Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Reading in Review

This has been a year of quantity, though not necessarily quality.  I read 73 books this year - the most I've read since I started tracking 12 years ago.  Almost half (31) were fiction, with many memoirs (10) and non-fiction (13) titles in there too.  To my chagrin, there were two or three I'd read before though I didn't realize it until the first couple of chapters and couldn't remember the endings anyway.  There were only 11 titles I flagged as recommendations, proving the addage that you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.  My top 5 reads for this year are:

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I was drawn into this story from the beginning and was very impressed with such a young author's imagination.
  • The First Muslim by Lesley Hazleton.  I found this historical account of the life of the Prophet Mohammed a well presented and thoughtful read for our times.
  • The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.  A slim auto-biography that I won't mind re-reading regularly, reflecting on the scale of life, however we are given to live it.
  • Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott.  A funny, on point, realistic example of living every moment with God.
  • Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag.  A classic that tells the story of Norweigan settlers in the Dakota territory.  Beautiful prose and heartbreaking lives.
The year's close brings the total books I've read since the beginning of 2001 to 699.  I was tempted to speed read something just to round off that number, but reality is more honest.  I keep a "TBR" or To Be Read list on my phone for shopping at used bookstores and I'm going to concentrate on those for reading in 2014. I think I made the same promise last year and got distracted with my reading groups, interesting looking titles at the library and "the-only-available-book" conundrum while travelling.  Truth be told, reading is like eating -- I have good intentions of only devouring the most healthy and hearty choices and find both habits are also sources of comfort, diversion and indulgence.  Oh well.

I spend a good part of every day reading other things than books.  My job has me reading and writing about technical solutions and I have a Feedly list of 74 blog subscriptions that I peruse regularly.  I get most of my news online from Google News.  I didn't read anyting on my Kindle (I'll probably get rid of it) and while I listen to podcasts while on the treadmill or riding in the car, I don't listen to audio books.  It's obvious that I love reading.  I plan to be reading until my last breath!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Welsh Family History - John Rowlands (Editor)

As my family well knows (and groans when I mention it) I have become nuts about genealogy.  Both the maternal and fraternal side of my father's family have people from Wales so this was a great tool for learning more about researching those ancestors.

It turns out one of the big problems with Welsh ancestry is that until the mid-1800's the people of Wales did not use surnames consistently.  Instead, they would call a son after a father, e.g., David son of John and his name would evolve into David John or David Johns.  It means that the names in my pedigree (Davis, Phillips) were very common and figuring out who was who can be next to impossible.  At least I got a lot of direction on how, if I ever "cross the pond" in my research, to go about tracking down these branches.

Just reading the multiple essays provided on different genealogical research issues with Welsh ancestry, helped me become familiar with the country and its counties and cities.  I also learned new terminology, like "Interregnum" that sheds light on why my ancestors may have left Wales.  It's just the tip of the iceberg and I feel like I'm just blowing warm breath on it, but I'm getting closer.

Published: 1993  Read: November-December 2013  Genre: Non-fiction

The Wonders of Solitude - Dale Salwak (editor)

This is a collection of prose and poetry on the topic of solitude: the different places it can be experienced, how to find it, how to savor it.  I read snippets of it before bed over several weeks.  It was charming and had quotes from many famous authors and poets.  A nice little reference with an extensive bibliography.

Published:  1995  Read:  December 2013  Genre: Non-fiction

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Angry Conversations with God - Susan E Isaacs

Subtitle: A snarky but authentic spiritual memoir.

This is the autobiographical story of a woman's evolution of faith and belief in God.  The author is an actress and comedian and choses to "take God to couples counseling" to straighten out their relationship when she turns 40 because she sees it as the reason for all the problems in her life.  In the conversations played out in front of her therapist, a former pastor, she unveils her frustrations, anger and disappointment in how her life has taken place and blames God for her problems.  She comes to understand her own role in the relationship and her beliefs.  It's funny, but serious, and gave me thoughts to re-examine in my own life.

Some comments I bookmarked:

"Was it possible that Almighty God was limited not by himself but by his people?  By who was available to help?  It was a hard task to stand outside my life and see it from God's perspective."

[Susan]            "Forgiveness feels like I'm supposed to let the other person get away with it."
[Counselor]      "Forgiveness means you turn the burden of justice over to God.  Let him take it.  You can't                            mete out justice yourself."
[Susan]             "But if I let go, then the losses will finally be real."

The author was raised in a very Christian atmosphere but with parents in an unhappy relationship.  This peek inside her experience as a Christian in the world of Hollywood and the rest of the secular world is a different perspective for me.  I thought the writing style made her struggles to understand God more familiar and removed the lecturing, teaching presentation of similiar attempts at explanation.    I'd recommend it.

Published:  2009   Read:  November 2013   Genre: Auto-biography, memoir

Rules for Old Men Waiting - Peter Pouncey

This was an engrossing read, unfolding quietly, leading the reader to an understanding of one individual's loneliness at the end of life.  MacIver is a recent widow, living alone near a northeast coast, facing a cold winter and a terminal illness.  A former journalist and historian, he embarks on writing a fictional story of soldiers he interviewed in the past.  In spinning their tales, he tells the story of his own life and family and comes to acceptance of the closing of his time.

The story is tightly written and we understand his sorrow and depression that he battles to have meaning and purpose in his life.  He explains at one time when reflecting on a conversation with his wife:

"You know, the cruel thing about depression is not that it makes you see the world darkly....[it's that it] removes all flashes of energy or concentration, ensures that you can never complete anything.  Depression as depth fatigue".

I enjoyed getting inside the old man's head, understanding his life and admiring his courage.

Published:  2003   Read: November 2013   Genre: Fiction

The Silver Star - Jeannette Walls

I really enjoyed the autobiographical novels written previously by this author.  The Glass Castle and Hal Broke Horses were both moving and well written stories of her parents and grandparents.

This is a fictional story of two young girls with a flighty mother who take off on their own to their uncle's home and discover the story of their mother's past.  I didn't like this book as much as her earlier ones.  Unlike real life, the characters are a little to perfect, the story line a little too neatly wrapped up.

I suspect the author draws on her own experience with eccentric parents to create a story of the struggles of young children bullied and abused by adults.   As other reviewers have noted, this book doesn't live up to the author's previous ones.

Published:  2013  Read: November 2013  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dozens of Cousins - Lois Horowitz

I ordered this book specifically to understand the definition of genealogical terminology.  Did you know the difference between second cousins and first cousins, once removed?  Well, the answer was in the this book.

First, second, third cousins, etc. share the same set of grandparents or great-grandparents, etc.

So, first cousins have the same set of grandparents, that is, their parents are siblings.
Second cousins have the same set of great-grandparents; their parents are first cousins, and so on.

"Removed" cousins refer to cousins from different generations.
So, my first cousin's children are *my* first cousins, once removed.  My first cousin's granchildren are my first cousins, twice removed.

The book goes into greater detail and has useful diagrams to understand these relationships. I'll keep it with my genealogical references.

Published:  1999  Read: November 2013  Genre: Reference, non-fiction

The Dante Club - Matthew Pearl

This novel is a murder mystery solved by the members of the Dante Club; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and J T Fields.  The author weaves the attitudes and writings of these poets and publisher with the story from Dante's Inferno.  It makes for an engrossing tale, where I learned history, poetry, and even a little biology.  I enjoyed the way the story exposes the reader to Dante's writings.  The slices of late 1800 Boston history were interesting too.  I didn't solve the mystery until the very end.  A good read.

Published: 2004  Read: November 2013  Genre: Mystery

Friday, October 18, 2013

In Search of our Ancestors - Megan Smolenyak

Subtitle: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History

I am passionate about genealogy.  I enjoy uncovering the mysteries of my family; who they were, where they lived, what they worked at.  Along the way I learn the geography of where they were from and the history they lived through.  I took this along on a recent vacation to re-read before donating to a genealogical society.

The book presents stories gathered for the PBS series but not covered necessarily during the show.  These are inspiring and encouraging tales of family researchers experiencing serendipity when seeking their history.

In re-reading the book (it was a gift from my sister in 2000) I got tips on researching that I'd not noticed in my first read.  I was reminded of "genealogical karma" where when you share a photo or story of someone else, its possible that someone will send something about your family to you.  Such people think of themselves as "memory brokers", getting photos, documents and other memorabilia back to family members. I think I'll have to see if I can find the old PBS series on DVD.

Published:  2000  Read: 2013 (third time, 2000 and 2002 before)  Genre: Short story, non-fiction

Rhapsody Home - John Gould

Subtitle: Or, Reporting Live from Our Last Resort

This is the last memoir of John Gould, a long time columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and an author of over 50 books.  He and his wife moved from their family farm in Maine to an assisted living facility the last years of their lives.  He tells of their experiences with his typical humor and dry wit.  He's funny sharing his struggles with the administration to fix simple things, like getting his window open or getting the soup served hot.  It's a poignant revelation on how we give up more as we age and are in the care of others.

Some passages I enjoyed:

[When telling about being a boy on his Grandpa's farm] At that time I didn't realize that I was learning about getting to be old.  Grampie was old.  And I was new.

What nurses do, and the care and the attention they provide, are might important.  For in the short run, which is the run we have, kindess and peace of mind will prove to be the one comfort that counts.

     As seems to be the pattern lately, I found I'd read this book back in 2005, although in my defense it was before I had brain surgery so maybe it was wiped from my memory!  John Gould passed away in 2003 at the age of 94.

Published: 2000  Read: October 2013  Genre: Memoir

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford

I enjoyed this book.  It was a tender portrayl of love and friendship through a time when some Americans were suspicious and distrustful of their foreign born neighbors.  The main character, Henry, is an infinitely patient middle aged man who reflects back on the early years of WWII and the way the Japanese in America were treated.  His relationships with his father, his wife, his son and his friend are touching and heartbreaking.  Based on true incidents at the time of WWII, this is a book worth reading.

Published:  2009  Read: September 2013  Genre: fiction

Poker Bride - Christopher Corbett

Sub-title: The first Chinese in the Wild West

This book was mis-leading.  It purports to tell the story of a young immigrant Chinese woman who is won in a poker game by a gold rush gambler.  There is no story - it's merely the hook to get the reader to buy the book.  It's really about the Chinese in the west with a lot of disjointed news and historical bits and allusions to the woman but no further details.  I didn't finish it and wouldn't recommend it.

Published: 2011  Read: (but not finished) September 2013   Genre: non-fiction, history

A Separate Peace - John Knowles

When I was about 13, we went back East to visit family.  I remember going to my Aunt and Uncle's home in Maryland and finding this book.  I remember it as one of the earliest "adult" books I had read but had a very fuzzy memory of the story.  I picked up a copy in a used bookstore and re-read it all these years later.

It's the story of two high school age boys in the final year during WWII.  They are anticipating getting into the war, either by enlisting or being drafted.  Their ways of reacting to their potential future and the choices they make in their friendship is the heart of the story.

The book is described as a "coming of age" story and the young boys end the story in different places from where they started in the summer before their last year.   The writing is tight, as if the author thought of just the right word for each sentence.  The characters are detailed and clearly painted.  

I vaguely remember not relating to the book at the time I first read it, it being about boys and all.  After re-reading it, I still don't relate to the relationship between the two, the male bond broken and stitched back.  I suspect when it was published, it resonated with many middle aged men of the time who had served in the war.

Published: 1959   Read: September 2013  Genre: Fiction (classic)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Life after Life - Kate Atkinson

I am giving this book the distinction of "best book read this year".  It is so well written, imaginative, informative, engaging..think I liked it?

Life after Life poses the question, "what if you could live your life over and over until it turned out the way you would hope?"  A baby is born in 1910 in England during a snowstorm and dies; and then she is born again and lives up to WWI; then she is born again and lives during the bombing of London in WWII…and so on.  The author seamlessly weaves the multiple lives into each other.  A phrase or incident from a previous life appears in the story of the next before you realize it.  There's the sense of deja vu for the reader as the protagonist, Ursula, experiences it herself.

In addition to the multi-layers of Ursula's life, the vocabulary and language for each period is authentic. There are facts and experiences of the two wars from the perspective of those living and dying during them.  There are also references to authors, poets, artists and politicians of the time that immerse the reader in the lives of the characters.  

I'm off to check out other books by this author.  

Published: 2013   Read: September 2013   Genre: Fiction

Monday, September 16, 2013

Imperfect Birds - Anne Lamott

A teenager is on a path to self-destruction as her parent struggle to prevent her collapse.

Once again, the author brings us real-life people dealing with messy problems.  Her characters are genuine; they don't have great insights, superb problem solving skills, heroic natures.  They are everyday people dealing the best they can with what life brings.

The main character, Rosie, is a smart good student who "experiments" with various drugs.  The word "experiment" is an understatement.  She tries ecstasy, prescription, marijuana, and unidentified pills provided by her friends and schoolmates and uses them repeatedly.  Her casual attitude is slowly frightening as you realize the extent of her drug use.  She's also successful at hoodwinking her parents because of her good school performance and cavalier lying about her activities.

Her mother is depressed as she deals with mid-life and increasing unease at her daughter's attitude.  She does the typical rationalization and attempts to befriend her daughter which Rosie finds laughable.

Rosie's stepfather sees more clearly the growing problem and has to convince her mother that its serious.
They eventually tackle the problem with an intervention of sorts which the reader is not really sure is a permanent fix.  In the end, the power of family and belief in not giving up or ignoring the problem is the message I took away.

Published:  2010   Read: September 2013   Genre: Fiction

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Help Thanks Wow - Anne Lamott

A little volume where the author discusses her "three essential prayers" with her typical wit and humor.  I liked this quote:

p. 57 [When talking about being grateful for friends and family that have stuck with you over the years] "They say that a good marriage is one in which each spouse thinks he or she got the better deal.."

Published:  2012  Read: September 2013  Genre: Religion

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Crystal Desert - David G Campbell

Subtitle: Summers in Antarctica

I spent several weeks in August reading this book.  I'd picked it up thinking it would be a travel memoir, telling what it was like to spend time in this most remote continent.  However, the author is a biologist and the story is more a unfolding of the natural history of the Antarctic, its inhabitants (penguins, birds, krill, lichen, whales, seals) and the explorers that have sought its shores.  Much of the story bogged down in too much detail for me of the life cycles of the creatures and plants found there.  He barely mentions his fellow scientists or his own feelings living for three summers in such isolation.  He described at one point the laborious preparations required to go outside and dive in the shallow waters of the bay to research its inhabitants.

In the final chapters he traces the history of the whaling industry and its affect on the species of whales.  He also notes in an Afterword how an accord was reached to keep Antarctica open to all countries.

Published:  1992   Read:   August 2013   Genre: Natural History

The First Muslim - Lesley Hazleton

Sub-title: The story of Muhammad

This was a wonderfully written book.  The author tells the life story of Muhammad, from his childhood as an orphan through his revelation from God in mid-life that set him on the path to becoming the prophet of Islam. It ends with the prophet's death in the mid-sixth century and the naming of his successor.

Muhammad was orphaned as a child and was taken in by his uncle.  In his 20's he married an older woman and had four daughters and one son, that sadly died in infancy.  When his wife died many years later, he took many other wives, including two of the Jewish faith, cementing the kinship ties to family and supporters, but never had other children.  He began sharing the revelations he received with a group of followers and eventually they were driven from Mecca to Medina, where the following grew.  Muhammad and his followers had conflicts with the three Jewish tribes in Medina.  He was disappointed the Jews did not embrace his teachings as they were from the same ancestral line of Abraham. Two of the tribes were driven out and the men of the third tribe were killed, which left a lasting animosity between Jews and Muslims.
Eventually he returned triumphantly to Mecca and died there in his mid-60's.

His successor was a source of dispute.  Those who felt that the prophet had instructed them that all they needed was "the Quran and the example of his prophet" - the sunna, literally, the "custom" of the prophet, wanted abu-Bakar, a loyal supporter, to take over after the prophet and become the first caliph.  The followers of this group eventually became known as Sunnis.  Those who felt the prophet had instructed them that all they needed was "the Quran and the people of the prophet's house" backed his son-in-law, Ali. These followers called themselves shiat Ali , "the followers of Ali" which became known as Shia.

I felt I learned so much about the beginnings of the Muslim faith and the person of the prophet, Muhammad in reading this book.  I felt it was written to present him as a person who took his responsibility very seriously and felt called to share the words of God with his fellow man.  I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand a life that has had "almost unparalleled historical importance".

Published: 2013   Read: September 2013   Genre: History

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

Oh my, where to start?  First, if you have seen or plan to see the movie of this book, it is a very poor rendition of the book.  I rented it after I finished reading and the movie in no way conveys the voice or depth of this story.

A mother whose son has committed a terrible crime writes letters to her ex-husband in an attempt to explain and understand why their son turned out as he did.  Her ambivalence at becoming a mother when she had a successful career that took her to travels all over the world lays the groundwork for a difficult birth and a failure to bond with her son.  Her husband's blindness to any flaws in the child puts them at odds over his upbringing.  The boy is a chameleon, reacting ominously to her least command and turning a puppy-love face to his father.  Her growing desperation at her inability to deal with him, her almost prescient gloom that he would bring the family to great suffering has the reader asking - nature or nurture?  Is she a good mother? Are her letters after the fact, too little, too late?

I found it an engrossing read, not one to skim quickly.  There is a twist at the end that came as a surprise to me and I'd enjoy hearing what other readers thought.

Published:  2003    Read: August 2013  Genre: Fiction

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

A short read that may have been a prelude to a later book by the author, Beloved.  In this book, a young girl is given by her mother to a landowner in payment of a debt of the mother's slave owner.  Her life afterwards reverberates with that rejection though her mother, knowing that "there is no protection but there is a difference" made the better choice.  Prose almost like poetry in the writing.

Published:  2008   Read:  August 2013   Genre: Fiction

Monday, August 26, 2013

Blue Shoe - Anne Lamott

I like this author.  She is so real and honest and spot on about real life.  This story is about a woman, Mattie, who is recently divorced, has a declining mother and two confused children and is still pining for her ex while figuring out her life and talking to God for help.  Her life is messy and she makes the wrong choices over and over.  I like the author's observations on life, her spot on portrayal of family relations.  I ended up not liking Mattie and wanting to shout at her to get her act together.  I don't think there was a moral or lesson in the story so much as a picture of how people muddle through.

Published: 2002  Read: August 2013  Genre: Fiction

Last Chance to Eat - Gina Mallet

I picked this up in a used bookstore because the cover had a picture of a happy, laughing child holding a chicken!  The sub-title is "The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World".  It was hard to figure out what the story was about.  The author is a foodie and the first few chapters had recipes mixed in with observations on how foods are being corrupted by corporate food companies, artificial manufacturing of food stuff and other sins of industry.  She discusses eggs, brie, meat, gardening and fish with nostalgia for the ways things were and a warning that we will shortly not be able to taste food as it was meant to be.

Published:  2004 (2006 edition)  Read: August 2013  Genre: Non-fiction

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

This is the story of two people - Paloma, a 12 year old girl who is plotting her suicide and Renee, a 60-something concierge of the building where she lives.  They are both isolated by their beliefs and thoughts about how the world defines their place in it until a new tenant moves in that opens their eyes to other possibilities.

The book's title comes from an observation Paloma makes about Renee's friend and some of the tenants' housekeeper, Madame Michel ..."[she] has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary--and terribly elegant."

Paloma is critical of her family and the world, feeling she is far to intelligent to bear the dreariness of reality.  Renee is also very intelligent yet hides it because she feels it is not appropriate for her position in life.  Both are really very lonely people who are not comfortable connecting to other people because of their own misguided self concepts.

I think the author went overboard in revealing Paloma and Renee's knowledge to make the point that intelligence does not bestow a clear view of reality.  As a result, the characters are annoyingly pretentious. I felt the author was being smug and could have made her point with far fewer words.

The reviewers loved this book, gushing over its irony and wit, calling it elegant and exquisite.  I guess I'm a plebeian.

Published: 2006   Read: August 2013   Genre: Fiction

Hallucinations - Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction authors.  He is a neurologist who writes about our brains and the strange and wonderful things it does.  In this story, he explores the causes and experience of hallucinations.  He differentiates them from dreams as hallucinations occur when we are conscious and we are rarely integrated in them, as we usually are in dreams.

The chapters cover Charles Bonnet Syndrome, sensory deprivation, smell, sight and hearing hallucinations, parkinsonism, migraines, epilepsy, delirium, narcolepsy and a few other experiences of hallucinations.

I was surprised at the number of conditions that include hallucinating and fascinated by the personal accounts of the experience.  I thought it was an engaging and worthwhile read.

Published:  2012  Read: August 2013  Genre:  Non-fiction, medical

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Alexander's Bridge - Willa Cather

Back in 2009 I read the classic by this author, My Antonia, a wonderful story of pioneers in America.  This book is her first story, written in 1912.  It's a beautiful hardback book, with several black and white photos of the times, helping to set the stage for the story.  It tells the tale of Alexander, a bridge builder, as his life unwinds when he reignites an affair of his youth.   At one point he reflects:
"After all, life doesn't offer a man much.  You work like the devil and think you're getting on, and suddenly you discover that you've only been getting yourself tied. up. A million details drink you dry.  Your life keeps going for things you don't want, and all the while you are being built alive into a social structure you don't care a rap about."
The story is not the same caliber as her later works yet it paints a picture of the upper class in Boston at the turn of the century and their struggles with life that are not that different from today.  

I found this book an one of my estate sales in a library that was obviously well loved and carefully cataloged. I'm glad it was saved for this reader.

Publication: 1997 compilation version (written 1912)  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating - Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is my favorite book so far this year.  It is the story of a snail in a terrarium beside the author's bed.  Doesn't sound too interesting, right?  It's a gem.

The author has a seriously debilitating condition and spends most of her time in bed, unable to be up for more than a few minutes at a time.  A friend brings a snail from the woods and she observes its daily habits, eventually seeking out its history and finding great comfort in its presence.  The book explores the biology of gastropods while in the background sharing the mental journey of a serious chronic illness.

I found out about the book from the blog of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and one of my favorite authors.  It has an endorsement from Edward O. Wilson, another author and scientist that I highly respect.

Some quotes I marked:

p.13 "One has to respect the preferences of another creature, no matter its size...."

p. 38 "We are all hostages of time.  We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out.  My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had.  It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose".

p. 40 "Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health."

p. 131 "There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time."

This is a book I will read again.

Published:  2010  Read:  July 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Monday, July 22, 2013

Buddha in the Attic - Julie Otsuka

This is a quiet, short novel that builds in intensity.  I began reading it without much inkling of its content and it took a few pages to comprehend the way the story was being told.  The author uses the real stories of multiple Japanese women who were brought to America as mail order brides in the 1920's and 30's.  The writing tells each person's story in a single sentence, one after the other, so the reader is given a perspective on their shared experiences of being on a ship to America, meeting their new husbands, raising their families, and working and living in the U.S.  One reviewer calls it "a chorus of voices".  I felt I learned more about the Japanese temperament and culture while reading the book.  The story builds to the internmentent of the Japanese during WWII.

There is a memorial outside of Phoenix to the Japanese that were interred near Casa Grande.  After reading this story, I plan to visit and learn more about this sad part of our history.  I also plan to watch the documentary Children of the Camps.

Published:  2011  Read:  July 2013  Genre: historical fiction

Peder Victorious - O.E. Rolvaag

This book is the sequel to Giants in the Earth, the classic tale of Norwegian immigrants to the Dakota's in the 1800's.  In this volume, Peder, son of Beret and Per Hansa, is coming of age as a first generation American.  His struggles with his mother to identify himself as American first, Norwegian second form the core of the story.  Beret is again very prominent, her fear of the American ways and losing her children an ever present challenge.

I've read stories of first generation Chinese, Japanese and others to America.  This one, written while many of their parents were still living, is authentic and heartbreaking.  The author continues to describe the great prairie scenery that paint a vivid picture of the great expanses of grassland and sky.  The importance of the religious community to early settlers is brought out in this story as well.

I would highly recommend the first volume for anyone interested in the history and people of this time.

Published:  1929  Read: July 2013   Genre: historical fiction

Friday, July 19, 2013

Incantation - Alice Hoffman

I picked this up in trade while on vacation because I've read other books by the author and it was a short book, easy to read while traveling.  The story is set in Spain during the 1500's.after the expulsion of the Jews.  Those remaining were forced to convert to Christianity or pretended to do so.  Estrella, the young girl telling the story, finds out her true identity and the meaning of friendship and trust with tragic consequences.

It was told in a dreamy, child's voice, moving from carefree innocence to awareness of the situation in her village and family.  As so often when snippets of history are used as the setting for a story, I found myself exploring the setting and the record of this dark time in Spain's past.

Published: 2006  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction

Little Bee - Chris Cleave

This is a much celebrated story of a Nigerian teen and an English woman's intertwined lives.  It's told in two voices, switching back and forth, slowly revealing their relationship.  It was a times horrific and sad and the humor I felt was overshadowed by the painful experiences shared.  I came to dislike the English woman because she was unable to step out of her life and really understand the girl's predicament. As other reader's noted, she and her husband were "morally flawed".

I finished this book while driving across county on vacation so I didn't mark any passages to share.  Little Bee (the girl) struck me in one passage where she noted that in our world we watch horror movies to be scared because we feel relatively safe while in hers their real life was horrible and frightening.

It is a powerful story and I would even consider reading it again as it is well written and moving.

Published:  2008  Read: July 2013  Genre: Fiction

Giants in the Earth - O. E. Rolvaag

I love going to estate sales.  I always peruse the books and found this gem and its sequel at a recent sale.
It is the story of Norwegians coming to America in the late 1800's and homesteading in the Dakota Territory.
The main character is Beret, a religious, guilt-laden, depressed woman who despairs at building a life in the prairies.  Her husband, Per Hansa, is the opposite, optimistic and enthusiastic about pioneering in the new world.  The hardships and wonders in early America are vividly painted.  The struggles to make a living and establish supportive communities, start churches and resolve differences in culture and beliefs are woven through the story of their lives.

The author was from Norway and wrote the original story in Norwegian and the English translation was made available in 1927.  It is considered a classic telling of the immigrants that built America.

And it's the story of  relationships between a husband and wife, friends, brothers and neighbors.  I enjoyed reading something written so long ago and finding it relevant and inspiring today.

Published: 1924 (in Norwegian)  Read: July 2013   Genre: Historical fiction


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

With a title like that, how could I not pick this book up?  It is the second mystery novel about an 11 year old English girl detective/chemist, named Flavia de Luce.  She's clever and well-read, tossing references to history and literature in her musings about a hanging in her English village.  She has two annoying older sisters and an absent-minded professor for a Father.  She's fascinated with chemistry, thanks to the lab left behind by a long dead uncle.  The story is peppered with experiments and concoctions that makes me want to mix things up in test tubes.  She outwits the distracted adults around her as she pursues the mystery.  I can picture our granddaughter who's close to this age daring to tackle the challenge.

The title is from a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh to his son.  It's one of many allusions to classic literature that can be found throughout the story.  I liked the droll comments shared with the reader as Flavia reveals her true thoughts while maintaining the outward appearance of a child to the adults around her.  I smiled a lot reading it, and chuckled a few times.  A quick summer read.

Published:  2010  Read: June 2013  Genre: Mystery

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How to Want What You Have - Timothy Miller

subtitle: Discovering the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence

This book has been on my TBR for years.  I'm not sure what prompted me to add it to the list, probably a recommendation from one of the many blogs I follow on simplicity.  It took me a couple of months of picking it up and wandering back to it until I finally finished it.

The author is a clinical psychologist with experience with many different settings and people.  He practices "cognitive psychotherapy" which holds that emotions and behaviors originate from thoughts, which originate from beliefs.  Thoughts are often repetitive and illogical and beliefs are often incorrect. Those that produce unhappy feelings and unwanted behaviors are essentially bad habits.  So, change your thoughts, correct your beliefs and you'll be happy.  At first, the psychobabble put me off but I kept reading.

The key message is that you can want what you have by practicing three things: Compassion (Love), Attention (Humility) and Gratitude (Thankfulness).

Love, he notes, primarily refers either to kin altruism or reciprocal altruism.  It's a big advantage in life to have a big loving family and to enjoy good relations with all of them, that's kin altruism.  It's also a big advantage to have many friends that will help and support you though there is more expectation of reciprocating.  Romantic love, he says, is a specialized form of reciprocal altruism. That viewpoint gives me insight into how important family and friends are for happiness.

Compassion is the intention to think and act as if you are no more entitled to get what you want than anyone else is.  Practicing compassion can be as minor as recognizing this while standing in a long line and not getting frustrated (you are no more important than anyone else in line, that hit home with me!).  Compassion is as major as recognizing that "this person ultimately wants about the same things that I want, for about the same reasons, we differ only in the strategies we choose and the opportunities and talents available to us." It means no one is absolutely entitled to get what he wants, no one deserves pain.No one can ever be absolutely sure that he is right and his adversary is wrong.  Others feel about the same way I do and justify their methods for getting what they want the same way I do.

Attention is being present, acting as if every action is important.  Attention replaces obsessive thinking and worry.  Attention is avoiding unnecessary value judgements about people and your experiences.  This is a bit of a challenge for Western minds not used to being in the moment.  Paying attention to feelings, going with them, facing the fear and being still with it and it will ease.  Calming the insistent ruminating thoughts and recognizing the here and now.  There is nothing that can be done about the past and the future isn't here yet.

Gratitude is the third component.  He emphasizes that gratitude can't be forced and recommends recognizing ungrateful thoughts and replacing them with small gratitudes.  It works!  Being grateful for something in the moment brings greater gratitude.  Being thankful leads to greater feelings of gratitude.

The book concludes with an explanation of how these three practices interact and reinforce each other.  He explains how to use meditation, beginning with small increments of time, to practice all three. This may stay on my shelf for a second read in the future.

Published: 1995  Read: June 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, psychology

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Maya's Notebook - Isabel Allende

I love this author.  I've read almost all her books and enjoy her storytelling.  This one is no exception.
This is the story of a young teen who loses her way after her grandfather who raised her, dies.  Her grandmother sends her away to the islands off of Chile to hide and recuperate.  The story is funny, tragic, horrifying, encouraging, honest and hopeful.  Told in the first person, the voice is fresh and frank.  Some quotes:

p. 176 - [on insomnia] "..at night...I get attacked by my lifelong enemies, sorrow, loss, humiliation, and guilt."

p. 181 "Happiness is slippery, it slithers away between your finger, but problems are something you can hold on to, they've got handles, they're rough and hard."

p. 319 "...love makes us good.  It doesn't matter who we love, nor does it matter whether our love is reciprocated or not or if the relationship lasts. Just the experience of loving is enough, that's what transforms us."

p.  406 "Intimacy needs time to mature.....It's a slow-growing plant."

p. 513 "An addiction to love won't ruin your health or your life...but you need to learn how to distinguish between the object of your love, and the excitement of having your heart opened."

p. 521 [on grief at losing someone] "...it was not a question of replacing her, but of trying to live without her.  That affection is inside you, Maya.  You can give it to others..and what's left over you can give to me."

A great read and another good book from a favorite author.

Published: 2013  Read: June 2013  Genre: Fiction

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Empty Cradles - Margaret Humphreys

A friend in one of my book groups gave me this book to read.  It reveals the history of the British empire's deporting of almost 150,00 children to other countries from the 1920's until 1967.  The story is told by the social worker in Nottinghamshire who learns of the program when asked to find the parents of a woman who comes under her care.  She discovers that after WWII, children in the care of the government and charitable organizations were sent to Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia to populate these far corners of the empire with "good white British stock".  She later learned the program was also conducted in the 1920's and 30's with the export of children to Canada.

The children were in most cases told they were orphans and were going to foster homes.  In reality, they were often sent to institutional settings in the other country, without their parents knowledge, to relieve the government and the charitable organizations of  their overburdened family assistance programs.  Horrific stories of abuse, loss and despair are told to illustrate the effect of the policy on the children and their families.

The arrogance of the English  and Australian governments and the charities involved is clearly shown in quotes from memos authorizing the program.  To grow up without any family, not knowing your history or heritage was heartbreaking.

Two television broadcasts were produced on the program, the documentary, Lost Children of the Empire, in 1989 and the drama, The Leaving of Liverpool  in 1991.  A movie was also recently released called "Oranges and Sunshine".  The author founded "The Child Migrants Trust" to fund research and provide support to families looking to find their roots and deal with the effects of their deportation.  Her organization manned phones during the broadcasts and had victims and their families calling until early in the morning.

I felt I gained insight into the ways a social worker cares for people, how they are skilled at listening and being accepting of the person's feelings.  The author says at one point describing her encounter with an adult that was sexually abused as a child while in one of the institutions in Australia:

"...and then suddenly there is a programme on the television and he somehow finds the courage or the anger to come and say "I'm giving you this.  I've carried it for long enough, I'm giving it to you now."  It's no good sitting there saying I don't want it.  You take their baggage because you know its too heavy for one person to carry through a lifetime. "

A shameful history for Britain and a sad and moving story.

Published:  1994  Read: June 2013  Genre: Non-fiction, history

Annie John - Jamaica Kincaid

I don't remember where I heard of this book but it was on my TBR list and I picked it up at a local used bookstore.  A young girl grows up from someone very attached to her mother and her whole world being her home to leaving for college in another country.  She slowly develops her independence, finding her own views on life and other people.  The story takes place in Antigua where Annie is a native made to conform to  British customs.  The writing could almost be considered for young adults, told in the child's voice, its simplistic.  It did not leave much of an impression.  I found from reading reviews it was assigned reading in school for many young people.

Published: 1983  Read: May 2013  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Uncle Tungsten - Oliver Sacks

Subtitle: Memories of a chemical boyhood

I've been reading the non-fiction of Oliver Sacks for many years.  He is  neurologist and writes about how our brains work or in some cases don't work.  He's probably most well-known as the author of Awakenings, his memoir of treating victims encephalitis with L-dopa, that was made into a movie with Robin Williams.  I highly recommend any of his books for a layman's understanding of the miracle that is our brains.

This book is the story of his early childhood, growing up in England during WWII.  He was fascinated with chemistry and up until age 14, the story chronicles his learning and experiments.

I enjoyed this book very much.  I re-learned what little chemistry I remembered and marveled at the evolution of a young child's learning of a complex subject.  Most impressive is the atmosphere of learning in his household.  Every adult in his family and his older brothers encouraged his curiosity, answering his questions, demonstrating the properties of chemicals and never treating him as incapable of grasping the information.  I felt the story provided a model for exposing young children to science and math and letting them learn through exploration and experimentation.

Sacks' parents were both doctors and his one Uncle manufactured tungsten light bulbs, among other products.  Like his two brothers, Oliver was expected to become a doctor and so at puberty turned to biology and the medical sciences.

Some chosen quotes I noted during reading:

p. 27 "Auntie Len always delighted me by showing me all sorts of botanical and mathematical pleasurs.  She showed me the spiral patterns on the faces of sunflowers..and suggested I count the florets in these...[and] pointed out that they were arranged according to a series...this series, she said, was called a Fibonacci series."

p. 48 [on experimenting with light] ...a material that would shine with special brillance...was calcia - calcium oxide, or lime.  This "limelight", Uncle Dave said, was discovered in the 1820's and used to illuminate the stages in theaters for many decades".  Hence "being in the limelight".

His ongoing experiments with chemicals revealed the structure of the periodic table and led to his grasp of atomic weight, atomic number and the elegant order of the elements.

If ever there was an example of encouraging learning in a young mind, this book provides it.

Published: 2001  Read: May 2013   Genre: Memoir

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Six Months Off - Hope Dlugozima, et. al.

I bought this a long time ago before I was laid off from my full time corporate job when I was burned out and looking for alternatives.  Be careful what you wish for!  It's touted as "the sabbatical book" with advice on how to get, plan, enjoy and return from a sabbatical.  I skimmed it again recently to see what advice might be applicable to my future retirement.

One suggestion that I took away was to look to do something that would have future value.  They recommend this for returning to work and I took it as thinking about doing something in retirement that would give back - to family, friends, my community.  And, of course, would have future value for the future me!  Taking care of my health more aggressively, doing meaningful things, not time killers.  Because of health issues in my past, I don't want to waste time watching TV or surfing the web, though I'm guilty on both accounts.

Another idea I liked was when they talked of traveling with your spouse or others.  They suggested taking turns traveling in each other's "style" so each person gets a chance to do things their way.  Freeways vs. backroads, hotels vs. campgrounds, fast food vs. restaurants are just a few examples.

Though some places may no longer be operating, there were several learning communities listed that looked interesting (Cummington Community of the Arts, MA; Cottages at Hedgebrook, WA; Foundation for Field Research, CA; Insight Meditation Society, MA; Desert House of Prayer, Cortaro, AZ [in my backyard!]; Ferry Beach Unitarian Camp, ME; Wrangell Mountains Wildlands, CA).  I enjoy the immersion in an experience with others (like my Grand Canyon river trip).

There was a whole chapter on negotiating that could be applied to any negotiation:
1) ask for everything
2) give up lowest priorities first
3) be a problem solver
4) don't sacrifice too much too soon
5) give yourself time to think
6) and negotiate to keep negotiating...all points I'd learned somewhere but worth repeating.

The author, Hope, went on to work on the WebMD website and now works on Mother Nature Network.
Guess those sabbaticals work!

Published: 1996   Read: May 2013 (again)  Genre: Non-fiction, self-help

Attracting Butterflies and Hummingbirds to Your Backyard - Sally Roth

In April I spent a week at one of my favorite getaways - John C Campbell Folk School.  I took a class on pollinators because I wanted to get outside each day.  This book was one of the ones recommended for the class.  Some take aways from the book:

Hummingbird feeder recipe - 1 part plain sugar (or superfine sugar) to 4 parts water.  Boil water first (duh, I was heating sugar up in cold water) and store any leftover in the refrigerator.

Saucers of stone water for butterflies - Use a clay plant saucer filled with river stones and gravel and cover just below top of stones with water.

Butterfly bait Mash 3-4 overripe banana in a bowl, then put in a bucket with 1 bottle of molasses or corn syrup and 1 pound of brown sugar.  Pour one bottle of beer over mixture.  Put in shade to ferment for a day or two then "paint" on a tree trunk or fence post near eye level or paint a trail around the year; re-paint when it dries up or stops attracting butterflies.

Does that sound just awful?  I have to try it, I'm thinking it will attract something other than butterflies!

Published: 2001  Read: April 2013  Genre: Non-fiction Gardening

Sunday, May 26, 2013

So Brave, Young, and Handsome - Leif Enger

I don't know what I expected when I got this book. For some reason I thought it was about war and soldiers.  Instead, its a tale of the West, maybe the 30's, when a one-hit author, Martin, leaves with a mysterious neighbor, Glendon, to redeem Glendon's past.  In their travels we learn about love and loss, regret and forgiveness.  Toward the end, Glendon observes:

"It's peculiar, to reach your destination.  You think you'll arrive and perform the thing you came for and depart in contentment.  Instead you get there and find distance still to go".

 Published: 2008  Read: May 2013  Genre: Fiction

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Finally, a wonderful read!  The story of the lives of people in a small town intersecting with the main character, Olive, is told as a collection of short stories.  I actually didn't realize that was the format until I'd almost finished the book, as the author weaves the lives of her characters together seamlessly.

Olive is all of us, in one way or another.  She has her good traits and her flaws and is aware of some and not others.  She is kind and boorish, listener and lecturer, loving and mean-spirited.

One story referenced the poet John Berryman, who I'd not heard of and quoted a line "...or all my life I'll suffer from your anger" that I liked.

Olive is so hopeful despite her misgivings of other people.  When she's invited to help her son and his wife she "...felt something she had not expected to feel again: a sudden surging greediness for life.  She remembered what hope was...that inner churning that moves you forward, plows you through life...forward to a place new, and where she was needed.  She was asked to be part of her son's life."

It is a story of how we are all our lives are interconnected.

Published: 2008  Read: May 2013  Genre: Fiction

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

It's Fine By Me - Per Peterson

I picked this up at the library because I'd read the author's other book, "Out Stealing Horses".  This was a strange little story and in the end, I didn't enjoy it very much.  The writing was restrained to the point where there's never a release.  It's the story of a young boy struggling to get by in life and deal with the relationship with his father.  Early on the book, "Martin Eden" by Jack London is recommended to him to understand "what it takes to toil and sweat for the things you want" and he does toil mightily trying to be grown up when he's still a kid.

Published: 1992  Read: May 2013  Genre: Fiction

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Influenza - John Barry

Sub-title: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history

My good friend Katherine recommended this after seeing I'd read another of this author's books, Rising Tide.  It's the story of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people and possibly as many as 100 million people worldwide.

The author weaves the evolution of modern medicine in America and the politics of enforced patriotism during World War I to set the stage for the devastation of the disease.

In the late 1890's, medicine in America was finally emerging from the dark ages.  John Hopkins Medical School was founded and medicine began to have standards for education levels and training, rising to the level of a true scientific discipline.  The early medical scientists and researchers were pioneers in virology.

The author explains how the influenza virus attacks the body and why it is so deadly and constantly requires the development of new vaccines.  In the pandemic, it was particularly lethal to young adults (18-30) because their immune systems launched massive attacks against the virus that left debris in the lungs leading to pneumonia and death.

He also portrays the political climate leading up to America getting into WWI.  President Wilson was adamant that this was a righteous war and there would be no dissent.  Young men were drafted and trained on an enormous scale, leading to crowding and dispersion that was the perfect petri dish for spreading the flu.

Once again, Barry paints a picture of the time and place before revealing the event.  The virus eventually weakens as it is passed along and after a time subsides.  It is quite possible that a new pandemic could occur  again in the world.

Published: 2004  Read: May 2013  Genre: History

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Open Heart - Elie Wiesel

This is a very short story of the author's experience of open heart surgery at 82 years old.  He is of course,the renowned author of "Night", his story of surviving the Nazi death camps.  Having recently read Proof of Heaven about near-death experience, I was intrigued to read of Wiesel's.

His anxiety before going into surgery and fear that he may not see his wife and son again, that he may die is palatable.  I have had several surgeries yet I don't remember thinking I would not be waking up shortly and would experience a quick recovery.  His perspective at 82 is a lesson.

He explains that before being anesthetized,  before "giving up his soul", if he has no time to prepare, a Jew must recite a short prayer and he stops the doctor to say one to himself beforehand.  He is surprised that he is afraid of death, after all he has experienced in life. He reflects that "I learned that, sadly, when the body becomes a prisoner of its pain, a pill or an injection is more helpful than the most brilliant philosophical idea."

He is deeply grateful when he learns the surgery went well in recovery.  He's deep love for his son who is at his side reminds him of the scripture "you shall chose life" and reflects on his life as he recuperates in the hospital.  He questions if he has done all he could with his life, in his writings, his teachings and the humanitarian foundation he founded.  He reflects that his body is still teaching him things about himself .  He reiterates that "I still believe in man in spite of man".

Finally, he asks "is it possible to come so close to the end without something essential changing in us?  Has my perception of death changed?" and answers, "yes" and then admits they he has remained much the same.  He still chooses gratitude over anger and "goes on breathing from prayer to prayer".

I found this reflection much more meaningful than that of the neurologist in Proof of Heaven because it reaffirms a faith chosen every day, despite reasons not to, rather than one adopted in crisis.

Published: 2012   Read: May 2013   Genre: Memoir

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Weird Sisters - Eleanor Brown

Oh, this was a fun book!  I ran out of reading material on a trip home from North Carolina a couple of weeks ago and picked this up in the airport, seeing as I'm the oldest of four sisters, I figured I'd relate.  It was a good read.  Three sisters return home, each with their own issues.  Their father is a Shakespeare scholar and the book is peppered with quotes that fit the story.  They are all avid readers in their 30's who have difficulty communicating with each other face to face and sharing their life struggles.  I really enjoyed the way the author weaves in the Shakespeare references (the girls' names are Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean) and Cordelia (Cordy)).   A great distraction for a plane ride home next to the bathroom with a baby and a 4 year old and their mother in the seats beside me!

Published: 2011  Read: April 2013  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Proof of Heaven - Eben Alexander, MD

subtitle: A neurosurgeon's journey into the afterlife.

I read this for one of my reading groups.  It's the story of a doctor who gets ill and almost dies and experiences the afterlife.  This author has credentials in spades as he is a highly educated and experienced neurosurgeon.  In the end this gets a little weird and the terminology just sounds hokey, but to his credit he admits this.  Reading it makes me wonder what the stories are in other (non-Christian) cultures for near-death experiences.  I'm curious why he quit Harvard and moved to Virginia.

p. 117 - Physical life is characterized by defensiveness, whereas spiritual life is just the opposite.

p. 153 - Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, 2007.

p. 162  must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.  Albert Einstein

p. 170 Not only was my journey about love but it was also about who we are and how connected we all are - the very meaning of all existence.  You are loved.

www.Eternea.org resource is his website.

p. 181 reading list - Ring, Kenneth and Sharon Cooper.  Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind.  1999.  I'd be interested in reading this as my father is blind.

Published: 2012  Read: April 2013  Genre: Memoir

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Mourner's Dance - Katherine Ashenburg

Subtitle:  What we do when people die

This is a somber book that the author researched and wrote after her daughter's 25 year old fiance was killed in a car accident.  Since knowing about something makes it less frightening to me, I've read several books on death and dying.

The author explores the history of how western civilization, primarily, has mourned.  She discusses grief symbology, burial practices, mourning attire, and some of the old practices in the 1800-1900's of the grieving.   Some examples:

-- gravestones had carvings of skulls that evolved to add wings and then to have the skulls turn into cherub faces
-- Forest Lawn in Los Angeles was patterned after Mount Hope in Boston and Mount Auburn cemeteries which were the first of the cemeteries designed for visiting as a landscaped attraction.
-- men's grief is typically "instrumental" while women's is intuitive; that is men "do" something in response to grief where women will release their feelings.
-- The term "widow's peak" to describe a "V" shaped growth of hair at the top of the forehead originated from the pointed bonnets worn in mourning from Mary Stuart's time through the death of George VII.
-- Post mortem paintings and photos, jewelry, and quilts were ways of mourners to remember the deceased.

The author used the reactions of her daughter and her fiance's parents to illustrate some of her points.  I couldn't help but wonder how they felt about being discussed in her book.

Published: 2002   Read: April 2013   Genre: Non-fiction

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Oh My Stars - Lorna Landvik

I was traveling last week and picked this up at the John C. Campbell folk school in their circulating box.

A young girl whose mother deserts her and whose father despises her for it, loses a part of herself and sets off to find an even better part.

Set in the 1930's and 40's Violet Mathers has no self confidence, understandably so.  She meets a guileless young man, Kjels, who gets her involved in his band as their manager with his friend Austin, a black guitar player and Austin's brother, Dallas.  their lives and story are introduced as reminisces by Violet and then told as they unfolded.

I liked the style of writing and the gentle, heartfelt story that dealt with life's sorrows and triumphs equally.  The contrast of Violet's dysfunctional family background and the loving, caring family of Kjels explores how people can become bitter or be loving.  Highly recommended.

Published: 2005   Read: April 2013  Genre: Fiction

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Twig - Elizabeth Orton Jones

Do you have some favorite books from when you were little?  I don't remember how old I was when I first read this book (or had it read to me).  I remember the pixie looking girl and that the story was magical.  Something had stuck with me all these years.  I ordered it on a whim and read it in a couple of nights.

Twig is a little girl who lives with her parents in an apartment in a 4-story building.  There's a barren backyard she plays in and where she meets Elf.  The story tells of her adventures of an afternoon with Elf and Mrs Sparrow and other inhabitants of this special world she imagines.

I enjoyed revisiting the story and the kinder, gentler world of a child.  I'll definitely have to read it to someone else soon.

Published: 1942  Read: April 2013  Genre: Children's Fiction

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

I realized about halfway through the first chapter that this book was familiar and when I'd finished it on a recent road trip I check my archives and yes, in fact, I read it back in 2008.  It was worth another read.

A young woman is contacted by a hospital to pick up her great aunt that she didn't know existed.  Esme has been in a psychiatric hospital for "61 years, 5 months and 6 days".  It's a poignant story of a young girl who is different being shuttered away and forgotten at a time when your father or husband could send you away.

The story goes back and forth between Esme telling her story in memories and Iris, her great niece learning about her while trying to live her own life.  The contrast of a modern woman's freedom and the restrictive upbringing and expectations placed upon Esme are delicate counterpoints that draw you in.  Iris's mother and Esme's sister, Kitty/Katherine, is now in a nursing home with Alzheimer's and her partial memories add to the story's unfolding.

The author references a couple of books, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980's by Elaine Showalter and Sanity, Madness and the Family by R.D. Laing that I think I'll pursue.

On another note, I'm going to start carrying my archived "reads" with me so I stop mistakenly buying books I've already read.  Sheesh.

Published:  2006  Read 2013 (and previously in 2008)  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood

I read "Handmaid's Tale" many years ago and since then have been tempted to read more by Margaret Atwood.  I tried "The Blind Assassin" and didn't like it.  But did I learn? No.
I heard a the Arizona Origins presentation that she was considered a science fiction writer so I thought, I'll try again.

This book teases throughout as to what has happened to civilization such that the main character is the only normal human left.  The "reveal" is a bust and not worth slogging through in my opinion.  The author extends the effect of many of today's technologies to predict a doom and gloom future that gets us back to where we started.

Maybe it would have had a bigger impact if I'd read it when it came out in 2003.  Or maybe, I just don't like her endless detail about nothing.  On to something better I hope.

Published: 2003   Read: April 2013  Genre: Fiction (with a futuristic spin)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Bonnie - Iris Johansen

Finished up the third book in this trilogy.  It was a Christmas present that I've now finally read after getting through the first two.  A nice wrap up of the story line.  I still found the book to be mostly dialog with very little storytelling.  Everything happens in a very short time (a week?) and like with most mysteries, I scanned a lot of it to get to the conclusion.    I never really cared very much for any of the characters, they were not very believable with their super deductive reasoning and convoluted relationships.  And the bit of "supernatural" was sappy to me.  That's it for the first quarter!

Published: 2011  Read: March 2013  Genre: Mystery

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Quinn - Iris Johansen

This is the second book in a trilogy about a forensic artist who's daughter disappeared.  The first book told about Eve, the artist and her husband, John Quinn, a former special forces type guy and her friend, Catherine, CIA agent.  We all have friends and relatives like that don't we?

Anyway, this book is about John and fills in on his life and relationship with Eve.  All three are still chasing bad guys with implausible timing and deductive reasoning.  No matter.  This time the dialogue is better and there's a bit more story in between.  I finished it up in a couple days in the desert at night while camping, much better than TV or chores and a pleasant escape for a few hours!  On to the third (and final) volume next month.

Published: 2011  Read: March 2013  Genre: Mystery

Traveling Mercies - Anne Lamott

I had heard of this author in passing and was given this book to read from a friend.  It's a memoir of growing in faith, surviving bad choices and loving every day of life.  The author writes about her growing up in California with a writer-father and lawyer-mother who were at odds with each other a lot of the time.  She has a quirky sense of humor and consults with God on her situation, thoughts and feelings just about every moment of the day.  Some quotes I marked:

[About priorities] "How much longer am I going to think about my hair more often than about things in the world that matter?"

[About her friend Nina, I liked this because "Howard" was my last name] "She loves God in the guise of kindness and nature, although she calls God "Howard," as in "Our Father, who are in heaven, Howard be thy name".

[When stuck in traffic] "I do believe that God is with us even when we're at our craziest and that this goodness guides, provides, protects, even in traffic."

She's an imperfect person in an imperfect world, surviving on faith in God and sharing love with others.
I will be seeking out her other books.

Published: 1999  Read: March 2013  Genre: Memoir

Saturday, March 16, 2013

My Detachment - Tracy Kidder

I've liked Tracy Kidder's writing since I first read  his book "The Soul of a New Machine" back in the 80's about the dawn of the computer age and got hooked on computers.  His "Mountains beyond Mountains" that told the story of Dr Paul Farmer's humanitarian efforts was a great read too.

This book is a memoir about his time as a lieutenant in the Army in Vietnam. He was an intelligence officer and didn't get into fighting so his memoir is not so much about the horrors of war.  Instead, he reflects on what he learned about being a leader, though he admits to having been a poor one. His story recalls for me how very young most of the soldiers were in that war, much like today's.  Through the story, I learned a little about his life and his time in college before joining ROTC, mostly to impress a girl he desired but never really possessed.  There's a dreamy quality to the narrative, a note of regret and nostalgia for his youth and in the end, a recognition that there are parts of his personality that have not changed. It gives the title double meaning. A brief peek into an author who reveals others so well.

Published: 2005  Read: March 2013  Genre: Memoir

Monday, March 11, 2013

Mrs. Kennedy and Me - Clint Hill

Another suggestion from one of my reading groups that I devoured in a couple of evenings in March.  I delayed posting this review until after the reading group discussed it.

Clint Hill was the secret service agent assigned to Jackie Kennedy from her first days as the first lady of the United States until a year after her husband, President Jack Kennedy's death.  He was adopted at 3 months of age by a loving Lutheran family and grew up in North Dakota with no experience with the rarefied lifestyle of the Kennedy's.

His gentlemanly demeanor and tremendous respect for the woman and her role were evident and a welcome respite from the gossipy, mud-slinging stories of other memoirs.  This man is one class act and unfortunately a dying breed.

I was struck by how much time she spent away from the White House.  I had not remembered her children that had died in infancy nor realized that her last child died only 4 months before her husband was assassinated. I did recall our nation and the world's fascination with her and her lifestyle and the Kennedy family.  Hill's story captures that feeling and takes me back to that time.

I clearly remember where I was the day Kennedy was shot and the reactions of my mother and other adults at the time.  Reliving those events from the author's perspective brought emotions of sadness and longing for what seemed a time when the presidency was magical and full of promise.  I wonder if young people today will have a similar view of the Obama presidency.  Maybe it just reminded me of a time when I felt I had passed from one phase of childhood to another, when I realized my parents could be shaken and hurt by something much larger than I could imagine.

Published: 2012  Read:  March 2013  Genre: Memoir

The Island of the Mighty - Evangeline Walton

I've had this first book of this fantasy tetralogy on my TBR list for a long time and can't remember where I heard of it.  I picked up this volume in a used bookstore in Sedona last fall where it was sold as a collector's item and it being the first one of the series to be read, I was able to begin the collection.

The stories are "a retelling in novel form" [NY Times Review] of the old Welsh stories dating from medieval times called the Mabinogion. This volume tells of a time when family lines descended from women (the mother right) and kings and rulers had magical powers to read minds and change their shape as told in druidic legends.  This story explores the power of love and hate, sibling rivalry and the consequences of our actions.

The fascinating perspective to me is that the author wrote this book in 1936 and it received little notice until it was rediscovered in the 1970's and became a hit, presumably when fantasy novels were promoted to the youth of the time.  I gather from the reviews that it was unique in interpreting the ancient stories and making them accessible to the public.  The author J.R. Tolkien made use of the legends in creating his stories of kingdoms of long ago.

Walton was a Quaker, well-educated and a serious student of the Welsh mythologies who moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1946. She had been treated with silver nitrate tincture for an illness as a child which left her with a gray cast to her skin, adding to her appeal to sci-fi fans.

I wanted to read the series too because I have ancestors who were Welsh on both my father and mother's side and I'm speculating that these stories may provide some insight into myths they may have grown up with in their country.

The pronunciation of the characters names are a mystery to me; Math, (with an upside-down "v" over the "a'), Gwydion, Arianrhod, LLew; I will need to find some audio recordings of Welsh to understand what they might sound like. I even had a great-great uncle named Llewellyn.

Look for my future reviews of the rest of the series as the year goes on.

Published: 1936 (as The Virgin and the Swine) 1970   Read: March 2013  Genre: Fantasy

Friday, March 8, 2013

Lost in America - Sherwin Nuland

subtitle: A journey with my father

I picked this up at Goodwill (one of my favorite used book stores) and discovered I'd read it before (2003) though I couldn't remember it.  Dr Nuland is a writer I greatly enjoy, having read his book How We Die and others when I was studying gerontology.  This story of his relationship with his father, a Russian Jewish immigrant in the late 1800's is heartbreaking, honest and revealing.

His father came here to escape persecution in Russia as a young man (19-20) and made a life in Brooklyn working in the garment district.  He never learned to write English other than his name and spoke a very altered version when necessary.  He was ill all of the time Sherwin knew him and he was an embarrassment and source of shame to his son growing up. His father had a strained relationship with his mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, who lived with the family for most of Sherwin's youth and created a seething tension in the household.  Despite the sorrows of their lives, there is a theme of fierce love and devotion to the children, (Sherwin and his siblings) that had to have contributed to his later success as a medical student at Yale and a career as a surgeon.

The book starts with an account of the severe depression the author suffered as a young adult and he explores how his relationship with his father shaped his later personality.  In a TED talk, he discusses how he was treated for the depression.  I recommend this book as insight into family, depression and their impact on who we are.

Published: 2003    Read: (again) 2013  Genre: Auto-biography

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rising Tide - John M Barry

subtitle: The great Mississippi flood of 1927 and how it changed America

I picked this up at Goodwill browsing the books on half-off day.  It's a winner!  The older I get the more I enjoy history.  I get a perspective on topics I had no knowledge of in my youth and I can tie together facts and experiences to richly enhance my reading.

This book, as the subtitle indicates, is the story of a flood and its legacy.  Just prior to the depression of the 1930's the Mississippi River inundated 28,400 square miles from Ohio to Louisiana.  That is about the size of the entire state of South Carolina.  500,000 people were displaced and the damages ran to about one-third of the total U.S. federal budget at the time.

The book weaves facts about the movers and shakers in each state affected by the flood, particularly Mississippi and Louisiana and details the politics that lead to the first major federal government control of a national disaster.  Another story is told of the race relations of the time.  And yet another story is told of the fading of southern traditions and the rise to power of men like Herbert Hoover, Huey Long and the bankers of the South.

The author has become an adviser to the rebuilding of Louisiana and the gulf after Katrina.  He has also written about the influenza epidemic in 1918, a book I plan to seek out.

If you enjoy history, you'll enjoy reading this story.

Published: 1997  Read:  February 2013   Genre: History

Monday, February 25, 2013

We Are What We Pretend to Be - Kurt Vonnegut

Did you read Vonnegut in high school?  college?  He was required reading for my age cohort in those years.  So when I saw this new book on the library shelf I had to snag it.  It's a short couple of novellas, the first was written when he was in his late teens or early 20's and the second was left unfinished when he died. His daughter, Nanette published the book and provided a foreword.

I enjoyed the first story as it reminded me of his witty banter and characters.  The second story was more cynical and chaotic and...well, unfinished.  A quick read that led me to explore Vonnegut's family and history and learn a little more about an author I'd enjoyed reading many years ago.

Published:  2012   Read: February 2013   Genre: Short Story

Saturday, February 23, 2013

the Time in Between - Maria Duenas

This book's jacket states this is "the inspiring international bestseller of a seemingly ordinary woman who uses her talents and courage to transform herself...etc.".  It was a recommendation for one of my book clubs and a hefty tome, but I waded in anyway.

This is the story of a poor seamstress who falls for a jerk and gets stuck in Morocco during the Spanish Civil War, eventually returning to Spain during the early years of WWII.  I have to say I did not like her.  Her gullibility and willingness to be led by others (mother, boyfriend, lover, arresting officer, landlord, friends, etc.) was off putting.  I kept wanting to shout at her, "think for yourself!".  It took almost the first 125 pages to get to the next phase of her life and I almost gave up but finished reading to see if it would get any better.  It didn't.  She didn't seem to learn from her poor judgment and never developed much backbone.  The last few chapters tried to make her appear "plucky" but the change was unconvincing.

Part of the problem may be that it is a translation from Spanish and the translator resorted to using the same lead in style of storytelling at the end of every chapter.  The writing didn't "flow" and instead I felt it was stilted and formal.  The historical perspective could have been interesting as the bibliography revealed that many of the characters were based on real people.  There wasn't a convincing portrayal of the times or a "painting the picture" of the setting in historical terms that gave me an understanding of the time and place as we see everything through the eyes of our gullible and uninteresting heroine, who can hardly keep track of her own life much less grasp what is happening around her.  Not a recommended read.

Published: 2011  Read: February 2013  Genre: fiction

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt - Beth Hoffman

I loved this book.  It sneaked up on me and in the end made me cry.  It's a story of a mother and daughter, family and caring, pain and surviving.  CeeCee is a pre-teen whose mother is mentally unstable.  Her antics burden her daughter with embarrassment, shame and having to be the grown up in the family.  Her father runs away from the problem, leaving CeeCee with no respect for him.  When she goes to live with her great-aunt, she is surrounded by love and acceptance and understanding.  Being accepted teaches her to accept her mother's illness and realize her love.
One of my favorite bits:  The idea that we all have a "Life Book" and that moving through life is like going from one chapter to the next.

Published: 2010  Read: February 2013  Genre: Fiction

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eve - Iris Johansen

I have to admit up front that I'm not much of a mystery fan.  I tend to skip through a mystery to find out how things end (and often confirm the ending I already suspect).  This book is part of a trilogy featuring one of the author's regular characters, a forensic sculptor named Eve.  She is searching for her daughter's killer with the help of friends in the CIA.  The story to me was implausible.  Everyone is super fit, super intelligent and either very good or very bad.  It felt like 90% of the book was dialogue.  The characters get around at the speed of light, the entire story taking place in a couple weeks, I think.  It probably would help if I'd read early books with the main character.  I have the rest of the trilogy and will probably read them just to find out what happened.  I just need to find a beach somewhere.

Published:  2011   Read: January 2013   Genre: Mystery

The Island - Victoria Hislop

This was a lovely story of family relationships in trying times.  One of my book groups read this last year and I finally read it myself.  It's the story of a Greek family living in Crete in the 1930's.  The mother, Eleni, is separated from her two daughters and husband when she is banished to an island for lepers.  The story is told by her daughter's best friend to Eleni's great-granddaughter, Alexis.  Alexis is seeking to know of her mother's past and family to help her in understanding her own relationship.

The leper colony is a factual place, Spinalonga, now known as Kalydon.  The Venetian fortress described in the book still stands and the island is a tourist attraction.

I enjoyed the portrayal of Greek life and traditions.  The family relationships between father and daughters, sisters and parents were touching.  I think the book bogged down a bit in the middle when describing life on the island. I would have liked a little more about Alexis's relationship.  The ending seemed rushed to wrap up all the story lines.  I suspect the author was able to write off some nice vacation time in Crete as a business expense!

Published:  2005  Read: February 2013  Genre: Fiction

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Circle of Quiet - Madeleine L'Engle

This is a journal of sorts recounting the life of the author and writer at her summer home in Connecticut called Crosswicks.  My DH suggested my summary of this based on my description should be B...O...R..I..N..G.  It was interesting to read about how she ran a home, was a mother and a writer.  There were many insightful comments on life, raising children,, marriage, small town life attitudes and friendships.  Overall however the book rambled and never got to a point and I finished it with relief instead of satisfaction.

Published: 1972  Read: February 2013  Genre: Memoir

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rose in Bloom - Louisa May Alcott

I enjoy going to estate sales.  I picked up this book at one recently because I remember as a little girl reading books of this style. They must have been inexpensive but they looked nice, hard-covered and shiny covers.  I hadn't realized that they were "modern abridged editions" back then; I had always thought I'd read the original classics.

This story is part of the series Alcott wrote after "Little Women".  Rose was orphaned and taken in by a group of aunts who had many sons who became her cousin playmates.  In this volume, Rose has returned from a trip abroad with her Uncle Alex, a budding young woman ready for adulthood who finds her cousins have grown into dashing young men.

It is still a good story to read, with strong family and moral values and a life when manners and decorum mattered.  Having read of the life of Alcott and her father (Eden's Outcasts) I saw the influence of her beliefs in the story.  I noticed her references to the writers of her day; Thoreau, Emerson and Keats.  I was able to reflect on how reading these stories when I was young undoubtedly influenced my attitudes toward life, romance and being a woman. I felt the  vocabulary was advanced for the age I would have been when reading it the first time.  I plan to seek out the unabridged version and see how it differs.

Published: 1876 (original) 1952 (abridged version)  Read: February 2013  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

subtitle: From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail

This book was recommended to me by my BF's Mom, a hiker and explorer. It's the story of a 20 something woman who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the border in Mexico to the border in Canada.  Although she only hikes from outside of Tehachapi (the place with all the wind generators) to Oregon, skipping a chunk of the Sierra Nevada mountains because of snow.

I think memoirs like this are supposed to be inspiring.  The girl has been in self-destruct mode since the early passing of her mother from lung cancer.  She bounces from one poor decision to another before tackling the trail with inadequate preparation.  I guess I was annoyed that stories of what amounts to "dumb luck" are lauded (the book was an Oprah pick) and the really courageous achievements of others who were better prepared are not.

The author did provide me with a peek into the experiences of a generation that came after me.  Her casual attitude towards sex and drugs was described in a way that seemed to say this was the norm for her and her peers.  There never seems to be an acknowledgment of what poor choices she was making.  While she seems to settle her feelings toward her mother, she makes no judgment of herself.  She was lucky to make it to write the book.

Published: 2012  Read: January 2013  Genre: Memoir

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Water by the Inch - Herbert V Young

subtitle: Adventures of a pioneer family on an Arizona desert homestead

I picked up this gem at a book swap at one of my reading groups.  The author was born in Arizona in 1887 on his parent's homestead  near what is now Camelback and 107th Avenue in Phoenix.  It's a memoir of growing up in the desert, raising cattle and potatoes and getting into all sorts of scrapes and dangers that a mischievous boy could find.  He tells tales of day to day living; Sundays going out to see wildflowers, all the chores on a small ranch, the flora and fauna of the desert, learning values from pioneer parents.

It's hard to imagine people striking out for Arizona to homestead just from a sense of adventure and opportunities to be explored.  I was impressed that they were not seeking gold or running from hard times but made a choice to try to make a home in the Arizona territory.  Both parents were well educated and schooled their five children in respect for others and self-reliance.  I would have liked to have met the author.

Published: 1928  Read: January 2013  Genre: Memoir

Sunday, January 20, 2013

All Different Kinds of Free - Jessica McCann

**spoiler alert to my first Monday's reading group**

In 1837, a free black woman in Pennsylvania and her children were kidnapped by a bounty hunter and taken to Maryland.  She and the state of Pennsylvania sued in a case that reached the United States Supreme Court and launched a disagreement on state's rights that contributed to the start of the Civil War.

This book takes the historical facts and weaves a fictional story of what Margaret Morgan's life may have been like before and after the kidnapping.  Its a fascinating account of life before the civil war in both Pennsylvania (my home state) and Maryland as well as the state of the nation.

I found myself rushing through the chapters to see how her life would turn out, knowing from the beginning that even the fictional account would be heartbreaking.  Being separated from your children like cattle is hard to grasp over 175 years later.  The treatment of women of all color was marginally better than that of the slaves.  

I read this for one of my reading groups and look forward to our discussion on it.

Published: 2011  Read: January 2013   Genre: Historical fiction
Winner Freedom in Fiction Prize

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes

My sister recommended this as her favorite from 2012 and it is a winner in my opinion.

A man looks back on this life and tells the story of his first love and its consequences as he remembers it.  All the while, he is wondering what is memory?  What is reality?  The story examines the uncertainty of what we think is true.


" But I was wrong about most things, then, as now."

[on personality] "...God knows you can have complication and difficulty without any compensating depth or seriousness."

"History isn't the lies of the victors...it's more the memories of the survivors  most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."

"It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent difference pasts for others."

"I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded--and how pitiful that was."

I finished the book in one sitting and went back and read parts of it again immediately.  The story makes me ask myself - what do I think I know?  What do I think I remember?  How different would my life be is I knew a different truth?

I like books that make me think.  This one will be on my mind for a while.  Thanks, sis.

Published: 2011  Read: January 2013   Genre: Fiction
Winner 2011 Man Booker Prize

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Rise and Shine - Anna Quindlen

I enjoy this author.  I enjoy how she writes, not too much, not too little, just right.  In this novel she tells the story of two sisters, one a mega-star network TV host, the other a social worker.  They are very close, having lost their parents when they were very young.  Their relationship is authentic to me and I smiled more than once at their back and forth conversations, just like sisters.  A quote I noted:

"And yet as I spoke, all I could think of was how much we lie to one another with all the best intentions, how nearly every conversation has somewhere within it, often throughout it like veins in marble, obfuscation or avoidance or the kind of shading that shave off the hard edges of the truth   Kindness and custom have turned us all into cowards."

The story of a big change in their lives (I won't give it away) unfolds over several months and wraps up a little too hastily for me in the last several pages.  The contrasts in their lives, the pictures painted of the New York life style both from the top and near the bottom are well done.  If your a fan, you'll enjoy this book.

Published: 2006  Read: January 2013  Genre: Fiction

*ask me if you'd like my copy

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Being Good - Simon Blackburn

Subtitle: A short introduction to ethics

A couple of years ago when a dear friend of mine passed, I received many of her and her husband's books.  This little primer addresses the basics of ethics, a sort of introduction to the philosophy of morals.  It provides an overview of theories that question the need or existence of ethical behavior, examines the ideas addressed with ethics and the foundations of ethical thinking and philosophy.  While short (150 pages) it provides some rich food for thought and contemplation.  I may have to re-read it before I grasp even this simplified presentation.

Published: 2001  Read: January 2013  Genre: Philosophy, non-fiction

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Going Somewhere Soon - Brian Andreas

Subtitle: Collected Stories & Drawings

This charming Christmas present from my BFF is written by storyteller and artist Brian Andreas.  He became interested in telling short (very short) stories and illustrating them on found materials (barn siding from his native Iowa) with line drawings.  His art pieces (see here) are brightly colored and eye-catching.  His poetry/stories are humorous and poignant, funny and touching.  In 2012 he launched a collaborative storytelling website called tumblecloud.

Published: 1994  Read: January 2013  Genre: Art/Poetry