My Reading List

I have not been in the mood to read lately.  By lately, I mean, since my Dad died.  I just veg out in front of the TV. But I miss reading.  I miss getting sucked into a story, and now I have a couple of reasons to crack a book.

First, Ted’s aunt and I are both fans of Dick Francis mysteries.  He died several years ago, and his son has taken over the franchise.  Auntie is much better than I am about remembering to watch for a new release.  Well, there is a new release, which she reserved at the library.  She read it and then gave it to me.  So now I have to finish it in the next few days.  It is due on Wednesday, but I’m about 3/4 through, and I expect I will make it.

Pulse is the story of Dr. Chris Rankin, an emergency room physician in England, who is trying to solve the mystery of a well dressed man who died in her care, but without any identity.  Dr. Rankin has demons she is struggling with…anxiety and an eating disorder.  She is trying to get better, for herself, and also for her husband and twin boys.  This is the first Francis book I can remember with a female protagonist.

Second, I heard an interview with an author on NPR, talking about his new book, which sounded interesting to me.  I put the book on hold at the library, not expecting that I would get it quickly.  What do you know, I got it, just a day or two after the other book.  So I have a couple of weeks to read this one.

Solo is a YA novel, about a young man named Blade.  He is the son of a washed up rock star and drug addict, who has his own interests in music.  A family secret comes out that may change his understanding of the world around him.

Third, I started a book that was sent to me by a friend, right before the mystery showed up at my door.  I had to put it aside, because of the time issues with the library books, but I’m enjoying it so far and look forward to getting back to it.

Through the Kaleidoscope is the story of a young woman who moves to San Francisco in the 60s, looking for her father, who she has never met.  (A little familiar maybe, huh?)

Last, Maya gave me a book for Christmas (or maybe my birthday) last year, and I’ve been meaning to get to it.  I think once I get through the other three, I will dive into this one.

Between the World and Me – I know nothing about this book yet.  Just that Ta-Nehisi Coates is very much in the public eye right now, that his new book is getting rave reviews, and that the book above received wonderful reviews and won the National Book Award.  And Maya liked it enough to give it to me as a gift.

Will I finish all of these by the end of November?  I doubt it.  I have the library pushing me to finish the first two relatively quickly, but the others are not a rush.  I am hoping that reading the first two will get me pulled into the second two.  Wish me luck.

A Little Life

A Little Life
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is supposedly the story of four friends, but is instead the story of one broken man and his friends.

It is the story of Jude, a man who has unquestionably had the worst childhood imagined. Orphaned as a baby, raised by abusive monks, who beat and raped him repeatedly, he runs away as a child with one of the monks, who says he will love him as a son. But only a horribly abusive father would do to Jude the things Brother Luke does. And of course, things get worse from there on out, until Jude is about 16, and goes to college.

From that point on, it is the story of Jude’s friendship with 3 fellow students, Willem, J.B., and Malcom. Willem gets some time telling his side of the story, J.B. less so, and if Malcom had more than one chapter I’d be surprised. These four friends finish college and do astoudingly well in life. Jude is a corporate lawyer, who finds the parental love he has always craved by being adopted as an adult. Willem is an actor who starts out in school plays, and by the end of the book is a star of the screen and stage. J.B. is an artist, whose work focuses on his three beloved friends, and whose work is immediately regocnized for how amazing it is. Malcom is an architect, and is amazingly successful. The four of them jet around the world and live a fairly glamourous life, though they deeply appreciate all that they have and never take it for granted. They are somewhat happy, except for J.B.’s descent into drug addiction, and Jude’s inability to recover either physically or emotionally from his childhood.

Jude is easily the most tortured character I’ve ever come across. The abuse he suffered was complete, and for awhile there, every person he turned to for help would then abuse him as well. It’s like he was marked. He had some fairly common survivor issues, where he blamed himself for a lot of what happened to him, and felt that it somehow his own fault. Even in his fantasies, where he changes his fate and thus avoids some of the worst abuses, he is still living at the monestary, being beaten and raped as a small child. It’s horrific.

The book reminded me of nothing more than an opera. So overblown and dramatic. So intricate and detailed. There were long passages when, difficult as the subject matter was, the book really clicked and I enjoyed it. I liked the characters and wanted things to go well for them. By the end, though, it went on far too long for me, and I was relieved to be done with it. I had stopped caring about the characters, which is probably a good thing considering how things turned out. At 720 pages, I think it could have lost at least 300 pages and been a better book for it.

I don’t remember where I heard about this book. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and was at the top of several best seller lists for awhile. I borrowed it from the library, and I’m happily returning it today.

The Mersault Investigation


Image from the New York Times

This man, your writer, seemed to have stolen my twin Zujj, my own description, and even the details of my life and my memories of my interrogation! I read almost the whole night through, laboriously, word by word. It was a perfect joke. I was looking for traces of my brother in the book, and what I found there instead was my own reflection, I discovered I was practically the murderer’s double. I finally came to the last lines in the book: “… had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” God, how I would have wanted that! There was a large crowd of spectators, of course, but for his crime, not for his trial. And what spectators! Adoring fans, idolaters! No cries of hate ever came from that throng of admirers. Those last lines overwhelmed me. A masterpiece, my friend. A mirror held up to my soul and to what would become of me in this country, between Allah and ennui.

The Mersault Investigation is Algerian journalist Kamel Daued’s first novel, the story of the younger brother of the un-named Arab in Camus’ The Stranger. In The Stranger, a Frenchman named Mersault  murders the Arab on  a hot beach in Algiers in 1942.  He is tried for his crime, but convicted for his uncaring attitude about the world, most specifically the death of his mother.   The Mersault Investigation picks up in the current day, with the Arab’s much younger brother (he was 7 when his brother died) telling his story, and to some extent that of his brother, to an investigator.  In this telling, The Stranger was not written by Camus, but rather by Mersault himself.  

The Arab, Musa, was murdered that day on the beach.  His body was never recovered (which makes no sense as in The Stranger the lawyers know how many bullets were in the body), and his family was thus not able to prove that their missing Musa is the same person as the Arab killed on the beach.  The mother lives in constant misery at the loss of her eldest son, and the younger brother (Harun) grows up feeling alone in the world, secondary to his brother, detached from his surroundings.  He tells of the days after the murder, then about a period in 1962, at the time of the Algerian revolution from France, when he is confronted with the murder anew, in unexpected ways.

The story is deftly told, and explores not only Harun’s identity in the shadow of his dead brother, his brother’s identity in the shadow of The Stranger, but also Algeria’s identity and people as well.  

Miscellaneous Stuff

Avo Bagel
Look at that awesome breakfast. Bagel, toasted, with avocado and lemon pepper. That’s it. So delicious. Served with OJ and tea (PG Tips, a bit of milk and sugar). One nice thing about Facebook is that some people post pictures of their food, and you can choose to be inspired by their pictures. I’m not sure I would have come up with this combination on my own, so thank you Facebook!

Then there’s this…the Gluten Free Museum. Famous paintings, with any offending gluten removed. Click the link to see more awesomeness.

Are you a fan of the ‘Little House’ books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder? If so, and if you like knowing the background behind these fictional books, I recommend the newly released “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography“. It’s an amazing amount of research into almost every detail of Wilder’s unpublished autobiography, “Pioneer Girl”. Wilder first put her memories down and tried to publish them as “Pioneer Girl”, which is the story of her early life. The story is not written for children, and has some darker elements than the ‘Little House’ stories. The decision was made that the stories would better be told as children’s books, and Laura and her daughter Rose worked through the same material, and they turned into the ‘Little House’ stories that we all know and love. The difference between reality and fiction is sometimes jarring. That she had a little brother, who died as an infant, I knew. That the infamous Nellie Oleson was a composite of several girls in Laura’s youth, I knew. But that Jack, Laura’s beloved brindle bulldog and constant companion, was actually given away when Laura was 4…that was too much for me, and I thought I was going to have to breathe into a paper bag to keep from passing out.

If you’re looking for a good book to read, I really enjoyed ‘The Precious One‘, by Marisa de los Santos. I’ve read a couple of her other books, and I really enjoy them. They’re light enough to be an easy read, but I love her writing and her lovely use of language.  Without giving anything important away, this is the story of Taisy and Willow, sisters 18 years apart in age.  They share the same father, who is imperious and overwhelming and towers above their lives. They’ve only met once before, when Willow was a baby, when Taisy comes to stay for a short time at the request of their father.  Taisy is determined to find answers to how her father turned out to be the man he is, the kind of man who would leave her, her mother, and brother, and start over with a new wife and daughter.  Willow is focused on her dislike and jealousy of Taisy, and trying to navigate the treacherous waters of High School, after a life of being home schooled.

Ted and I went to see ‘Wild Tales‘, which was in town for about 15 minutes.  We’re fortunate that there’s one theater in town that plays independent and foreign films. I knew nothing about the movie going in, except that I wasn’t interested in any other movies that were playing, and that it was a foreign film. It’s a series of stories with a common theme, and that’s all I will say. Also, fairly dark, but not horrific, and pretty laugh out loud funny in some parts. Ted thought one woman in the audience was going to choke, she was laughing so hard. I’ll be watching for it to come to Netflix or something, so I can see it again.

Whew.   Now you’re all caught up.  I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve posted…I blame my iPad.  I don’t really like the WordPress app on it, so I get frustrated and don’t bother.  For this post, I pulled out my old laptop.  I should do this more often, clearly. I’ll leave you with the knowledge that Maya is now 19, and that we had a lovely weekend celebrating. Also, if you like to laugh, go look at this.

All The Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure is a young blind girl, living with her father in Paris, 1940. Her father is the keeper of the keys at the Natural History Museum, and he builds her a miniature replica of their neighborhood, so that she might memorize the details and learn her way around. When the Germans invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris, for the coastal town of Saint-Malo, where they live with his brother Etienne in their childhood home.

Werner is a young orphan, living in an orphanage with his sister, other children, and their care keeper, a woman who speaks French and tells them stories of France. Werner and his sister discover an old radio, on which they listen enraptured to a French scientist describing the wonders of the world. Werner discovers he has a gift for putting together and repairing radios, a skill that takes him out of his coal mining town and frees him from a life underground.

Nazi fervor sweeps through Germany, and carries Werner along with it, though he is less interested in the goals of the Nazis than he is in his radios and his job of finding illegal transmissions. Along the way, he comes to question his own bravery and morals.

Marie-Laure finds a small role in the French resistance, carrying messages and wishing that she could be reunited with her father, who was arrested and taken away soon after their arrival in Saint-Malo, though not before he has time to build her a miniature replica of the city, so she can once again find her way outside of her door and through the streets.

All the Light We Cannot See travels between Marie-Laure and Werner, travels backwards and forwards in time, and lyrically spins a tale that is lovely, horrid, and suspenseful. I liked this story quite a bit, and I highly recommend it.

Friday Randomness


OK, I know I said I don’t care about baseball, or sports in general, but I must admit I got sucked into this series. The drama of it all captivated me, and the scores kept flopping from one team to the next. First SF kicked KC’s butt. Then KC kicked SF’s butt. Back and forth, and it sometimes felt like you weren’t watching the same teams from one night to the next. After the first game, when SF won 7 to 1, I was kind of disgusted with the local press. It was very smug and sure of SF superiority. Sort of like, “Of course we’re going to win, it’s an even year. That’s what we do.” It turned me off, and I was kind of hoping that Kansas City would teach San Francisco a thing or two. Which they did, the second night, when the score was 7 to 2, with Kansas City winning. Then it looked like SF was going to take the victory, with the next few games either close or SF winning. Until Tuesday’s game, when the Royals kicked the Giants butts, 10 to 0. Ouch. That one was painful to watch, and actually we gave up, took a walk, and did other things. Then there was Wednesday’s game 7, which was a real nail biter of a game. I’ll admit, I did other things while watching. But that 9th inning…Bottom of the 9th, Giants to Royals 3 – 2, a runner on 3rd base, two strikes, GAH. That is the drama of baseball. This guy whacks it hard enough, the game could be over. Or, it could go into a stupid amount of innings, like the game a few weeks ago that went 18 innings, and something like 6 1/2 hours. Blech. But no, the guy hit, Panda caught the ball, the game was over. We squeaked that one, and we learned a bit of humility along the way. Today’s the parade, which means traffic will be hell going into SF today. Glad I don’t commute, and I wish Ted didn’t have to.

I love Facebook. You may have read some of my blog posts about my time in Alaska, and I’ve mentioned my friend Amy Derocher, who lived across the street from us. Well, I discovered a group on Facebook the other day, “You know you’re from Fairbanks when…”, where people go to tell their tales. Mostly they fall into two camps, those who were there in the 50s and 60s, and remember the big flood, and those who harken back to the 80s, and talk about what store is now where another store used to be. I was only there for 5 years, from age 4 to age 9, in the early 70s. So anyway, I posted a link to a blog post I wrote several years ago, and Amy Derocher saw it and commented! Of course, I have her name spelled entirely wrong, both the Amy and the Derocher, but still, how wonderful! So we did some FB chatting between the two of us, and it turns out she lives in Santa Cruz, just a couple of hours from here, and she has a beautiful horse. I think I may have to go down there and visit sometime, and bring some pictures to share. Amazing.

I just started a new book, recommended by blog friend Simon, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, which may have the best first sentence I’ve ever come across. “My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.” So far, so good. I’m really enjoying it.

I’m also really enjoying watching “Call the Midwife” on Netflix. I recently noticed that many many of my Facebook friends were talking about it, how much they loved it, how well done it is, etc. So I thought I’d give it a try. If you haven’t seen it, if you like period dramas, I suggest you watch. It’s post war London, the East End, and there’s a group of nuns and nurses who serve as midwives to the community. It’s an era and neighborhood where there doesn’t appear to be any birth control, where women have baby after baby after baby, even though there’s not really enough money for one or two. There are, quite expectedly, lots of scenes of babies being born, all gooey with their umbilical cords looking all blue and alien. I love it. I love the characters and the story lines. It’s produced by BBC and shown on PBS here in America. The first 3 seasons are on Netflix.

Ted and I went to a movie and book shopping the other day. We saw “Dear White People”, which was very good, but maybe not as good as the reviews might lead you to believe. Still, I liked it quite a bit and I’m glad we saw it. We then went to Moe’s, an independent bookstore in Berkeley, which has been around since 1959. My parents likely went there often in their college days, amongst other places. I found several books I wanted, one of which I bought, Why Teach, a book that seems to conform very closely to my own beliefs about education…that the best major to be is an English major, because that’s where you learn to think and grow and be. (I was not an English major, I’ll admit. International Relations for undergrad, Comparative Literature for my Masters. Comp Lit is very similar to English, but the books you read are not American or English, they are instead from other countries.) That the current university system is doing students no favors by catering to them and praising them and inflating their grades, instead of teaching critical thought.
I also saw a couple of other books that I wanted, but couldn’t afford, so I wrote them down and put them on hold at the library. Better for the bank account, and also because we have little room in our house for books, sadly enough. I have the following books on hold:

  • Nine Inches: Stories ~ Tom Perotta
    I’ve read a couple of other books by Perotta, The Leftovers and Little Children. His subject matter is generally very dark, but I like his writing and am interested to read his short stories.
  • Let Me Be Frank With You ~ Richard Ford
    I read what I think is Ford’s most recent book (until this one), Canada, which I really enjoyed. This one is going back to a character he’s had in other books, Frank Bascombe. I read Independence Day, which has the same character, but I don’t think I’ve read The Sportswriter.
  • The Bone Clocks ~ David Mitchell
    I loved Cloud Atlas, the only other book of Mitchell’s that I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading this one.
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage ~ Ann Patchett
    I think my favorite Ann Patchett book was Bel Canto, though I’ve read a few others as well.
  • California ~ Edan Lepucki
    Now we’re getting to a new author, at least for me. I’ve not read anything by Lepucki before, but I keep hearing really great things about this book, so I’m hopeful. I’m number 75 on the list, so it will be awhile.

  • The Goldfinch ~ Donna Tartt
    Another new author for me. I keep seeing this one on the best seller lists in the Sunday paper, so I thought I’d give it a go.
  • Damage ~ Felix Francis
    This is the newest by Felix Francis, son of the late mystery writer, Dick Francis. Dick Francis wrote dozens of mysteries, all relating to his first love, horse racing. After his wife died, Dick started pairing up with his son, Felix, and they would write stories together. Then when Dick passed away, Felix kept the tradition going. I won’t say I like his writing just as much as his father’s, but really it’s very close, and I do enjoy being a part of that world. I don’t actually have this one on hold, Ted’s aunt does. But she lives in my same town, and she reads quite quickly, so she’ll read it, pass it to me, and I’ll tear through it before it’s due back at the library. Yay!

Speaking of Ted’s Aunt, Sondra, she works as the office manager at Maya’s old elementary school, which is a public charter Montessori school. I used to be on the board of directors there, and when they were looking for an office manager, I suggested they interview her, as they needed someone organized to come in and straighten things up, and Sondra is without question the most organized person I know. She started working there in 2005. Fast forward to today, and Maya has been working at Forever 21, and hating it. Hating that she works until 11:00 on Friday and Saturday nights, dreading working on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday and during Christmas break when her friends are home from college. Ted and I don’t like the thought of her walking around the downtown parking garages at that time of night, either, so we end up picking her up after work. Not fun, since we’re old and don’t necessarily want to stay up that late every weekend. So a few weekends ago, I was having lunch with Sondra, and she asked me if I thought Maya might like to come and work at the Montessori, doing after school child care. Um, Yes Please! Maya loved the idea. She truly wanted OUT of F21, but didn’t want to go from having a paycheck to no money (we stopped giving her an allowance…), and this sounded like much better hours. So she applied, which pretty much meant giving them her resume, and she was hired, based on Auntie Sondra’s good word. Nepotism rocks! So she works 3 days a week after school, and is off work at 6, and has weekends free to study or go out with her friends, no holiday working, all of that. Very good news indeed.

Next week is the elections. All of the pundits seem to be predicting a big win for the republicans in the Senate. I hope not. I haven’t even really looked at my voter guide yet, to figure out how I’m going to vote on propositions and so on. I guess I have my homework for the weekend.

I just got an email from Ted…he met Jacques Pepin today! He has been in San Francisco, recording his new TV Show, “Heart and Soul” for KQED, and was at Ted’s radio station to be interviewed. GAH! I’m so envious. I’ve loved Jacques for years. Remember when he had his cooking show, Cooking with Claudine, where he cooked with his daughter? The show where he cooked with his dear friend Julia Child? Sigh. Why not me? He’s like a rock star in my world.

The Invention of Wings


Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Invention of Wings, starts with Sarah Grimké’s 11th birthday in 1805 South Carolina. As a gift from her mother, Sarah receives 10 year old Hetty (Handful) to be her handmaid. Sarah doesn’t want a handmaid, has been scarred at an early age by the cruelties of slavery, so she decides to set Hetty free. It doesn’t take. So Sarah instead befriends Hetty, tries to be as kind as possible, and endeavors to teach Hetty to read. Unfortunately, teaching slaves to read is illegal, and both Hetty and Sarah suffer for their crime.

Sarah is a bright girl who loves to read, and her beloved older brother spends time teaching her Latin and so on. Her dream is to become a lawyer like her father when she grows up. When her family discovers her dream, they ridicule her and inform her that a woman lawyer is an impossibility. Her future should be to try to find a suitable husband and live a respectable life.

Hetty is a bright girl who watches her mother, Charlotte, suffer for her small defiance. Charlotte is a gifted seamstress, and asserts her humanity in small ways…stealing thread, making a story quilt, selling her creations outside of the family and keeping the money. Hetty also bristles under the yoke of slavery, and while Sarah feels that she is a kind master, Hetty feels their inequality and the difference in their limits keenly.

The story follows Sarah and Hetty for about 35 years. I don’t want to tell too much about the story, because I’d rather you discover it for yourself. I will say that I loved the voices of both Hetty and Sarah. It was sometimes frustrating, looking from 2014, to see the cruelty and brutality of slavery, and wanting to slap them and tell them to just DO SOMETHING to get out of this horrid situation. As if it were that easy.

I hadn’t heard much about the book, but I heard a quick part of a review on NPR while in the car the other day. I had some Amazon credit available left over from my birthday, so I bought it for my Kindle right away. GAH! I had purchased a horrid version, with links throughout taking me to Oprah’s personal notes. Nothing like seeing a page half underlined and blue on the screen to make you want to scream. I don’t CARE what Oprah has to say. So I returned the book and exchanged it for a no-Oprah edition. I’m glad I didn’t give up, because I really loved this book.

Merry Christmas to All!


It’s morning on Christmas Eve.  I was watching Tim Minchin sing “white wine in the sun”, my favorite secular Christmas song by far, so I thought I’d share it with you.   Gifts have been purchased, delivered, and wrapped. Cards and packages were mailed early last week. Cookies have been baked. The house is decorated. Our traditional Christmas morning breakfast of Cinnamon rolls (from a tube) is in the fridge, as well as the ingredients for our contributions to Christmas dinner. Ted is at work, and Maya is still sleeping. I’m not sure I can face the grocery store today, and I didn’t plan a Christmas Eve dinner, so it’s looking more like Chinese take out tonight. Sounds good to me.

I know I have other things I could be telling you, but for the life of me I cannot right now remember what they are.

Oh, I know! How about Utah??? Perhaps it is wrong of me, but I love that Same Sex Marriage is now (at least for the moment) legal in Utah. The Mormon Church there got all involved in California’s ban (since declared null and void) a few years ago, and I’ve always resented them for it.   And how awesome is this picture?
Boy scouts delivering pizza to county workers, workers who are working through lunch breaks in order to serve the thousands of people rushing to get married. In Utah. It’s a Christmas miracle, I tell you.

Also, Ted’s job requires that he join the SAG-AFTRA union, which means that he becomes a voting member for the SAG Awards, and we get to watch a bunch of nominated films for free in the comfort of our own home. Sweet, huh? So far we’ve watched a couple of depressing movies…1st was ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, and next was ’12 Years a Slave’. Both really well done, but not exactly your feel good films of the year. It’s interesting to me how they are delivered…’Dallas Buyers Club’ arrived as a DVD in the mail, while ’12 Years a Slave’ and several others are delivered via iTunes, which I don’t like as much, because we don’t have Apple TV, which means we have to watch it on the computer rather than the TV. Oh well. It’s still fun. I guess I know what we’ll be doing this winter break…watching movies.

I’m currently hooked on the ‘Divergent’ books. I finished the second one last night. The first (Divergent) I got from the library, but the waiting list for the second was months long, so I ordered it for my Kindle, which was actually really nice. I don’t have a lot of experience with the electronic reading, but I liked it. Now I want the 3rd book….I hope Santa’s listening.

I just made an appointment for Thursday to donate blood. Blech. I’m dedicated enough that I do it once in awhile, but I’m not dedicated enough that I do it whenever I’m eligible. Far, far from it. You can donate maybe 6 times a year, but I only muster up the courage once or twice.

Last and most certainly least, I was walking the other day and saw a big beautiful lemon tree in a neighborhood yard. I asked if it would be OK if I were to pick a couple of lemons, and they graciously said yes. While looking for one to shove in the cavity of the chicken that was that night’s dinner, I came across this mutant lemon, and I had to pick it and bring it home so I could show you. The tiny lemons are actually normal sized. Then there’s the one that’s about the size of a grapefruit. And then there’s mutant. Ted thinks it looks kind of like a bird, but I say it looks like it’s giving us the bird, so to speak.
2013-12-20 17.19.59

Merry Christmas to All, and to all a Good Night.

Book Meme

I grabbed this one from Facebook, and I wrote about it there, so if you’re a FB friend, you’ve already read (or ignored) this. I believe I’ve written about all of these books here before, but man, they’re worth it. So I’m writing again. Here’s the meme.

Rules: In your status line, list 10 books that have stayed with you. Don’t take more than a few minutes; don’t think too hard. They don’t have to be great works, just the ones that have touched you.

The Blood of Others ~ Simone de Beauvoir. (something about reading this one and then seeing “Glory” hit me kind of hard back in college.)

Little House on the Prairie ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder. The whole series. If you haven’t read them, or if you’re not me, perhaps you don’t get it. But there is so much humanity, simple goodness and kindness and wisdom here, it’s worthwhile.

The Yearling – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gah, I hated this book. It broke my heart in too many ways. I’d like to not count it, but it stuck with me.

The Bean Trees ~ Barbara Kingsolver. This one forced me to write a fan letter to the author, which I have never done before or since. She wrote back.

Poetry by e. e. cummings. I don’t know the name of a book specifically, but his poetry touched me in many was.

The Dead ~ James Joyce. Wow, what a short story. It starts out seeming silly and perhaps useless, and ends up breaking your heart.

The Road ~ Cormac McCarthy. This one almost killed me, and there’s no way I could face the movie.

Gone With the Wind ~ Margaret Mitchell. Where I learned to flirt and that it’s possible for a woman to be an idiot and still have the heart of a lion.

When Parents Die ~ Edward Myers. I received a few books when my mom died. It was a horrific time, and I suspect that people gave me the books that helped them the most at horrific times in their own lives. This was the one that helped me the most. I’ve (sadly) given it a time or two. I don’t know if it helped or not.

The Tale of One Bad Rat ~ Bryan Talbot. Perhaps the first graphic novel to break my heart.

Americanah


‘Americanah’ is the story of a young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who in college, falls in love with a boy, Obinze. They come from different backgrounds…his mother is a high minded academic, a college professor. Her parents are much more working class, living with the issues of power outages and so on. They fall deeply in love, but amongst the constant strikes in the college, it becomes almost impossible for them to graduate from college, so she moves to the United States, where her aunt has invited her. She is an excellent student and gets scholarships, but still she owes plenty of money on tuition and living costs. She’s suffering. Things get rough.

Then things get better, she gets jobs and lovers and a blog, but in the meantime, she’s lost touch with Obinze, and he doesn’t know why. He travels to England, and has a rough time of it there before being deported.

This was a novel that explored the difference between an American from African descent, come most likely through slavery, and an African living in America, trying to figure out the nuances of race politics, which are ridiculous and horrible and exhausting. Really, truly, exhausting. I suspect that most Americans know that. If we don’t, we really, really should.

I really enjoyed the story a lot, though I did find it a bit bloated in parts. I would read it again, though, and I’m sorry to be giving it back to the library.

Caleb’s Crossing


Just in time for Thanksgiving, I am here to recommend a wonderful novel about pilgrims and Indians, Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. I’m a big fan of her novels, and have not yet been disappointed.

Caleb’s Crossing takes as its inspiration the real story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag Indian living on the island that would later become Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1600s.  Caleb converted to Christianity, and is credited as being the first Indian to graduate from Harvard’s Indian College.  He studied with a local minister on the island before moving to Cambridge.  From this slight outline, Brooks creates a lush story of friendship and struggle.  As a boy, Caleb meets 12-year-old Bethia on the beach, and they become fast friends. Bethia is the daughter of the minister, and it is she who gives Caleb his first book, and teaches him English, while he teaches her Wampanoag.  They enjoy traveling the island together, as much a Puritan girl and an Indian boy can do so without being discovered.  They become great friends, and find that they have many interests in common, especially their love of the island and of learning.

The story is told entirely from Bethia’s point of view, in a diary that she keeps periodically throughout her life. Her inner conflict is between wanting to learn and grow, and her sincere desire to do God’s bidding, all while being tempted by the rituals that she sees the Indians on her island practicing. This temptation leads her to believe that God is punishing her when disaster strikes her family, not just once, but several times.

Bethia craves to learn, to know Latin and Greek and Hebrew, to learn of the world beyond her little island. When her father discovers that she has been picking up Latin by listening in to the lessons he gives while cooking or doing dishes, he forbids her to learn more.  But she listens to the lessons he gives to his pupils, while doing dishes or cooking or other such chores, and she continues to learn.  Eventually, her father learns of Caleb and how bright he is, takes him in as a student, with the goal of sending him to Harvard along with his son Makepeace.  That Bethia cannot learn by their sides is a sorrow to her, but she strives to do whatever it is that God asks.

Writing the story in the first person is an effective device, because it allows us to hear her voice, and to make her voice seem as real as it can to a 20th century audience.  I doubt that the wording is entirely accurate to a learned person of her age, but it is close enough that it gives us a taste.   “Lose” is “loose”, and “savage” is “salvage”.   I really liked this character, and I really liked the book a great deal.  I’ve read 3 other books by Geraldine Brooks, and I’ve loved them all.  Highly recommended.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

After having seen the kerfuffle on YouTube where Reza Aslan took Fox News host Lauren Green to task for her attack of his scholarship, and his daring to write about Jesus while he, Mr. Aslan, is a Muslim, I was intrigued by the book. Most of the interview is Ms. Green looking like an idiot, stressing over and over again that, gasp, he’s a MUSLIM, so how could he possibly write about JESUS? He upbraids her, and explains a bit about how scholarship works, and how as a scholar of ancient religions, he studies Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The most interesting part of the interview, to me, was not the argument between them, but instead when he talks a bit about the historical Jesus, vs. Jesus Christ, and the time and politics in Jerusalem while Jesus lived there.

A quick search will tell you that Dr. Aslan perhaps oversold himself. While he has certainly studied ancient religions, he has done little original research in the field, and is an associate professor of creative writing. I suspect he knew what he was in for with Fox News (you’d have to be stupid not to, and he’s not stupid), and decided to make the most of the situation. He succeeded, and we bought the book. (I’m too cheap to pay full price for a hardcover, but while we were in Portland, Ted discovered that he had a Powell’s gift card in his wallet that had enough on it for that plus another book or two.)

This is where I tell you that, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m not much of a non-fiction reader. I enjoy novels and literature mostly, with the occasional detective story and once in a great while, poetry. But I decided to try anyway.

I found Zealot to be an interesting glimpse into the world of 2,000 years ago Jerusalem. The structure of the economy, of the Temple, of the religion and its adherents, was all new to me. From there, we learn a bit about the life and death of Jesus, and last about the split in the beliefs of the followers of Jesus that lead to modern Christianity. I learned a lot about the history of Jerusalem and the struggle against the Roman empire, and a bit about what different interpretations of events and even phrases might mean.

I had two problems with the book. One is my own, and the other perhaps valid. My own problem was that it was non-fiction, and sometimes, I find that to be boring. This book was no exception. I sometimes found myself interested, and then other times, not the least bit. Sometimes the book would give me information early on, and then repeat it later, which made me wonder if I had imagined reading it in the first place, or if it had merely been introduced in an earlier chapter, but would be fleshed out a bit more later.

The second problem I had was that I found his reliance on the Bible and the Gospels to be frustrating. It seems somehow disingenuous to me that he started out saying, we know very little about the historical Jesus, so much of this was written much later and with specific religious and political motivations, so we cannot rely upon the Gospels much for facts.  But then a few chapters later, he quotes the Gospels again and again and again, and accepts the stories as fact. Which is it? I wanted to ask him to pick a side.

I wonder if my Christian friends would find the book interesting, insulting, challenging, reaffirming, or what. I hesitate to discuss it with any of them, however, because I’m more interested in the historical person, and I’m not sure how that meshes with the religious figure.

Would I recommend this book? If you’re interested in a historic lesson on Jerusalem in the days of the Roman Empire, yes. If you don’t know much about the historic Jesus, OK, this could be a primer. I’d check it out of the library, or at least wait for it to be released in paperback.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

(artwork found on the New York Times website, here)

“They say there are many worlds, all around our own, packed tight as the cells of your heart. Each with its own logic, its own physics, moons and stars. We cannot go there — we would not survive in most. But there are some, as I have seen, almost exactly like our own. . . . And in those other worlds, the places you love are there, the people you love are there. Perhaps in one of them, all rights are wronged, and life is as you wish it. So what if you found the door? And what if you had the key?”

Greta Wells is a woman whose life is falling apart. It is late 1985, and her much loved twin brother, Felix, has just succumbed to the ravages of AIDS. It was a miserable death, and the hole that his absence leaves in her life is unbearable. Her 10-year relationship with her lover, Nathan, has just ended. She cannot bear the pain anymore, and so she goes to a psychiatrist, who prescribes a series of electroconvulsive therapy sessions. “Will it change me?” Greta asks, before her first session. “Not at all, Miss Wells,” he replies. “What has changed you is your depression. What we’re trying to do is bring you back.”

So Greta goes through the sessions, and the impossible happens…Greta is transported to what appears to be an alternate reality, one where she is the same, the people around her are the same, the city and Manhattan apartment are the same, but the time is different. Her first jump takes her to 1918. In this reality, Greta and Nathan are married, and Nathan is away at War. Her next jump takes her to 1941, and again, Greta and Nathan are married, though war has not yet come. In both realities, Felix is there, healthy and alive, but trying mightily to conquer his sexuality. Each jump takes her to one of these times, and brings the Gretas from those times into the same pattern.

Along the way, while trying to figure out if she can fix what she feels is broken in her own reality, Greta learns how much the era in which one lives shapes them, and she starts to suspect that while this Felix and Nathan are very much like hers, they are not the same. And so, mustn’t the other Gretas be different in small yet fundamental ways?

I really liked this book. I tore through the majority of it in one long reading session. I liked the voice put forward by the author, Andrew Sean Greer. I’m thinking I might want to look into some of his other novels next.

Little Bee / The Other Hand

“Little Bee” is the name chosen for herself by a young Nigerian girl running from “the men” who have come to burn her village and kill its occupants, so that the oil field below may be developed.  She takes the name to hide her identity, as her real name would clearly identify her as a member of a particular family, all of whom are supposed to be dead.  Little Bee has lived a happy life in an impoverished village, where there is no running water or electricity, but there is a tire swing and a lot of fun to be had.  When the village is destroyed by the men, she and her sister are able to escape, hiding in the jungle and finding themselves on a beach near a tourist resort.

Sarah and Andrew O’Rourke are a British couple vacationing in that same resort, and decide to take a walk on the beach, outside of the safety of the compound.  There they meet Little Bee and her sister, and the events that unfold change each of their lives in horrific ways that seem unimaginable to a couple that lives in the safety of a first world suburb, or to a teenager from an isolated third world village.

Chris Cleave tells the stories of Little Bee and Sarah O’Rourke in alternating chapters, beginning with Little Bee’s release from the detention center outside of London in which she has been held for the past 2 years, and the suicide of Sarah’s husband, Andrew.  The writing is pitch perfect, and the characters are real and human and each trying in her own way to recover from the encounter on the beach in Nigeria.  They are seeking peace, but as Little Bee says so eloquently, “…when I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge.”

Little Bee was an entirely engrossing story, and well deserves the praise it has received.  I’m not sure why the name was changed from The Other Hand for the U.S. release, or why the cutesie admonishment on the back cover about not telling others what happens, as “the magic is in how the story unfolds”.  Isn’t that true for most books?  Do they expect us to be that stupid, “Oh, that book, isn’t that the one where it turns out on the last page that the husband was really the uncle of the brother?”  I highly recommend it.

Rules of Civility


Graphic found on the New York Times review of the book, here.
The preface of Amor Towles Rules of Civility finds our heroine, Katey, and her husband attending the opening of a photography exhibit in Manhattan, in 1966. The exhibit is of photographs taken with a hidden camera on the subways, some 25 years before. She is stunned to find, amongst all of the other photographs, two of a man she recognizes, Tinker Grey. In the first picture, he is wearing a custom shirt and a cashmere coat, and is clearly enjoying life. In the second, taken perhaps a year later, he looks as though he hasn’t had enough to eat in awhile, and his face is dirty.

We are then taken back to the day Katey met Tinker Grey, and the year of their friendship, when, along with Katey’s roommate Eve, they become inseparable. Katey and Eve are living in a boardinghouse, and trying to make their meager incomes stretch far enough to include some fun, when they meet the very wealthy Tinker Grey in a nightclub, on New Years Eve of 1937. They are drawn into Tinker’s world of champagne and Bentleys, sky high apartments and the best that the world has to offer. As sometimes happens in such circumstances, a bit of a rivalry begins between Eve and Katey for the affections of Tinker. To give more detail would likely be telling too much, so I’ll stop there.

I liked Katey. I liked that she never let go of her morals, surrounded by the silly mores of the super wealthy amongst whom she is now traveling. I liked that she was equally fond of Russian literature, Charles Dickens, and Agatha Cristie. She is intelligent but not a snob, moral but not judgmental, and is clearly trying to find her way in Manhattan as a 20-something.

I really enjoyed Towles writing. He has a lovely style, that pulls you in and makes you feel as though you’re reading literature. I’m not quite sure that you are, but he almost convinces.