fact that I read 340 pages in 2 days, this book was obviously a page-turner. And I did enjoy reading it. But I didn’t love it. It wasn’t one of those fully immersive experiences. For me, somehow, the writing wasn’t real enough. It was just a made up story about imaginary characters. Yes, yes, I know in a literal sense that’s true of all fiction… but in the best books, it doesn’t feel like it. Not that I would be capable of recreating that myself. But I am capable of recognizing it when presented with it.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book was kind of depressing. It's the 80s, and Madeleine Hanna is graduating from Brown University. She's in love with (but no longer together with) Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus (what the heck kind of last name is that?) is in love with Madeleine. No one really knows what they're going to do with their lives, but this turns out to be especially true for Leonard, since he stopped taking his lithium and ended up in a mental hospital. In other words, if a love triangle weren't bad enough, let's throw a little bipolar disorder into the mix and see just exactly how bad it can get. (Turns out that's bad enough to make me focus on how lucky I am that neither I nor any of my loved ones have had to deal with extreme mania or life-pausing depression.)

I don't think I really enjoyed reading this book. It wasn't boring, and there's nothing wrong with the writing, except I didn't like the voice. It started out with a kind of la-di-dah tone. As time went by I decided the problem was that I just didn't like Madeleine. And the ending felt forced. 

Other than that, it was great!

Saturday, March 5, 2022

"Commonwealth" by Ann Patchett

I love a book I can sink into, with a deep velvety story and writing so good you hardly even notice it. 

Commonwealth, I think, is slightly autobiographical. I know from reading Patchett's non-fiction that she lived in California with her cop dad and beautiful mother until her parents split up and she moved a couple thousand miles away with her new stepfamily. That may be where the similarity between the story and her life ends, but it's enough to bring an immediacy or a vibrance to the book. 

The story centers on Franny (who I almost called Ann! Oops!) and her relationships with her sister and stepsiblings, though more tangential bonds are also explored. The plot is one I'm having real trouble with describing concisely and I feel like all I can say is that throughout the book we see the children grow and change, and their interactions grow and change along with them. What I most want to remember about this book, though, is how much I enjoyed the reading experience.

Monday, February 21, 2022

"These Precious Days" by Ann Patchett

I could have sworn that I wrote a blog post about this book! But I see now that I started a draft and never wrote anything. And now, whatever I might have said three weeks ago is gone into the void. 

What remains is that I love Ann Patchett's writing. And especially after having read a couple of her non-fiction collections of essays, I feel like she is my friend. I know she's not, and that this is a completely one-way street, but I feel like I know Ann, and like her, and would enjoy spending time with her. 

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by VE Schwab

This book and I did not get off to a good start. 

Sam read it first. His suggestion that I might like it seemed lukewarm. “It was pretty good.” And then I saw that someone for whose literary opinion I lack respect had read this book and enjoyed it. I don’t know why Sam’s (respected) positive opinion should carry less weight than the (disrespected) positive opinion of one-who-must-not-be-named. But apparently it did. 

Eventually Addie LaRue worked its way to the top of my TBR pile, so I picked it up. And put it down. And reluctantly picked it up. And put it down again. It took me quite a while to get into this book. Like, weeks. If I had reached the point in my life where I could finally allow myself to give up on a book after 50 pages, I would never have finished this one. I found that every time when I had a quiet moment to read, I was instead picking through the mess of old copies of Readers Digest that my mom had brought with her at Christmas. I was actively avoiding Addie LaRue. At first I wasn’t sure why, other than the fact that the story had not grabbed me yet, but I came to realize that the writing annoyed me. I’m sure this is partly because it followed so closely on the heels of Ann Patchett, whose writing I really admire, but I did not like the voice of Addie LaRue. And I was almost insulted by the cadence. 

Why so many paragraphs of one sentence?

And so many fragments? 

(Annoying, right?)

But this week we have been on a journey, and I forced myself to finish this book by packing it and bringing only one other reading option with me. (Well, truth be told, I also brought the last two Readers Digests.) And would you believe that (after reading the RDs) when I finally picked up Addie LaRue again, I got INTO it and ENJOYED it and didn’t want to put it down? 

I hate being wrong. 

Anyway, for those of you who have been living under a rock, here’s the synopsis. Three hundred years ago there was a 23-year-old French girl named Adeline LaRue who did not want to get married. So she sold her soul to the devil in return for what she thought of as freedom, but what turned out to be the inability to leave a mark on the world. No one is able to remember her once she leaves their sight—not even her own parents, who now believe they never had a child. The deal stands until she is ready to give up, and Addie turns out to be quite tenacious, which means her story spans centuries. I found myself more interested in her 21st century life than anything else, but without the rest of it there wouldn’t have been a story. 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

"Rose Royal" by Nicolas Mathieu

This was an intriguing little novella that just flew by. It felt like I'd only been reading for about five minutes when I noticed that I was already more than halfway through. Another five minutes later it was over--well, five minutes and a shock. (Yeah, I'm exaggerating about the five minutes, but not about the shock.)

The story here is about Rose, an aging-but-still-hot administrative assistant who spends most of her evenings drinking among friendly acquaintances at a dive bar. Though her life is not devoid of happy moments, neither is it incredibly satisfying. Yet she doesn't strive much towards making changes that would increase elements of value, and this is more due to inertia than to being content. 

Enter Luc. 

The subtitle of this book is "a love story" but I have it on good authority that that's meant in irony. Whereas at first blush being with Luc seemed like an improvement, in many ways it turned out to merely highlight Rose's dissatisfaction with her life. 

Overall I found this novella to be a fun momentary diversion: strong writing that flows well, a story that moves the reader through it effortlessly, and a powerful ending that took me by surprise.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

"Hell of a Book" by Jason Mott

This is a really hard blog post for me to write. It would have been hard anyway, for two reasons, but unfortunately it's made even more difficult by the fact that I finished reading this book about two weeks ago and we all know by now that such a delay does not help a literary amnesiac write a blog post.

The author of Hell of a Book has written a book about an author who has written a hell of a book and is on a book tour to promote it. The writing from the author's author's perspective seems light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, reminding me somewhat of Christopher Moore. Mott describes a man who is a bit self-destructive (drinking too much, being surprised by an angry husband who chases him through hotel hallways away from the wife he hadn't known was married) but Mott does not at first describe what the author looks like, so initially I didn't even think about it, and then I started to wonder, and finally Mott confirmed that the author was black. (That's not a spoiler. It's right there in the blurb on the cover--how did I not notice that at the beginning?)

Flitting around the periphery of the author's story is a news story. A tragedy has occurred, and everyone knows the details--everyone, that is, except for the author (the one in the book, not the one of the book). When people ask if he's heard about the tragedy he truthfully says yes, because of course he has heard people talking about a tragedy, but he hasn't heard any details. Throughout the book, those details emerge slowly: from an amorphous blur to a vague outline to harrowing details. 

So are you wondering about the two reasons that this blog post would have been difficult for me to write even if I'd written it right away? One is (in case you hadn't already guessed) because I am white. And while on one hand Mott has done an excellent job of portraying the disturbing reality of being black in America (particularly of being black and male) without alienating those who are not, I still feel uncomfortable expressing an opinion (especially publicly) on that disturbing reality. Like . . . who am I to say anything? The other is that this was a pretty complex story, with enigmatic characters whose relationships with Mott's author are difficult to determine and possibly even open to interpretation. Including too many details would surely either give away spoilers or contribute erroneous interpretations or possibly even both. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

"Apples Never Fall" by Liane Moriarty

I JUST REALLY ENJOYED THIS BOOK. I never wanted it to end, I was enjoying it so much. It was almost like a guilty pleasure, but I just couldn't stop reading, though it's inevitable that when that happens the book eventually ends. And so this one did. But oh, I had so much fun while it lasted! 

Sam and I (purely due to me being influenced by ads) had watched and enjoyed the TV series "Nine Perfect Strangers" last fall, which is based on a book by that title which was also written by Moriarty. So Sam gave me this book for Christmas (or was it for my birthday? they're close enough in time that sometimes they blend together) and what a perfect gift idea it was!

This was the story of Stan and Joy Delaney, recent retirees who sold their highly-successful tennis school a year ago and had since found themselves at loose ends. Their four grown children, each recovering from a childhood as a tennis prodigy, lead adult lives with varying degrees of success and happiness--lives which didn't necessarily match up with what their mother wanted for them. It was a mystery and a family drama infused with humor, but that describes the type of book that would normally make me want to vomit (well, maybe not the mystery part, but definitely the rest of it) though somehow this book evaded that fate. In fact, between the abrupt appearance of Savannah on the doorstep one night in September, contrasted with Joy's unexpected disappearance the following February, I was hooked (and no vomit in the forecast).  

As avid readers, I expect you all know about Chekov's gun? The playwright was known to have repeated on several occasions that if a gun is placed in a scene it must at some point be used. Well, it was not obvious from the very beginning (and that in itself is a good thing), but in Moriarty's book, nothing appeared that didn't later fit in as an integral piece of a very complex puzzle. One might think this could be annoying--having everything explained, nothing left vague, all the loose ends tied up so neatly with a bow--but instead it was so completely satisfying, and clever. The cleverness!! And it was all fair and above-board. There may have been misdirections, but there were no true red herrings.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was telling Sam about it and comparing it to the story of Nine Perfect Strangers. My take at the time was that the two stories were quite similar, with dark themes that somehow all ended happily. But that was before I read the last chapter of Apples

Shudder