Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dreary Days of February

Although it was snowing as I began writing this (it took me a good 24 hours to finish--the snow is now gone), except for a blizzard the first week of the month, February has been anything but dreary, with temperatures getting up to the low 70s here in Denver. February reading, however, has featured a rather wearisome "mini-theme" of hospitalization and illness. By the third book featuring extended time spent in a hospital, I was feeling rather ill myself. Luckily, not everything this month has fallen into this theme.

Back of Beyond, by C.J. Box
Long Gone, Alafar Burke

I stopped reading C.J. Box's Joe Pickett several years ago because it had gotten too dark and violent for me, but I decided to try the first book featuring a different character, Cody Hoyt. Montana lawman Cody has a lot of personal problems--alcohol being foremost among them--but he is relentless when his AA sponsor is found dead. The trail leads into Yellowstone National Park, where Cody's son is on a wilderness trek with his stepfather--and at least one murderer. Back of Beyond is kind of combo mystery-Western and, though not for me, I can imagine this "manly mystery" would be entertaining for many readers.

In Alafar Burke's stand-alone thriller, unemployed gallery worker Alice Humphrey suddenly gets an unbelievably great job offer . . . and just as quickly finds a dead body in her new place of employment. As she realizes she has been set up, Alice must figure out who is behind the plot before the police arrest her. The story is so convoluted, it lost me rather quickly. Although I like Burke, I wouldn't recommend this book.  

The Ogalalla Road, by Julene Bair
A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren
Anchor and Flares, by Kate Braestrup

Julene Bair came to a Novel Conversations meeting several years ago to discuss her earlier memoir, One Degree West, and she was interesting and charming. Her new memoir, The Ogalalla Road, is subtitled A Memoir of Love and Reckoning. It recounts two of her past (failed) relationships --though she says little about her current long-standing marriage--as well as her struggle to reckon with her family's role in farming the Plains in a way that has contributed to depletion of the Ogalalla aquifer. Also woven into the story are the challenges of raising her son as a single parent. There is much that is interesting in the book, but I am too linear to discern all the connections and metaphors that she finds between the various threads of her story. I also found (am I becoming an old fogey?) that I didn't enjoy hearing about the challenges of her sex life with her lover Ward.  Somehow, reading sex scenes among fictional characters is better than reading about the author's own sexual experiences.

Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance confirmed all the reasons that I already liked her, most notably that she seems to be one of the few people who entered politics to help people, From humble beginnings and challenging young adulthood (a too-early marriage), she constructed a good life of teaching and public service, at times sacrificing a simpler, more satisfying life to take jobs that she believed would advance the common good. I only wish that it were she and not Bernie Sanders who was leading the campaign to make the economy work for more than the super-rich. In other words: Warren for President!

Kate Braestrup is a chaplain to the warden service in Maine. She is also the mother of a blended family of six children who found herself alarmed when her oldest son Zach decided to join the Marines straight out of high school. That alarm prompted this book, which is a reflection on parenting, peril, and service. Braestrup has a good sense of humor (wouldn't you have to with six children?), a strong commitment to service, an ingrained optimism, and a way with words, so the book can take you from laughter to admiration to tears in the space of a few pages. I'd recommend the book--but read her earlier memoir Here If You Need Me first.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson
Three Wishes, by Liane Moriarty
My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
Inside the O'Briens, by Lisa Genova
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

Fortune Smiles won the most recent National Book Award and it is indeed an impressive collection. Its six short stories are set in very different times and places but all are melancholy (the title, which refers to a rigged North Korean lottery game, is misleading). My favorite story, "Interesting Facts," is narrated by a woman with cancer, a woman whose husband sounds very much like Adam Johnson. "Nirvana" also features a sick wife (I believe the mini-theme started here) but is narrated by her husband, who has created a hologram of the recently assassinated president--people can download the hologram and chat companionably with the dead president, and many are doing so. In the title story, Johnson returns to Korea, the scene of his Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master's Son, telling the story of two defectors from North Korea trying to adapt to life in the South. The other stories feature a UPS driver whose son was dropped off in his truck post-Katrina, the former warden of an East German prison, and a child pornographer. Yes, there's a creepy factor, but the stories are nonetheless well-done.

Liane Moriarty has a gift for making life seem funny, even when it goes horribly wrong. Three Wishes is the story of triplets whose lives may be a bit overly entwined. Cat's husband is having an affair with the sister of Gemma's boyfriend. Hyper-organized Lyn is opting not to get pregnant because Cat has had a miscarriage and Lyn does not want to hurt her feelings; meanwhile, Gemma learns she is pregnant and decides to give the baby to Cat. Meanwhile, their long-divorced parents are dating . . . each other. Moriarty uses a third-person observer device throughout the book to show what other people thought of the triplets at various stages of their lives; she used a similar device in Big Little Lies, but it worked better there because there was a reason (a police investigation) for outsiders to be commenting. Here, the device falls flat--but the book is still a fun read.

My Name Is Lucy Barton kicked the hospitalization/illness mini-theme into high career. Lucy Barton has gone into the hospital for minor surgery and ends up stuck there for two months. During that time, her mother comes to visit her, the first time they have seen each other in years. The visit prompts Lucy to reflect on her hard-scrabble childhood in rural Illinois and her relationship with her mother. The book has the feeling of a memoir, with Lucy recollecting her time in the hospital from many years in the future (but of course it's fictional); I'm not sure why Strout used that structure and I didn't think it was very effective. In addition, I would have liked to see other relationships besides that of Lucy and her mother explored. This is probably my least favorite of Strout's books--but feel compelled to say that a FB friend (a retired English prof) posted today about how much she liked this book, so others have a different view!

Inside the O'Briens involves less hospital time, but lots of illness. Joe O'Brien is a Boston police officer who discovers he has Huntington's Disease, which rather quickly ends his career and limits his mobility. Meanwhile, his four children must decide whether to find out if they have the gene that means they will develop the disease and how to live their lives no matter what their decision. This book feels like it was written not as a compelling story but as a way to teach about Huntington's. While that's a laudable goal, it doesn't make for a great novel.

All My Puny Sorrows returns readers to the hospital--this time to the psych ward, where the narrator's sister, Elfrieda (a talented concert pianist), is being treated following a suicide attempt. As the narrator Yoli juggles caring for her sister in Winnipeg and her children in Toronto and New York, she also is considering whether she will help Elf commit suicide by taking her to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal for the mentally ill. The book is well-written, the characters well-developed, and the dilemmas authentic--and that's what makes the book so very painful. I think All My Puny Sorrows is a good book, but I would only recommend reading it knowing in advance that's it's not going to be easy.

Fed, White, and Blue, by Simon Majumdar
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, by Ruth Reichl

When Simon Majumdar, the British/Indian food critic and judge on various Food Network shows, decided to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, his wife suggested he needed to see more of the country. He took up the challenge, giving the journey a food theme, and Fed, White, and Blue is the result. The book is mildly amusing but his "take-aways" are pretty mundane--basically, he learned that there are friendly people and good food all around the United States. He briefly touches on some food-related problems, but leaves them rather quickly for more upbeat tales. One note: I listened to this book; Majumdar's voice and British accent are so distinctive that the narrator's American accent was disconcerting if not offputting.

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life is a thoroughly lovely book. Although Reichl refers to it as a cookbook, it's so much more. It's a collection of recipes that Reichl made in the year after she lost her job as editor of Gourmet when the magazine folded. It's also a journal of that year, interspersed with tweets that she sent as she went through the process of grieving her job and finding new directions. I found these impressionistic and evocative missives to be like little poems (see examples in "Favorite Passages" below). On top of all of that, the book is illustrated with wonderful photographs by Mikkel Vang. Yes, there is food porn, but there are also pictures of Reichl at work in her kitchen and at her writing desk, as well as photos of the natural beauty surrounding Reichl's home in upstate New York. I've read the book, but I plan to look through it many more times (I got it from the library, but may end up buying a copy).

Pick of the Litter:  My Kitchen Year

Favorite Passages

Sun coming up. Hawks hovering outside. Dancing in the kitchen with gnocchi and the blues. Good way to start a Sunday.

Up early. Vast rose sky, cloud wisps. Wood thrush calling. Cool cucumber soup. Lemon vebena. Threads of mint. Day starts well.

From My Kitchen Year, by Ruth Reichl

Suffering, even though it may have happened a long time ago, is something that is passed from one generation to the next to the next, like flexibility or grace or dyslexia. My grandfather had big green eyes, and dimly lit scenes of slaughter, blood on snow, played out behind them all the time, even when he smiled.

From All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

Bad things happen but the world isn't ending. No bang, no whimper, no sudden fix, just this long, slow slog we're all taking together toward the next shining, inevitable miracle.

From Anchor and Flares, by Kate Braestrup

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finishing Anna Karenina . . . and Other Late January Achievements

Well, to be honest, there weren't many other late January achievements, as I didn't get too much reading done while traveling the last week of the month. However, finishing Anna Karenina was a high point!

Tricky 22, by Janet Evanovich
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

I had planned never to read another Stephanie Plum mystery, as they have become tedious (how often can a blown-up car be funny?), but this one was available as an audiobook via OverDrive and I fell for it. Shouldn't have!

In a Dark, Dark Wood has gotten a lot of ink--treated as a successor to Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Unfortunately, it doesn't deserve that attention, as the plotting is not as creative or tight as in either of those books, the structure is not as interesting, and the suspense is lukewarm (and I say this not being the biggest fan of Flynn's and Hawkins' books). The protagonist of In a Dark, Dark Wood, Leonora, is invited to a "hen weekend" (British version of a bachelorette party) for a childhood friend she has not spoken to in a decade--and she hasn't been invited to the wedding, meaning she doesn't know who Clare is marrying, a fact that turns out to be important. The weekend is being held in a remote lodge in a forest--where there is no cell service and, as a number of weird things start happening, the landline stops working too. So why would Nora go to this weekend? And why would she stay when things got ugly and contact with the outside world was impossible? And why are people, including me, reading this book? Those are the real mysteries.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

The first surprise in Anna Karenina--besides the recognition of just how long it is (almost 1000 pages)--was that Anna did not actually appear until quite a ways into the book. I had foolishly expected her to be the sole focal point of the book--but it is a Russian novel after all. As the novel opens, we learn she will be arriving in Moscow soon to intervene with her brother Stepan Oblonsky's wife Dolly, who has learned of his affair with the family's governess and is in a state. We also meet the character who turns out to be an equal to Anna in importance in the book--Konstantin Levin, a landowner who is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty. Kitty, however, is in love with Count Vronsky, who will eventually become Anna's lover, for whom she will leave her husband and eventually ruin her life. While Anna Karenina, like the few other Russian novels I have read, has many characters, these six are central and it is through their lives that Tolstoy explores his themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, family/marriage, social and political change (the changing role of the peasant, education reform, changes in women's roles and marriage law), and the contrast between rural and urban lifestyles. Despite the many characters, themes, and topics, I still found Anna's story the most affecting part of the novel. In the section of the novel when she has been rejected by society, she is cut off from her son, and her relationship with Vronsky is troubled, Tolstoy uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style to convey Anna's breakdown, leading to her suicide. While the discussions of political and social issues are interesting, Anna's tragic end--brought on by a combination of her own bad decisions and a rigid society--is what lingers after the last page is turned. I don't find this the "best novel ever written" as William Faulkner did (and he was way more qualified to make such a judgment), but I'm glad I finally read it. On to War and Peace?

Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, by Kate Kerrigan

I thought this book sounded good because it was described as being the story of a bride using her grandmother's recipes to work on her marriage--and I'm a sucker for a novel with recipes. However, the bride is an obnoxious character and her grandmother, whom she idolized as having a perfect marriage, is her own kind of pain in the butt. If that sentence isn't enough to convey that I didn't enjoy this book, then I'll just say it: not recommended!

Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou

Here, too, I had a misconception about this book--I thought it would actually be a letter, written to all the young women who looked up to Angelou. Instead, it is a collection of largely autobiographical essays and poems, many previously published. Overall, the collection fell flat for me, though I did enjoy the pieces on Fannie Lou Hamer and on poetry.

Pick of the Litter:  Anna Karenina

Favorite Passages: 

Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.

All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.

From Anna Karenina

Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America's great novel that You Can't Go Home Again. I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one's skin, at the extreme corners of one's eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

From Letter to My Daughter