Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 in Review

It's that time of year when I put together my reads for the year and send a list out to my reading buddies.  I keep a list in Excel as well as on the blog; I have tracked the books I've read since about 1999!  This year I captured old 3 x 5 cards from before 2003 into my master list.  I also use a program on my iPhone called SplashShopper to keep track of the books I've read (over 1,000 on that list) and to keep a list of my "TBRs" - to be reads.

The last couple of years I've also begun not finishing books I don't think are worth finishing.  This is a big departure for me, but life is too short to suffer through unenjoyable reading; unlike exercise, it doesn't make me any better!

The stats for this year are:

total reads recorded:  72
  by category:

  •     memoir - 9
  •     non-fiction - 10
  •     fiction - 38
  •     historical fiction - 4
  •    other - 11 (I think that adds up)
It wasn't a great year, I didn't have a lot of favorites, I think I'm getting pickier.  The 5 runner-ups  were:

I plan to concentrate on books on my TBR although I have four or five at my bedside and only one was from my list (sigh).  I want to walk more in 2015 so I will be adding more audio books to the list too.  

A thank you to my Mom who gave me my love of reading, scolded me when I didn't answer when I had my nose in a book and always loved a good story.

Girl's Guide to Homelessness - Brianna Karp

This is a powerful memoir of a young woman from a dysfunctional family (an understatement) who lost her 50K a year job and became homeless, living out of an old camping trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  She began a blog which led to her being hired as an intern for an Elle columnist and the publication of her book in 2011.  She is an advocate for the homeless and its not clear what she as ended up doing or where she's now living.

One of the most important things I learned reading this book is that there are so many different kinds of homeless people, different types of homelessness, different reasons for getting there.  She advocates for removing judgment and extending understanding.

"Resources are the absolute most important thing when you're homeless.  You learn to make the most of everything you have....The only resource that all [homeless] have is ourselves.  My body and my mind were and are my most important assets.  As long as I was alive and healthy and physically and mentally capable of coming up with a plan and executing it, I knew I'd be okay."

She suffered through a painful, deceitful relationship while homeless, in addition to having no family support.  She was not a drug abuser, drinker or goof off.  She took no public assistance, except for unemployment, as she felt it should go to those who truly needed it.

The book reminded me of another one, Nickeled and Dimed, which pointed out how very difficult it is to afford and maintain housing.  It's one of the greatest challenges in living in the U.S. today.

I would like to know that she is secure and employed and happy - the book leaves that unsaid.

Published: 2011  Read: December 2014  Genre: Memoir

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande

Subtitle: Medicine and What Matters in the End

I'm known in one of my reading groups as the one who reads "Death and Dying" titles.  I've pursued the subject since the late 1980's when I lost my Nana, my Dad's mother, to vascular dementia.  It launched me on a study of gerontology, then an MBA in Health care Administration and volunteer and paid work with aging organizations, so aging and the end of life are subjects dear to my heart.

I've enjoyed Dr Gawande's previous books and this one is rewarding.  It provides many thought provoking discussions on how we interact those with illness and those approaching death and with how we ourselves deal with the end of life.


You become a doctor for what you imagine to be the satisfaction of the work, and that turns out to be the satisfaction of competence.

The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth.  It's been replaced by veneration of the independent self.

[On falling]  Each year, about 350,000 Americans fall and break a hip.  Of those, 40 % end up in a nursing home and 20% are never able to walk again.  The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications and muscle weakness.

[On nursing home treatment] In almost none [of the care facilities] does anyone sit down with you and try to figure out what living a life really means to you under the circumstances, let alone help you make a home where that life becomes possible.

Studies find that as people grow older they interact with fewer people and concentrate more on spending time with family and established friends.  They focus on being rather than doing and on present more than the future.

[on caring for elderly] ...provide care without calculation or deception, don't impose any goals beyond what the person desires.

Making lives meaningful in old age is new.  It therefore requires more imagination and invention than making them merely safe does.

[Questions to ask a person facing illness or death] What are your biggest fears and concerns?  What goals are most important to you?  What trade offs are you willing to make and what ones are you not?

...our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one's story is essential to sustaining meaning in life.

The job in to enable well-being.  And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.

Published: 2014  Read: December 2014   Genre: Non-fiction, aging, medicine

ISBN: 978 1 62779 055 0

Friday, December 19, 2014

Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? - Dave Eggers

This is a disturbing portrayl of the meaninglessness of life for a young man in the 21st century.
The book is written as dialogues between the young man and people he has kidnapped and locked up in an abandoned military base; his heroes, his tormentors, his idols, his fantasies.

"You have no idea how weird it is to envision things then have them come to nothing".

[a conversation with a woman, who speaks first to him when he says he's leaving]

And I'll be safe?

---To what end?

To keep living.

---That's my point.  That's not enough.

Read this book.  It weaves the sources of conflice, angst and unrest of the X and Y generation into a powerful inquiry into the meaning of life.

Published:  2014  Read: December 2014  Genre: Fiction

ISBN 978-1-101-87419-6

Wondrous Words Wednesday

I'm behind on the weekly word-lovers posts of new words I've come across while reading. It’s called Wondrous Words Wednesday and was created by Kathy at BermudaOnion’s Weblog.  Here are some new words I picked up this week from Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read:

Verisimilitude - "We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude". 

The word means "the appearance of being true or real.  That makes sense.

Mimesis - "...we haven't seen his [daffodils] so we must imagine them, spurred by the poet's words-his mimesis."

This word is defined as imitation, in particular the representation or imitation of the real world in art and literature.
So the poet's is his imitation of what is described, in this case Wordsworth's daffodils.

Harridan - " adds a sympathetic psychological depth to a goddess [Athena] traditionally characterized as a shrill and jealous harridan"

This one I can relate to! The definition is a strict, bossy, or belligerent old woman!

What We See When We Read - Peter Mendelsund

I came down with a cold so I've been plowing through books this week.  This read is a strange sort of book.  It's pictures, drawings and designs accompanied by text discussing how our imagination creates what we "see" when we read.  The author is a well known graphic designer.  He uses examples from classic literature (Anna Karenina, Melville's Moby Dick, James Joyce's Ulysses) to show how we create in our mind the visions of the characters and settings in the books we read.

He asks, "what does the character look like" and goes on to point out we usually describe their character traits rather than their actual appearance.  He notes that we "read ahead", that is, our eyes and our minds picture something from one part of a page as we gather information from another part.

He points out that when we read what we see is personal; it's not what the author pictured, it's what our own minds imagine.  He suggests that "picturing events in fiction delivers unintentional glimpses into our own pasts".  For example, if we read about "the school hallways" we picture in our mind the schools we went to and what those hallways looked like.

It's an essay on how we imagine and understand the things we read.  A nice quirky read and thought-provoking.

Published: 2014  Genre: Non-fiction  Read: December 2014

ISBN: 3 1740 11250 0446

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Planets - Dava Sobel

I'd read this author's great little piece of non-fiction on the discovery of navigation's Longitude and the life of the astronomer in Galileo's Daughter.  I really enjoyed this book that tells the story of each of the nine planets in our solar system as well as the Sun and Moon, that we learned about in school.

For each chapter covering each body, she weaves in history, myth, evolution, discovery and space exploration facts that effortlessly portray the key distinguishing qualities of each one.  Her prose is never dry or boring:

[When describing Mercury's day] "...any given locale waits half a Mercurian year (about six Earth-weeks) after sunup for the full light of high noon.  Dusk finally descends at year's end.  And once the long night commences, another Mercurian year must pass before the Sun rises again.  Thus the years hurry by, while the days drag on forever [literally!].

She notes at one point,  "The far side of the Moon is the one place in the whole Solar System deaf to Earth's radio noise".  Facts like that strike my imagination in the same way it has song and science fiction writers.

Note, the author is female, her first name is Dava, it's not a typo.  I'll note to, there's a lot of new vocabulary to explore: ansa, extremophiles, oubliettes, vespertide and photosphere, as just a sample.

I came away with a pleasant and fondly remembered lesson in the universe we're found in and its major inhabitants.

Published:  2005   Read: December 2014  Genre: Science, Non-fiction

ISBN:  0-14-200116-3

vocabulary:  vespertide, oubliettes, syzygy, extremophiles, ansa

You Suck - Christopher Moore

Subtitle: A Love Story

Christopher Moore is a strange humor writer who comes up with some of the most odd ball ideas for his fiction.  This past summer I read his book about a sea monster terrorizing a small town and before that the auto-biography of Jesus by his best friend, Biff.  So I knew I was in for some more weird stuff with another of his books.

In this story a nineteen, gawky love struck guy is turned into a vampire by his big-hearted, older girlfriend.  They spend the first part of the book bickering and figuring out how to find a place to be during the day (you can't really call it sleep) and some one to care for them and run errands.  They con a goth teen girl who's awed by their immortality into hunting for an apartment and keeping them safe from vengeful enemies.

It's a quick beach read sort of book that brought on a few laughs and surprises and I appreciate his clever sense of humor.

Published: 2008  Read:  December 2014   Genre: fiction

ISBN: 978-0-06-059030-7

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wondrous Words Wednesday

I found this group of like-minded readers who have a tradition of sharing new words they've found when reading every week.  So I thought I'd join in!

I've just started reading Planets, by Dava Sobel.  I really enjoyed her books Longitude and Galileo's Daughter so I snatched this one up at the half priced bookstore.  It promises to be absorbing and a lesson in astronomy.  A couple of words I found in it so far that caught my eye are:

exoplanet - "As yet, no exoplanets have been imaged directly through a telescope, so their discoveres are left to imagine what they look like."

Exoplanets are newly discovered bodies in space which are extra-solar, or planets beyond our solar system.

2)  aegis - "Absent any aegis of air to spread out and hold in solar heat, some regions of Mercury get hot enough to melt metals in daylight..."

Aegis used here is referring to the air providing support or backing.  It's a clever use of the word in a chapter on Mythology that explains the names of the planets, as in Greek mythology it refers to a animal skin or shield that provided protection.

I hope this entry sparks a new habit for me, do you think it's a good start?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Empty Mansions - Bill Dedman

Subtitle: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune

Coauthor: Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

As the subtitle indicates, this is the tale of the squandering of a fortune built by W.A. Clark in the "Gilded Age", the late 1800's.  Clark was a Pennsylvania boy who went west to make his fortune.  He ended up in Montana where he became a banker to the miners and owner of copper mines.  He built the town of Jerome, Arizona and owned the copper mine there.  He built with his own money the railroad to Los Angeles.  W.A. married a PA sweetheart and had 5 children that lived to adulthood.  In his late 60's and a widow, he married a French Canadian woman in her 20's and had two daughters.  One died at 16 and the other, Huguette (pronounced "oo-GET") outlived all her half-siblings and inherited a multi-million fortune.

The title refers to homes she inherited or acquired that set empty for decades.  She had two floors of an apartment building on 5th Avenue in NYC, a 23 acre mansion in Santa Barbara, CA, a chateau which she had built and never lived in in New Canaan, CT, $800 million in trusts and investments, and $80 million in cash and personal property; in all about $308 million before taxes.

Huguette was a shy, daddy's girl who seems to never have recovered from the death of her older sister at 16.  She was pampered and sheltered by her parents.  She married for a few weeks in her 20's and then divorced and virtually disappeared.  She rarely left the apartment she shared with her mother until her mother died and spent the last 20 years of her life in a hospital in NYC, clear minded but demanding and catered to by the staff. Her nurse, who received over $26 million while caring for her and after her death, was there every day for over 10 years.  She died at the age of 103.

Of course the other heirs, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the other 5 siblings, sued when her will left them out even though she had no contact with them her entire adult life and even though her siblings had received substantial settlements when her father had died.  The 19 heirs ended up splitting 34.5 million, with almost $100 million going to taxes.  The Santa Barbara property was given to a foundation to become a museum, though not with enough funds to keep it operating.  Generous gifts that she had left to staff at her properties, her nurse and friends were granted too.

The co-author was a grandchild of one of W.A. Clark's aunts and had contacted Huguette when she was living in the hospital and had several phone conversations for many years, off and on.

The authors don't speculate on why she chose to be reclusive, why she didn't stay in contact with her half-siblings, why she was so generous to those around her.  I found it fascinating to track the long arm of a successfully family pioneer who did little to prepare his daughter for the future as an heiress.

Clark County in Nevada is named after W.A. as is Clarkdale in Arizona.

Published:  2014  Read: December 2014  Genre: Biography

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

I picked this book up to read for one of my book clubs, intending to pass it on to a different one of my other book clubs.  It received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and had pages of rave reviews in the beginning of the book so I dove in, despite it being over 700 pages.

The book tells the story of Theo Decker, a 12 year old boy who loses his mother in a bombing in a New York City museum.  He is given a ring and told to take a picture of a bird (The Goldfinch) by a dying man in the rubble of the building.  He escapes and ends up living with the very well-connected family of a friend until his vagrant father returns to claim him and drags him to Las Vegas. There he meets Boris, a Russian world-travelling teen who introduces him to drugs and debauchery.  He escapes mid-teens back to New York to the family of the dying man from the museum where he runs their antiques and restorations store with less than ethical business practices.  Boris returns to his life and reveals the painting he's kept secret isn't even there and the two of them set off across Europe to retrieve the original and redeem Theo's life.

The first third of the book is an homage to New York art and intellectual life, a place of wonder and privilege for little Theo, doted on by his saintly and sophisticated mother,  Theo is the least believable 12 year old imaginable, unless of course one is familiar with upper class New Yorkers' children.  In the second third, his adventures in Las Vegas read like someone who's heard about Las Vegas but has never actually sunk so low as to actually go there.  Thankfully, he returns to New York and all its majesty, where the antiques restorer fills in as a caring father figure, which Theo abuses by selling his restorations as originals and using the money for prescription drugs.  The last part of the book rushes through his reunion with his previous caretakers, an engagement to their cheating daughter and several pages reflecting on how art endures.

Here's the poor little orphan reflecting on when his father left:
"In many respects it was a relief to have my father out of the picture...though it was sad when [mother] had to let our housekeeper, Cinizia, go because we couldn't afford to pay her..."

The antique dealer's niece is also orphaned and shuffled off to Texas where "there's nothing to do but go to the movies and you can't walk anywhere, people have to drive you.  Also they have rattlesnakes, and the death penalty, which I think is primitive and unethical in ninety-eight percent of cases."

It almost felt at times like I was reading a young adult novel.  There's lots of cliches and preposterous happenings and way too many pages describing his feelings of anguish over his mother's death.  In the end he reflects that "I don't care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it, no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe."

At least his life is, the spoiled whining brat.

Published:  2013   Read: November 2014   Genre: Fiction

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

This is the story of a young half-Chinese man in Malaysia during WWII who befriends a Japanese martial arts master and later assists him in imprisoning the people of his home when the Japanese invade.  I began reading this book and realized it was predictably going to end with regret and sorrow and I put it away.  Life is just too short to read something predictable.


The great human capacity for choosing not to makes life easier.

What, among the creations of our modern world, do you think will still exist and have historical and aesthetic value five hundred years from now?

Published: 2008  Read (incompletely) November 2014  Genre: fiction

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

I picked this book up in Nashville in October at the Southern Book Fest.  It's the story of two young soldiers who are sent to Iraq for a tour of duty.  Both are from small towns in Virginia, both enlisting to find a better life.  Their experiences in Iraq affect them profoundly, altering the futures they had planned.

John Bartel's first impression of basic training was that he "...remembered feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear.  It had dawned on me that I'd never have to make a decision again.  That seems freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then.  Eventually I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability."

He is assigned a buddy, Murph and before the are sent overseas, Murph's mother makes him promise to take care of her son.  The weight of his promise is crushing when he returns after a year at war.

"....I had the feeling that if I encountered anyone they would intuit my disgrace and would judge me instantly.  Nothing is more isolating that having a particular history.  At least that's what I thought.  Now I know: All pain is the same.  Only the details are different".

It is a heartfelt story that makes you think of the reality of war and the people who go to it.

Published: 2012  Read: November 2014  Genre: Fiction

Solitude - Anthony Storr

Sub-title: A Return to the Self

When my good friend Teddi died, she left her book collection to another friend who let me pick any of them that I wanted to keep.  This book was one that I thought looked interesting.

The author challenges the psychological belief that people need people to be happy and instead explores the satisfaction to be had from solitude.  He examines the personal feelings of contentment that can be experienced through creative and intellectual endeavors.  He offers examples of individuals who survived solitary confinement through their imagination and self-discipline.  There are chapters discussing the different personalities that seem to take to solitude, the effect of grief and bereavement and the solitude of the end of our lives.  The author emphasizes the value of meditation and reflection in solitude to renew and awaken our spirit.

Someone had cut out newspaper articles on solitude and kept them in the front cover of the book.  I can't help thinking it was part of their way of dealing with loss.

Published:  1988  Read:  November 2014  Genre: Non-fiction

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Race to the Poles - Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Enough of fiction!  I'd met someone who works in Antarctica part of the year and that triggered me to pick up this book at my local used bookstore, Half Priced Books.  It's a defense of Robert Scott, the leader of the second group of men to reach the South Pole in the early 1900's.  Scott was vaunted as a hero when he and his team died on their way back to camp and was an inspiration to the English during World War I and II.  In the late 20th century, several authors re-visited Scott's journey, "debunking" his heroism and character.  Fiennes challenges those stories, providing an explanation and perspective on Scott in his time and Antarctica.

I knew very little about the Pole explorers, though I had read other stories about their adventures and tried to get through The Worst Journey in the World and couldn't finish it.  I'd read In the Kingdom of Ice this summer and enjoyed it.

Fiennes story give us the background of Scott's life and his career in the Royal Navy.  He lead British explorations to Antarctica in 1901 and then again in 1910, reaching the South Pole with four other men, five weeks after Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian and his team were the first to reach it.

The character and leadership qualities of Scott were evidence of the British culture of the times.  He's portrayed as a determined yet flawed man, and like all of his crew, possessing unbelievable stamina, strength and confidence in achieving his goals.  Their suffering in the cold and desolate landscape puts any personal whining about petty discomforts to shame.

Published:  2004  Read: November 2014  Genre: History (Adventure)

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Magician's Assistant - Ann Patchett

I saw Ann Patchett recently at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee and was reminded how I wanted to read some of her fiction again.

This is the story of Sabine, an assistant to a magician, Parsifal, who she met as a young waitress in her twenties and stayed with until his death.  He was gay and her and his partner lived together in the house of the partner.  When the story opens, they've both died and she discovers Parsifal had a family she never told him about.  She meets them and goes to visit them to learn who this man she loved for so many years really was.

I loved the relationships of her, the mother and the sisters of Parsifal.  Sabine and Parsifal lived in LA and his family was in a small Nebraska town.  The contrast of cultures and their different yet shared experience of the person they knew and loved was tender and moving.  I particularly liked his mother, Dot Fetters.  Her matter-of-fact outlook on life despite all that had been dumped on her was comforting in the same way it was to Sabine.

There is a comparison of the sophisticated, world-travelling glamour girl to the simple life of the country that made me wonder how much Patchett researched the Nebraska locale; it seems somewhat cliche, the way a city person would imagine it.

It's a portrayal of people being kind to each other, overlooking their quirks and trials and tribulations, accepting them as they are and loving them all the same.  Recommended read.

Published: 1997   Read: November 2014  Genre: Fiction

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wonder - R J Palacio

My reading group has been trying to get to discussing this book for months.  One of our members, a former grade school teacher recommended it.  It's a young adult title, aimed at nine to twelve year-olds.

The book is the story of the 5th grade year of school for August, known as Auggie, a boy with a cranial facial disfiguration that makes his first year of school after being home-schooled a frightening new experience.  The story is told in first person by several narrators; Auggie, his friends, sister, Via and schoolmates.  The voices sounded to me like genuine 5th graders, entering the first year of middle school on the brink of their teenage years.

We're introduced to Auggie's perspective first; he sees himself as "just an ordinary kid".  He recognizes that others react in shock, surprise and fear when first seeing his face yet because of the love of his parents and sister he has the strength of character to take it in stride.  His experience in middle school though is still full the the angst of acceptance, fitting in, and finding out who he is.

An example of his mother's love::

Auggie: "Do people look the same when they get to heaven?
Mom: I don't know, I don't think so.
Auggie" Then how do people recognize each other?
:Mom:  I don't know sweetie.  They just feel it. You don't need your eyes to love, right?  You just feel it inside you.  That's how it is in heaven.  It's just love and no one forgets who they love.

Auggie on recognition:
"I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives"

His school principal on kindness:
"Because it's not enough to be kind.  One should be kinder than needed....we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness."

I felt the book gave me a peek into the lives of these children and the adults who work with them as they learn and grow.  I loved how the English teacher assigned a precept each month (and how I learned what the term meant) and then how he asked his students after they graduated to send him their personal precepts.  One of them is my favorite from John Wesley, founder of Methodism:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

The struggle of Auggie to be accepted is universal.  His difference is apparent, yet all of us feel and struggle with being different in some way.  Highly recommended.

Published:  2012  Read: November 2014  Genre: Young Adult

Raising the Dead - Andy Dougan

Subtitle: The Men Who Created Frankenstein

This was a strange find, again, something I picked up to read while travelling and finished up when I got home.  It' an historical account of the attempts in the 18th and early 19th centuries to bring a person back to life.  Th scientists and physicians of the day were trying to understand how electricity affected the body.  Their attempts seem quaint and ridiculous now but science has to start somewhere. In this time physicians were finally allowed to dissect cadavers and examine how the heart, lungs, brain and nervous system operated.  The bodies were usually those of criminals that had been hung and when those ran out, paupers graves were robbed.  There's backgroun on the age of romanticism that followed the age of reason and the enlightenment for historical context.  

The author explains how Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, came to know of the experiments being done and probably used them to create her story.  Her husband, the poet Shelly, and their friends assoicated with the thinkers and philosophers of the day and I always like getting an understanding of who were contemporaries in a certain age.  

It's a grizzly but interesting tale, Erin, this one's for you!

Published:  2008  Read: November 2014  Genre: History

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Loved One - Evelyn Waugh

This book was another one I picked up for my recent trip.  It's a strange little tale about people in Hollywood during the 1940's.  It took awhile to understand the tongue-in-cheek perspective of the writer.  I imagine it was very sarcastic and biting in its time.  The title refers to the phrase used to refer to those who have died - humans as well as pets.  Funny and a quick read.

Published: 1948   Read: October 2014  Genre: Fiction

ISBN 0-316-92608-6

Sunday, October 26, 2014

X - Rated - Bonnie Louise

[I took a writing class this summer and have been digging around in some writing I've done in the past.  This is a short piece I scribbled out after being laid off from the company I'd been with for over 25 years back in 2001.  The author's "name" is all mine, not appended with the surname of anyone else's.]

I went out for a walk this morning to enjoy the clear blue sky and warm sun in the middle of January, threading my way through the neighborhood to return library books and check my post office box.  I came upon a large pine tree, squeezed between the sidewalk and a masonry block fence, it's branches towering over my head.  There was a large white "X" painted on it and underneath was scrawled the word "remove".  Someone had decided that just for growing beyond it's bounds and potentially disrupting the even monotony of the wall, the tree had to go.  Perhaps too, there was a danger of it falling over into the street, in the path of some vehicle guided at breakneck speed by its owner who would be too engrossed in a cell phone conversation to avoid the tree as it reached out for the pavement.

I couldn't help but wonder if some force somewhere is painting X's on some of us these days. When you finally seem to finish all the growing prescribed for you, when you've reached your full potential and stand tall for all the world to see, someone comes along and declares you an excess person.  Maybe we too have just grown beyond our boundaries and it's time to toss off new seeds in other directions. 

I can't imagine that removing the tree will add much to the area.  The shade it once provided will be gone and the wall that comes and goes nowhere will be exposed. In all likelihood, few folks will notice the footstool-size stump that eventually gets covered over by decorative desert stone.  A new tree might even be planted in the same spot, a good place to add a little cover for the yard behind the wall and breakup the view from the street.  So too, will our replacements be hired and set about solving with enthusiasm and excitement the same old problems that we'd figured out years ago.

The tree could end up consumed in hot, angry flames, burning itself to a pile of ashes.  Or it could lie forgotten in landfill far from the city and slowly decay, unnoticed.  There are other uses for the tree and us.  Both may prove beneficial, our remaining assets turned into creative works of art, our contribution lasting years into the future, maybe even someday considered an antique or collectible.  Maybe that's the point of branching out, to see just where we might be taken. Maybe the X just marks a crossroads of sorts.

Women of the Silk - Gail Tsukiyama

I read this for my book group that I didn't get to attend while I was travelling.  It's the story of young girls in China before WWII who were given to the silk factories as workers.  Their wages were sent home to their families but they would usually not return home for the rest of their lives.  They could marry but many chose to remain single and formed a sisterhood that could live independently at a time when women were little more than property.

I found the story tedious and the ending rushed through the last days before the Japanese invaded China, almost as an afterthought, it seemed.  The women's relationships were well portrayed and their friendships deep and supportive.  Not something I'd recommend.

Published:  1991   Read: October 2014   Genre: Historical fiction

The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham

A shallow, vain young beauty marries without love and has an affair only to learn her lover is far less a man than her husband when it is too late.

p 88 Do you cease to love a person because you had been treated cruelly?

p 125 What was it in the human heart that made you despise a man because he loved you?

p 152  But it's loving that's the important thing, not being loved.

p 206 - Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty.  The only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.

This is a classic moral lesson on the shallowness of youth and the importance of recognizing the true nature of others.  I enjoyed it and recommend it, a quick read.

Published: 1925  Read: October 2014  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 0-307-27777-1

Nothing Is As Bad As the Second World War - Connie Caster

Sub-title:  the true life story of Vera Schwartz Palmieri

This was painful to read, not because of the story it tells but because of the way its written.  One sentence after another of "I did this, and then I did this.." Just awful. The jacket says "she started life as a spoiled, pampered child" and the story never changes that viewpoint of the main character, despite some horrific experiences.  There's a story to tell here but it isn't done with this book.  A great example of the dangers of self-publishing and no editing.

Published:  2013   Read: October 2014  Genre: Biography

I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron

This is a memoir of a great film director and writer written when she was 65.  It's sarcastic and witty and very New York upper class.  There were some stories that made me smile but overall not something I would recommend.

One quote I liked:

"a MOUSE potato - some who's as connected to her computer as couch potatoes are to their TVs" - boy, can I relate!

She mentioned some books that were very influental that I might check out:
The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing
The Woman in White, by Vickie Collins

Published:  2006  Read: October 2014  Genre: Memoir

Mrs Poe - Lynn Cullen

**I was on the road for a couple weeks and am catching up on my book posts for my reading during the trip.

I'm a fan of historical fiction.  I enjoy learning about something while at the same time reading a good story.  I'm often drawn to exploring more of the facts of the characters or events described in the story.

This story tells of the love affair of Frances Osgood, a married woman with two small daughter and an absent, philandering husband, and Edgar Allen Poe, in the 1840's.  In the center of their relationship is Poe's first cousin, Virgina Poe, who he'd married when she was 13 and he 26.  Woven through the tale is the struggle of writing and of the writer.  There's the moral struggle of Mrs Osgood, the guilt of Mr. Poe and the suspicions of Mrs. Poe for tension.  Who is the villain here?  A good read with a genuine portrayal of 1840's New York and the lives of the characters.

Published: 2013  Read: October 2014  Genre: Historical fiction

ISBN 1476702918

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Practical Magic - Alice Hoffman

This was a strange little story.  It tells the tale of the Owens family, a group of females with powers that affect love and life in strange ways.  Two sisters come to live with their two spinster aunts when their parents die.  The aunts allow them to live practically unsupervised as they assist their neighbors with their problems with love.  The girls have their own relationship problems but their abiding love for each other sustains them through life.

Some quotes:
"The aunts tried to encourage her (Sally) not to be so good.  Goodness, in their opinion, was not a virtue but merely spinelessness and fear disguised as humility."

"It doesn't matter what people tell you.  It doesn't matter what they might say.  Sometimes you have to leave home.  Sometimes, running away means your running in the right direction."

"...when people ask her what the secret of a happy marriage is...She knows now that when you don't lose yourself in the bargain, you find you have double the love you started with..."

I wouldn't recommend this book as its dis-jointed and doesn't succeed at creating the atmosphere I think the author was aiming for.

Published:  1995   Read: September 2014   Genre: Fiction

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kid

My reading group recommended this book and I'd read the author's previous book, The Secret Life of Bees.  The story is based on the life of two feminist abolisionists in the early 1800's.  They were sisters who adovcated to free slaves and provide equal rights for them as well as women.  The author took the facts of these sisters lives and juxtaposed it with that of an imaginged slave girl who was given to one of the sisters for her 11th birthday.

I am not a fan of a story that flips back and forth between characters every other chapter - I think it's a lazy gimmick.  I'm always tempted to just read every other chapter.  The first half of the book also annoyed me because I get upset at characters that either put up with a bad situation beyond reason or rebel in self-destructive ways.   I guess I'm not a fan of hopeless situations.  I think I would have much preferred a story of the two sisters with more facts.

Published: 2014  Read: September 2014  Genre: Historical fiction


Friday, September 26, 2014

The Sixth Wife - Jean Plaidy

I picked this up at Goodwill for a camping trip to Mt. Lemmon, in Tucson, Arizona.  It's a historical fiction account of the 6th wife of Henry VIII.  I enjoyed the writing style as the author made her characters come alive while intertwining the facts of history.  I found out after finishing that this is a pen name of Eleanor Hibbert also known as Victoria Holt.  She was a prolific author and there are many others written by her that cover English history.

Katherine Parr was twice widowed when she caught the eye of the bad tempered, egotistical King of England in 1543 and became his sixth and last wife.  I was struck by the persistence over the centuries of women submitting to men, being married against their will for political or financial gains and the ridiculous emphasis on having children, and as many as possible.  This queen failed to provide more heirs and was possibly in line to be murdered, but the Henry VIII died first.  She was stepmother to his successors, Edward, and the mighty Queen Elizabeth I.   A good read and a different slant on tracking genealogy!

Published: 1953  Read: September 2014  Genre: Historical fiction

ISBN: 0-609-81026-X

The Lust Lizard of Mealancholy Cove - Christopher Moore

What a hoot this book was!  The author has the strangest imagination, providing a quirky, weird, satirical take on small towns, heroes and giant pre-historic lizards.  A fun escape.

Published: 1999  Read: September 2014  Genre: Fiction

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Wheat Belly - William Davis, MD

This was the non-fiction audio book I'd deliberately put on hold at the library.  I wanted to understand some of the science behind the effects of modern wheat on our bodies.  The author provides exhausting recaps of studies, from medical institutions and his own practice as a cardiologist, that go on for ever.  It's convincing enough to try to eliminate wheat from my diet.  The "calories in - calories out" balance has kept me at a plateau and too often hungry and resentful of exercise's paltry results.  So along with my yoga habit I am mindfully addressing the food I eat and cutting the wheat.  We'll see what happens.

Published:  August 2011   Read: September 2014 (audio book)  Genre: Health

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson

I was looking for some audio books and picked this up at the library because it indicated the author was a Pulitzer Prize winner.  It's the story of two sisters who are left in the care of their grandmother, then two maiden great aunts, and finally a younger aunt.  Their lives are full of tragedy; their grandfather is killed in a train accident, their mother drives off a bridge, their grandmother dies, their young aunt, Sylvie, is a life long hobo who can't provide for them in an anchored life.

The reader really spoiled this story.  She was an actress who had the annoying habit of raising her voice at the end of sentences, the lilting, sing song style of reading nursery rhymes.  Boring, boring, boring.  If I hadn't been determined to "listen" to a book, I wouldn't have finished it.

Published: 1980 Read: September 2014 (audio)  Genre: Fiction

The Song of the Lark - Willa Cather

I don't know why it took me so long to discover Willa Cather.  I read her "My Antonia" for one of my book clubs in recent years and enjoyed her writing style.  She honors the simple, striving person in a harsh world.  Her characters are gritty, long suffering, and self aware.

In this story, Thea recognizes and is recognized by those around her as someone different.  Not in our mentally disturbed, troubled, quirky, weird focus of today, but as a person with a gift, a vision, a future different than the rest of us.  She struggles in her youth to listen for her muse amidst the gaggle of siblings and daily life as a preacher's daughter in a small farming community.  It's a simple story that allows the author to demonstrate the power of the human will.

Some quotes I noted:

Thea befriends the Mexicans on the "other side of the tracks" and after they are insulted by a local the author notes that "A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border."

"The clamor about her drowned the voice within herself."

"Nothing is far and nothing in near, if one desires.  The world is little, people are little ,human life is little.  There is only one big thing--desire.  And before it, when it is big, all is little."

"Ugly accidents happen, Thea; always have and always will.  But the failures are swept back into the pile and forgotten.  They don't leave any lasting scar in the world, and they don't affect the future.  The things that last are the good things.  The people who forge ahead and do something, they really count."

I don't know if I agree with that one.  I've seen accidents have tragic, long-lasting effects that are never forgotten.  I think Cather was championing those that persist despite setbacks.

"It came over him now that the unexpected favors of fortune, no matter how dazzling, do not mean very much to us.  They may excite or divert us for a time, but when we look back, the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want, the desire which formed in us in early youth, undirected, and of it own accord."

"If our dream comes true, we are almost afraid to believe it; for that is the best of all good fortune, and nothing better can happen to any of us."

Published:  1915   Read: September 2014   Genre: Fiction

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - Barbara Kingsolver

Sub-title:  A Year of Food Life

written with Steven L Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (husband and daughter)

This book had been on my TBR list for quite some time.  I've enjoyed the author's fiction tremendously and it was fascinating to peek into her real life, living a year off of the land.

I've always thought of Kingsolver as an Arizonan but her roots are in Appalachia and its to there that she returns to live with her husband and two children.  They decide to spend a year living off of homegrown, locally sourced, in season food.  The books relates the results of their experience.

Its a different sort of writing, where her husband, Steven, a scientist and her older daughter, Camille, a budding nutritionist, contribute their own viewpoints throughout the book.  It also has recipes for the meals the concoct throughout the year.

I was a bit overwhelmed at how much work raising your own food and meat can be.  Her extensive garden, chickens and turkeys were a constant demand on their time.  Canning, butchering, baking, harvesting puts them in touch with the seasons and gives a glimpse of what life must have been like when many people owned their own farms.

In all its a simpler though more demanding lifestyle.  We have so much idle time that we pay little attention to what we put in our mouths each day and have even less appreciation as to how it got to us.  Its also a testament to family.  The necessity to work together, share daily chores and respect each person's contribution.

Published:  2007   Read:  August 2014   Genre: Memoir

Authors referenced:
Ricki Carroll, New England Cheesemaking Supply , book, Cheesemaking Made Easy
Deborah Madison - Local Flavors
five color silverbelt - swiss chard - a green I'd like to try growing.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Sprial Staircase - Karen Armstrong

sub-title: My Climb Out of Darkness

I picked this book up at Goodwill (my new favorite used book store) because I had read the author's book, A History of God, some time ago.  This is an auto-biography that tells her story of joining a convent at 17, leaving seven years later, and her journey to becoming a comparative theologian. She was accused of hysteria and did not find out for many years that she actually had a form of epilepsy.  She became a journalist post WWII in England and went on to research, write and speak on Christian, Jewish and Islamic beliefs.

She uses the T.S. Eliot poem, Ash Wednesday, where he describes his ascent heavenward through turning and turning, as if on a spiral staircase, as a metaphor for her own life changes.

"But what thrilled me most about Eliot's poem were the words 'because' and 'consequently'. There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities.  It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'"
I liked this quote and interpretation of Eliot's verse; it endorses an acceptance of life as it is.

More quotes:

"The nuns, I knew, were good women, and it must be almost unbearably painful for them to realize that they had damaged us.  It is always difficult to forgive people we have harmed".
I thought this was an interesting perspective to say that we need to forgive those we have harmed.

[The story of Rabbi Hillel, one of the leading Pharisees in Jesus' time] "Some pagans came to Hillel and told him that they would convert to this faith if he could recite the whole of Jewish teaching while he stood on one leg.  So Hillel obligingly stood on one leg like a stork and said: 'Do not do unto other as you would not have done unto you.  That is the Torah.  The rest in commentary.  Go and learn it.'".
The author points out that, "it takes more discipline to refrain from doing harm to others.  It's easier to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desire onto other people"...."He told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice".  Religion is about ..."doing things that change you".

"All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly."

"The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion.If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving kindness, this was good theology."

"Compassion has been advocated by all the great faiths because it has been found to be the safest and surest means of attaining enlightenment. It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there..."

And one I particularly felt was meaningful in today's contentious "us vs. them" society:
"If we cannot accommodate a viewpoint in a friend without resorting to unkindness, how can we hope to heal the terrible problems of our planet?  I no longer think that any principle or opinion is worth anything it it makes you unkind or intolerant".

[Speaking of the inability to sense of the presence of God] "And yet the very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life.  When you miss somebody very intensely, they are, in a sense, with you all the time."

A very thought provoking, intelligent and deeply felt book.

Published:  2004   Read: August 2014  Genre: auto-biography

Keep Going - Joseph M Marshall III

sub-title: The Art of Perseverance

This slim novel is a discussion between a grandson and his grandfather after the death of the boy's father.  The traditional stories are lessons on "going on" after adversity and reflect the beliefs and values of the Lakota people.  In some ways in reminded me of Buddist teachings; the acceptance of life as it happens, the appreciation of the now.

Published: 2006   Read: August 2014   Genre: non-fiction, advice

ISBN: 13: 978-1-4027-3607-0

*Note:  I am starting to record the ISBN for the book.  Any of the online bookshelf apps seem to do lookups based on it so if I ever want to get everything I've read into an online bookshelf I'll need these.

The Sweetheart Season - Karen Joy Fowler

A 60's boomer tells her WWII mother's story of growing up in a small mill (cereal) town and being a member of a woman's baseball team.

I found this book in the rental we stayed at in Siesta Key, Florida.  It's after WWII and their are few eligible men left in a small town in Minnesota.  Irinia and her friends work at the mill under its owner, an irascible gent who schemes to promote his products by having a travelling, all-women baseball team made up of the workers.  The story of the women is told by Irinia's daughter, a child of the 60's Vietnam and hippie era.

I found the writing uneven and tired a bit of the eccentricities of the mill owner and his wife and his invented "Margaret Collins" spokeswoman, a Betty Crocker clone.  The story was entertaining nonetheless and could provide fodder for a discussion of women's roles.

Some quotes:

"...and we still think we live in a Disney cartoon"  Comment by Irinia's father about Americans after WWII.

"Back then there were no street lights so people could still see the dark [by starlight]"

"It was part of growing up, you began to enjoy nasty things like onions, broccoli, coffee and sleep."

Published: 1996  Read: August 2014  Genre: Fiction

  • ISBN-10: 0345416422
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345416421

The Lost German Slave Girl - John Bailey

This was a great find at a Goodwill before I took off for vacation a couple of weeks ago.  The author was researching laws related to slavery to write a scholarly piece and ran across the story of Salome Mueller (Sally Miller).  She was a very young (5?) German immigrant to New Orleans in 181who disappeared along with her father and siblings, when they left their ship to work as indentured servants.
She is discovered in her 20's by a fellow immigrant living as a slave.  The German community takes up her cause to have her freed, as no white person can be a slave.  The story of her lawsuits all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court are full of intrigue and revelations of the laws of slavery before the civil war.

I found it interesting in that it provided context for the period that explained that many Germans immigrated to America after 1813 because of volcanic eruptions in 1813 (West Indies), 1814 (Philippines) and 1815 (Indonesia) that resulted in widespread crop failures in the Rhine Valley and elsewhere in Europe.  It also explained the financial panic of 1837 that left the slave owner, John Miller, bankrupt.

The author does a good job of presenting legal proceedings in understandable summaries.  Whether the woman discovered at 20 was the real German girl or a very clever slave I'll leave you to find out.

Published: 2003  Read: August 2014  Genre: History

  • ISBN-10: 080214229X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802142290

Thursday, August 28, 2014

In the Kingdom of Ice - Hampton Sides

Sub-title: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Into the Wild, Alive, Annapurna; these are adventure/survival books I've read in the past.  The struggle of man against nature, the strength of character required to continue striving against impossible odds, the belief in the importance of achieving something important, of making history are all elements of these stories.  In this story the author tells the tale of an attempt in the early 1880's to explore the north pole by piercing the polar ice cap that was imagined to surround a temperate ocean at the top of the world.  I enjoyed the back story of how the expedition was conceived and funded and staffed.  I liked too the story of the captain and his wife and how their love was portrayed through her letters.  Almost half of the book was involved in bringing us to the point of the Jeannette setting sail from San Francisco via the Bering Strait to the pole.  Sides does a good job too of setting the period when America was seeking new frontiers and surging forward after the Civil War.  The actual journey surprised me when they planned on being trapped in the ice over winter, expecting to drift to the open sea beyond.  I was surprised they chose to continue on north, after determining that their assumptions were all wrong and their way forward was blocked.  After finishing the story, I wonder if there were other versions, some of which the author hinted at.  A good read that reveals the character of men willing to sacrifice their lives to advance mankind's knowledge of the world.

Published: 2014  Read: August 2014  Genre: History

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

The author is a former book publisher whose mother is dying of pancreatic cancer.  Through the many doctor's appointments, chemotherapy treatments and all the phases of her dying, they read and discuss books, forming a two person book club.  I enjoyed reading their story on many accounts.  The lists of books they read over the course of her final illness appears as an appendix which was a good thing, as my first impulse as I read was to jot down the titles of the books. Having removed that distraction, the author shares his deep love for his mother and their shared respect and passion for reading.  He drew me in to their discussions of the books they read, their reflections on their meaning to each of them amidst her failing health.

His mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, was an educated woman of many firsts, working and raising her three children at the same time. She was the founder of the Women's Refuge Commission, a charity dedicated to saving the lives of refugees around the world and travelled extensively in service to the cause.

Their relationship was portrayed as loving and caring, a son who was very close and unwilling to let her go.  She recognized his need to connect and used the stories they shared to discuss those topics so difficult to broach at any time and especially at the end of life.

Some of the books I would like to read that they shared:
Continental Drift Russell Banks
A Long Way Gone Ishamel Beah
People of the Book Geraldine Brooks
The Lizard Cage Karen Connelly
Murder in the Cathedral T. S. Eliot
The Etiquette of Illness Susan Halpern
Full Catastrophe Living Jon Kabatt-Zinn
Big Machine Victor Lavalle
Too Much Happiness Alice Munro
Daily Strength for Daily Needs Mary Tileston

and that's only a handful of their list.

Published:  2012  Read: August 2014  Genre: Biography

addenda:  I found some notes I'd taken on this book, quotes shared below:

Crossing to Safety - Stegner

I often forget that other people's stories aren't simply introductions to my own, more engaging, ore dramatic, more relevant, and better-told tales, but rather ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor.

That's one of the tings books do.  They help us talk.  But they also give us something we all can talk about when we don't want to talk about ourselves.

The world is complicated, You don't have to have one emotion at a time.

[from Gilead book] when you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you.  So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?

I realized then that for all of us, part of the process of Mom's dying was mourning not just her death but also the death of our dreams of things to come.

It's important to read about cruelty's easier to recognize [it].  Evil almost always starts with small cruelties.

She felt whatever emotions she felt, but feeling was never a useful substitute for doing, and she never let the former get in the way of the latter.  the emphasis for her was always on doing what needed to be done.

...a thank you note isn't the price you pay for receiving a gift, but an opportunity to count your blessings.  And gratitude isn't what you give in exchange for something; it's what you feel when you are blessed.
Hence the joy from thanking.

The Bolter - Irina - book

People don't have to do everything.  You can also express yourself by what you chose to admire and support.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Husband's Secret - Liane Moriarty

Oh, this was delicious!  A wife finds an envelope that says "If you are reading this, I have died" from her husband - but he hasn't died yet.  As she wrestles with opening it, another woman is told her husband loves someone else and yet another mourns her daughter.  Their stories intertwine in unexpected ways.  The author does a wonderful job of switching between characters without making it seem like she wrote three stories and crammed them together.  It's about guilt and grief and heartbreak and forgiveness and the difficulty of relationships.  Most of all its about the impact of secrets and whether we really know the people we think we know.

Some passages I liked:

[Rachel reacting to the condolences from a young priest] "Oh, you sweet, innocent young man, you know nothing about blame.  You have no idea of what your parishioners are capable.  Do you think any of us really confess our real sins to you? Our terrible sins?"

"Falling in love was easy.  Anyone could fall.  It was holding on that was tricky."

"Marriage was a form of insanity; love hovering permanently on the edge of aggravation."

Read this one, it's well written, a good story and some thoughts to ponder.

Published: 2013  Read: August 2014  Genre: Fiction

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Has everyone else read this?  I found it at my trusty used bookstore, Half Price Books at PV Mall and picked it up in trade for some books I was purging.

It's the story of the "ugly step sisters" of Cinderella.  It was a very clever way of telling how they came to be sisters and a history lesson on the Tulip Mania in the Netherlands in 1637.  I really enjoyed how the story took its time to reveal the situation of the characters and introduce their relationships.  We also learn a bit about the art world of the time as Iris, the "plain" sister, develops an eye for painting as an apprentice of a master painter.

I didn't  mark passages as I read so I haven't any interesting quotes.  I've been reading just for the pleasure of consuming a book lately.  My next one might have some bits to share.

Published:  2002  Read July 2014  Genre: Historical fiction

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kiss Me Like A Stranger - Gene Wilder

I got this book from a friend to take on my trip.  I finished it on the flight to Washington DC and left it behind for someone else to enjoy.

The book is a memoir of Gene Wilder's life (he's in his 80's now, born in 1933.  Early on I felt the book was stilted, I did this, then I did this...etc.  Telling instead of showing.  I marked some passages that caught my attention, here's one:

p. 56 [about Acting] Stanislavsky method is to have the character want something (your objective) which  needs "actions" to achieve them.  Lee Strasberg used sensory memory to evoke a feeling needed in a role instead.

The author seems an honest, kind but very sad man.  He tells some of the story through conversations with his psychiatrist - which is a bit awkward but at least breaks up the "telling".  He could have used a lot more creativity in the writing.  Maye his only point was to record his life.

I was touched at how love unfolded in his life.  Always there, on the fringes sometimes, never any really big highs or really deep lows.  His family relationships sustained him throughout his life.  I felt an acceptance for what life had given him.

Published: 2005  Read: July 2014  Genre: Memoir

Monday, July 28, 2014

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake - Anna Quindlen

I really enjoyed this memoir.  I have read her fiction and was interested in finding out more about the author.  I picked up the book at the used book store.

Anna discusses all aspects of life as she reaches her 60's.  Family, friends, aging, parenting, faith.  She's a member of my generation, the feminist that grew up on the edge of the 1960's and broke (or at least cracked) the glass ceiling.  Her attitude of acceptance of what life brings was inviting.  She has been married since her late 20's to the same man and has three children.  She's lived between NY city and a place in the country.  I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's book, "Animal, Vegetable..." and it's interesting to compare and contrast the lives of these two authors.

I didn't mark any passages in Anna's book; I'll have to go back and pick out the pieces that spoke to me and update this blog.

Published: 2012  Read: July 2014  Genre: Memoir

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro

This is a mystery suggested by one of my book clubs that I borrowed from the library.  I'm not a fan of mysteries because they are either too easy to figure out or impossibly convoluted.  I also find I will speed read just to see how the mystery is solved and miss the sub-plots and other interesting bits.

This is the story of Claire, a professional artist who is working as a copier of fine art after having been disgraced in the art world of Boston.  She is approached by a gallery owner, Aiden Merkel, to make a copy of an original Degas painting that was stolen by some unknown thieves from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in 1990 so that Aiden can return the original to the museum.

Right away credibility is stretched.  Is this woman an idiot?  Well, the author shows us she is, explaining her infatuation with an artist, Ian, that lead to her disgrace.  Despite that painful lesson, she falls for Aiden's offer which leads her to getting accused of forgery.

The author does a good job of explaining the history of the museum (it really exists) and the theft (it really happened, just not of the picture described in the book).  There's also details of how art work is forged.
Where the story fails is in the plausibility of the main character and the tired, cliched descriptions.  I found the author's descriptions of scenes and emotions to be lacking; her similes and analogies just didn't ring true.
The most annoying part of the book is the gullibility of Claire and her loyalty to Aiden, despite him obviously being deceitful from the beginning.  I also figured out the real "thief" almost as soon as the character was introduced.  Guess I'm just not meant to read mysteries.

Published: 2012  Read: July 2014  Genre: Mystery

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Last Time I Saw You - Elizabeth Berg

Another used book find and a short read for the airplane.  I enjoy this author.  She first caught my attention when I read "Talk Before Sleep [2006]" about friendships between women.

This is the story of going to one's 40th high school reunion. I had the experience of going to a 60th birthday party for my senior classmates and wanted to compare notes.  The characters are quirky and obsessed with the high school years.  Of course, only those who are so inclined would plot and plan and imagine all the things that could happen at a reunion.  I found the premise a bit ridiculous seeing has high school is more often a miserable memory for many and by this time, life should have taught us that there's no going back. But the characters plunge forward with their dreams of redeeming relationships and saying what was left unsaid.

It was funny in parts and honest about how we really haven't changed on the inside that much since those years.  A woman next to me on the plane, a school teacher on her way to a convention, commented on how she liked the author so when I finished I gave her the book.

Published: 2010  Read: July 2014  Genre: Fiction

A Conspiracy of Paper - David Liss

Picked this up in the used bookstore's $3.00 and less table for my trip to North Carolina.  It met several criteria:
1) not too heavy (I was flying)
2) an award winner (someone thought it was worth reading)
3) about finance (fiction and finance, what a great combo)

The author reveals in an interview in the Reader's Notes (a section that seems to be in most books these days, for reading groups that can't come up with their own intelligent sounding questions) that he wrote this while pursuing his doctorate at Columbia.  He figured he couldn't make a living writing fiction so he thought to teach and entered graduate school.  The book came out of his research on the beginning of the modern stock market in the 1700's in London.

It's the story of a Jewish fighter who deserted his family to make his own way on the streets of London. When he's injured he turns to "debt collection" meaning he uses almost any means necessary to see his customers have the value owed them returned promptly.  He gets hired to research the death of a "stock-jobber" a man who trades in stocks in Exchange Alley.  As his own father was both a stock-jobber and killed in a similarly mysterious manner, he sets out to solve both murders.

I enjoyed the mystery, which I'm usually not fond of because I thought I'd figured it out and was suprised when I hadn't.  I really liked the explanation of how a market is made in stocks and how probability applies to stock trading as well as mystery solving.

It's written somewhat in the language of the time so there is a wealth of new words to savor.  The descriptions of clothing and taverns, privileged and poor are rich and detailed.  I plan to seek out more from this author.

Published: 2000  Read: July 2014  Genre: Fiction/Mystery

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Long Man - Amy Greene

This book was a joy to read.  It's the story of about 4 days in the 1930's in the Appalachians just before a town is wiped out by the lake building up behind a dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority.  A young mother refuses the TVA's offer to leave her farm, where her parents grew up and she and her daughter live with her husband.  He's ready to move on and they are at odds over leaving, when their daughter, only 5, disappears during a rainstorm.

The characters are warm and complex, brave and stubborn.  The descriptions of the mountains and the small town, their fields and homes and trees and meadows take you to those places, make you smell the green and feel the breeze.

The title refers to the Indian name for the Tennessee River, called Long Man because its head was in the mountains and its legs stretched out into the valley.  It's about loss and leaving and in the end redemption.

Published: 2014  Read: June 2014  Genre: Fiction

The Names - A Memoir - N. Scott Momaday

This was a beautiful story of family and a culture.  The book is recognized as the beginning of Native American writing, bringing their way of life and viewpoint on it to the greater public.  I was struck by the information he had on many generations of his family, back to the early 1800's.  The realtionship with the wide open land of his home and the rituals of their daily lives.  

Published:  1976  Read: June 2014  Genre: Memoir, Auto-biography

Kinder than Solitude - Yiyun Li

Have you ever read something and thought how beautiful the words were put together?  This story has many such phrases.  I marked over 20 passages yet when I finished I hadn't liked the characters.  They were resigned to a blank life because of the poisoning, accidental or deliberate, of a friend in their youth.  Their dreariness was wearing. The writing was wonderful but the story was lacking.

I found some notes I made of phrases that I thought were beautiful and wanted to record them:

"...her unforgiving sharpness, what a waste that edge had rusted..."

[referring to girlfriend and mother] " was too transient in his life and the other too permanent."

"...together they [a group of women] seemed to negate one anothers' individual existence by their predictability."

"This freedom to act and the freedom to judge, undermining each other, amount to little more than a well-stocked source of anxiety."

"The crowdedness of family life and the faithfulness of solitude - both brave decisions or both decisions of cowardice...make little dent, in the end, on the profound and perplexing loneliness in which every human heart dwells."

"...wondered if her chief merit was her willingness to serve as a human receptacle for details".

Published:  2014  Read: June 2014  Genre: Fiction

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Carthage - Joyce Carol Oates

At some time in the distant past I read a book by this prolific author and decided I didn't like her writing.
This was on the "Best Picks" list at the library so I decided to give her a try.

Carthage is a small town in upstate New York where Cressida (I know, weird name, I'm still not sure how to pronounce it) is the younger of two daughters of a successful business man and past town mayor.  She's different; difficult, doesn't meet your eye when talking, bright, sarcastic and brittle.  Her older sister Juliet is sweet and pretty and engaged to a poor, but handsome football hero, Brett.  He decides to join the army after 9/11 and comes back from Iraq with a damaged and scarred face and traumatic memories.  When the engagement is called off and Cressida goes missing, Brett is accused of her murder.

The story tells how the tragedy of one person can ripple in the lives of others.  Brett's inability to cope with civilian life, Juliet's heartbreak over losing her fiance and her sister, the parents altered relationship when their daughter is not found. There's parallels to Shakespeare's King Lear.
(spoiler alert)
The twist, about two-thirds through the book, is that Cressida didn't die.  She was found by a kind hearted blustering woman who thinks she been abused and spirits her off to Florida.  Years pass before Cressida is prodded by circumstances to return to her hometown and the broken lives she caused.

I think the ending reminded me why I didn't like whatever early book I'd read by Oates.  I felt the story was left dangling, issues not answered and left to the reader's imagination.  Reviewers have said it portrays the burden of guilt and loss and the impact of making judgments.  That it does well and like real life, those emotions are never fully resolved.

Published:  2014  Read: June 2014  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Scent of Pine - Lara Vapnyar

Sometimes I pick up books on the new release shelf at the library.   This one was short and a new author and a glowing book jacket write-up...and a disappointment.

It's the story of a 30 something Mom and wife disenchanted with her marriage who mets a similiarly estranged man at a conference and they go off to his cabin in the woods for a couple days.  The author's Russian-born so the story revolves around the Mom sharing the story of her stint as a camp counselor in the Siberian woods.  Yawn.  There's a twist at the end which isn't worth wading through the story and there's no resolution to the relationships.

Sometimes I just pick a stinker.

Published:  2014   Read: May 2014  Genre: Fiction

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

I got the recommendation for this book from a blog I follow.  The blog's author reflects on retirement and full time RVing and posts reviews of the books she reads.  This one was highly recommended.

Harold Fry is a recently retired man that receives a note from a former co-worker who is dying in a hospice. He decides he needs to go to her and takes off walking totally unprepared for 600 miles across England to see her before she dies.  He leaves his bewildered wife, the two of them living a lonely marriage after their only child, a son, had left many years ago.  His journey opens him to seeing the life still has meaning and love can survive.

Some quotes:
People [were doing ordinary things] and what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside.  The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.  The loneliness of that.
Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways.  You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before.
I enjoyed the story as Harold reflected on his life while traipsing across the country solo.  As he gets closer to his goal he gets some "groupies", reminding me of the people that followed Forest Gump as he ran across country and I wanted him to leave them behind instead of taking responsibility for their devotion.  They eventually separate and Harold meets his old friend before she dies.

It is a story of attempted redemption and the the possibility of second chances.  A touching tale worth a read.

Published:  2012  Read: 2014  Genre: Fiction

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Geography of Memory - Jeanne Murray Walker

Subtitle: A Pilgrimage through Alzheimer's

This book is a memoir of the author's experience with her mother at the end of life.  She is one of two sisters, living in Delaware while her sister and mother are in Dallas, Texas.  It was hard to read her perspective at times when I thought of her sister who was with her mother all the time, while the author flew in to visit or telephoned.  The tension of carrying for a parent long distance was plain and the negotiations between siblings honest.  There are insights into the function of memory and the author explains a belief that Alzheimer's patients and others with dementia are not making meaningless babblings but instead are using metaphor to bring their past to the present.  There was an honoring of her mother and her ability to retain her dignity and personality despite the progression of the disease, a message we all need to embrace.

Published:  2013  Read: May 2014  Genre: Memoir

The Ornament of the World - Maria Rosa Menocal

Subtitle: How Muslims, Jes, and Christians created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

I need something to read for a long plain ride and this book ended up in my suitcase, a novel I acquired from a friend's library after she passed away.  It was written by a scholar of medieval Spain history.  It's a historical account I knew little about, seven centuries from 750 to 1492 in the Spanish penisula.  It was a bit dense with names and places and successions of rulers but the concentrated focus needed was perfect for screening out dull air flight.

The author's epilogue explains her thesis that different religious cultures can co-exist and flourish.  It's only when one persuasion decides there's is the only true belief and enforces fundamental furor on non-believers that the society falls apart.  In her postscript the author explains that the book was finished and to the publisher before 9/11 and that, though tempted, she did not alter it prior to publication but let it speak to our new reality.

Published: 2002  Read: May 2014  Genre: History

Side note:  I often find bookmarks left in books that are a story themselves.  This one had a ticket stub from the Arizona opera and a news article about the Persian poem, Shahnamen.  Some day, I plan to write a story about bookmarks and other bits I've found in books.

Oil! - Upton Sinclair

I've been cleaning off my bookshelves, part of my "2014 in 2014" goal to get rid of 2014 things from my life in 2014.

This book was the basis for the movie, "There Will Be Blood" which I didn't watch bu made me pick up the book.  It was published in 1926 as a scathing criticism and thinly veiled commentary on the corruption of government and abuse of power by the big oil companies of California that led to the Teapot Dome scandal during the Harding administration.  The story is told from the perspective of the privileged son of one of the oil company owners, nicknamed Bunny.  He's a naive, idealistic, romantic innocent that has an inside seat to the wheeling and dealing of his father and his partners.  Farmers are cheated of their land rights, workers are exploited and politicians bought.  The news is manipulated to present only the story the owners wish to make known.

It's an astonishing parallel to politics today and the power of corporations in the lives of every citizen.  It also portrays the thinking about communism and socialism when it was emerging in the early 1900's as a political force.  I'm glad I read it.

Published:  1926  Read: April 2014  Genre: Fiction

The Death of Santini - Pat Conroy

I admire this author.  His book, Prince of Tides, and the subsequent movie, was a favorite of mine.  His writing is emotional and gut wrenching.  This is the story of his relationship with his father, the inspiration for many of his stories and the real person behind his book, The Great Santini.

I was fascinated how two people who had such a stormy relationship could still love each other and be there for each other.  The family portrayl is brutally honest and sad.   It's a peek into the events and circumstances that create a great author.

Published:  2013    Read:  April 2014   Genre: Auto-biography

The Open Mind - J Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer was a physicist and the head of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bomb.  This book is a series of presentations he gave through the 1950's when he was working to establish a global cooperative means of controlling the use of nuclear weapons.  It was interesting to read the perspective of the times and get a better understanding of the cold war mentality.  The quote from the book that gives it the title is as follows:

"An indispensable, perhaps the indispensable, element in giving meaning to the dignity of men, and in making possible the taking of decision on the basis of honest conviction, is the openness of men's minds, and the openness of whatever media there are for communion between men, free of restraint, free of repression, and free even of that most pervasive of all restraints, that of status and hierarchy".

An interesting commentary in today's age of "news" pundits.

Published: 1955  Read: May 2014  Genre: Essay

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Phoenix - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I love this series called the Morland Dynasty that I was introduced to by my friend, Teddi.  It's the history of England from the 14th century and the War of the Roses up through this volume, which begins in 1931.  It has taken a while to get here, this being the 35th book in the series!

The author uses the fictional Morlands and the evolution of their family to reveal the history of each age.  It's sort of like Downton Abbey covering seven centuries.  I enjoy how the continuity of family perseveres through wars, economic downturns, and societal changes.  Like Prairie Home Companion, all the women are strong, all the men are handsome and all the children are above average.

Since about 1850, the books have gone from covering a lifetime of 50 years or so to focusing on less than 5 years.  This has brought greater detail to the historical recounting but the characters lives change much less.

The rumor is that this is the last of the series, though there's no tidy summing up and one can imagine the Morland's lives going on even to the present day.

Published: 2013  Read: April 2014  Genre: Historical fiction

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Caregivers - Nell Lake

Sub-title: A support group's sotries of slow loss, courage, and love

The title of this book grabbed me, as caregiving has been on my mind the past few years.  It was a different viewpoint on the struggles and realities of caring for elderly, disabled or impaired family members.  The book tells the story of a caregivers support group over the course of a few years.  The most striking take a way I had was the concept of an "ambiguous loss" - one where there is not a definitive end to losing a loved one for months and months.  Friends and family quckly adjust to the caregiver bearing the burden of the elder parent, spouse or child,  while the caregiver's life is a seemingly endless slide into greater loss, anger, frustration, sadness and most of all exhaustion.

The group leader used a phrase "automatic negative thinking" to identify the despairing attitude that can become a new norm for the caregiver.  The author quoted one professional as saying "the evaporation of a purpose is a sure sign that someone is at risk" when they were explaining the downward spiral of many elderly.  There was no tidy conclusion to this book.  Only a revealing, thought provolking glimpse of a future that may be there for many of us, both as receivers and givers.

Published: 2014  Read: March 2014  Genre: Nursing, caring for elderly

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage - Ann Patchett

I've enjoyed this author since I read her book, Bel Canto several years ago.  She is a meticulous writer, with her words carefully chosen.  She paints a scene in great detail and when a character is introduced, I feel I am living their experience.  So, I looked forward to reading this book, a collection of short stories, memoirs and speeches she has written over the past.  Along the way, she reveals her family background, her upbringing and education and her views of marriage and children.  I found I prefer her fiction more than her person.  I don't think we would be friends yet I continue to admire and be impressed with her writing.

Ann Patchett grew up going to Catholic schools and the discipline and respect she learned still reverbates through her writing.  She had a life off relative privelege and was encouraged from a very young age to pursue her belief that she would be a writer.  She earned an MFA and attended the Iowas Writer's Workshop.  She speaks of the need for would-be writers to study and practice their craft as would a scientist.  It was a differnt view of writing that I found refreshing, revealing writing as work and skill, as well as art and gift.

I learned she is a lover of opera (to the point of being a snob about it).  She married a much older physician after many years of dating him and prefers to remain childless. She is definite in her opinions and unapologetic for her viewpoints.  I recommend reading this book to get inside the mind of a talented author.

Publisehd:  2013  Read: April 2014  Genre: Essay, memoir

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Stitches - Anne Lamott

sub-title: A handbook on meaning, hope and repair

This book was very short, as will be this review.  A mish mash of thoughts and mind dump of some ideas that aren't pulled together very well and too under developed to offer any real meaning.  Not recommended, look for one of her earlier books for some real meat.

Published: 2013  Read: March 2014  Genre: Self-help, religion

Live at Home in the Twenty-First Century - Jeanne E Arnold

subtitle: 32 families open their doors

I found this book via the blog, Becoming Minimalist, which I started reading a few months ago.  The blog discusses one person's journey to getting rid of stuff, rejecting consumerism and focusing on the relationships in life that really matter.

This book is an anthropology/sociology/archeology journey into how people in the U.S. (Los Angeles area, specifically) live with all their stuff.  It's sad and eye-opening and thought-provoking.  The authors are scientists in the fields mentioned who decided to explore how families are living today.  They videoed and took pictures of these homes over an extended period of time, generating 1000 of hours of video and 1000's of pictures.  Their analysis revealed several themes; namely:

  • material saturation - people are living with mountains of stuff, more personal possessions than ever in history.  Childrens' items in particular have taken over every room of the house.
  • food - families have food in large quantities but eat out over one-third of the time and when eating at home only occasionally eat sitting at a table together.
  • vanishing leisure - while most families had lovely outdoor spaces with toys, pools, Jacuzzis, and other entertainment, they spent very little of their time out of doors and instead if they had leisure time, spent it with TV or computers.
  • kitchens as command centers - kitchens aren't just for preparing food and eating - today's kitchen is a hub of calendars, homework, work space, art projects and the like.  Particularly revealing is the correlation of the amount of things on the refrigerator door with the amount of things throughout the house.
  • bathroom bottlenecks - many of the families had only one bathroom which created jams in getting ready in the morning but conversely created a place for parents to share with their children.
  • master suites as sanctuaries - this phenomenon is a way for the adults to get away, although in several cases the desire was undermined by babies in the room and a lack of time to relax.
I suspect readers will dismiss the study as too narrowly focused and dismiss it as part of the California life style.  While all the families were in the LA area, the study encompassed a wide range of incomes, varying ethnicities and ages.  All the families had children, ranging from 17 to 1, and all of the families had both parents working.  

I found it a fascinating, sobering view into the lives of many of the families in the U.S. today and I suspect their are parallels across the nation.

Published:  2012  Read: March 2014  Genre: Non-fiction, science

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Man Who was Thursday - G. K. Chesterton

I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, I think from a blog.  The blogger raved about it so I thought I'd check it out.

G.K. Chesterton was someone who inspired C.S. Lewis.  He wrote in the early 1900's and was considered witty.  This story is touted as a mystery detective tale.  It starts out clever enough with comical asides and observations on men in high society of London of that time.  It gets weirder the further along it goes.  Turns out its a bit of a parable, and a bit of a philosophical commentary.

A young poet, Syme, meets an anarchist, Gregory and is swept into a secret council of anarchists who intend to destroy the world.  They refer to themselves by the days of the week and Syme becomes "Thursday".  Syme has been secretly recruited by the police to be a detective and infiltrate the council.  As the story unfolds he finds other detectives have been recruited for the same mission.

I kept waiting for some clever twist but the story just sort of unwound into chaos.  I should have paid attention to the sub-title: "A Nightmare".  The reviews I read of it are similar to my impression (What is this...?)  and wildly enthusiastic, drawing all sorts of deeper meaning.  It was more popular with men than women readers.    Not an author I will seek out again unless someone can recommend a reason why.

Published: 1908  Read: March 2014  Genre: Fiction