Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Hit the 100 Book Marks This Month

Yes, I hit 100 books read in 2018 this month. That might explain why I am so far behind in my work. But two of this month's tally--The Overstory and The Great Believers--were so good I don't even care that I now have clients who think me totally unreliable.

Best Books I Read This Month

Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Mr. Bridge is the companion to Connell's Mrs. Bridge, this time getting the interior view from the husband. Like Mrs. Bridge, the book is told in short vignettes that don't seem to create an overarching narrative and yet convey a life.  As constricted in pre-World War II Kansas City as his wife, Mr. Bridge at first seems pitiable (joy is for the "simple-minded") but progresses to despicable because of his narrow-mindedness and racism. I had much more empathy for Mrs. Bridge--perhaps because I naturally prefer the emotional lives of women or perhaps because she seemed to be a good person trapped in her circumstances while he is a less good person creating those circumstances. Despite my lack of sympathy for the protagonist, Mr. Bridge is still worth reading to see the male perspective on the same context and some of the same events described in the earlier book.

A Full Life: Reflections at 90, by Jimmy Carter. This memoir covers a lot of details about President Carter's life that I had not previously known. Most notable to me was how he journeyed from making decisions for his family without even telling Rosalyn to viewing her as a full partner. I also didn't realize he wrote poetry, which he intersperses with his memories--I don't think it's the greatest poetry, but it does convey the understanding that this is a man of many parts. I occasionally felt the author was a little self-righteous, but I also think he deserves to be.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers. The memoir that made everyone else love Dave Eggers made me dislike him, but he's gradually convinced me he's an admirably imaginative writer. The Circle is a cautionary tale about how a big social media company might essentially take over the world. Mae Holland needs a job, and when her friend helps her get on at Internet giant The Circle, she's thrilled, not only with the salary and benefits but the numerous social activities. The longer she stays, though, the more The Circle demands that her life be lived in public, with scary consequences.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Richard Powers is a genius. He weaves science into each of his novels but does it so beautifully that even the somewhat science-phobic can enjoy the narrative and appreciate what we are learning. While some may find The Overstory a bit heavy-handed in its environmentalism, I could not put it down. In the initial section, titled "Roots," Powers introduces several (mostly young) people who will reappear throughout the book, often meeting and interacting with each other. Each has some special relationship to trees--one was saved by a tree when falling out of a helicopter, one is the last remaining member of an Iowa farm family that recorded the life span of one of the last American chestnuts in the country, one is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who put his hopes in a mulberry he planted in his back yard, one is a little girl with a speech impediment who loves trees more than people . . . although there are even more of these characters, they all become fully realized people. As we proceed through the layers of the forest/sections of the books, their lives intersect in an effort to save the California redwoods, and we care deeply about the forest and the people. For me, The Overstory rivals The Time of Our Singing as a Powers masterpiece. This author deserves the kudos so often heaped upon Jonathan Franzen!

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai. The Great Believers is told in two linked narratives. In the mid-1980s Yale and his friends are dealing with the frightening new epidemic killing gay men and the effect of HIV/AIDS on relationships of all kinds. At the same time, Yale is trying to acquire a collection of artwork from an elderly aunt of his friends Nico and Fiona (the book opens at Nico's funeral, so he is mostly a specter throughout the book). In 2015, Fiona is in Europe trying to find her estranged daughter Claire; Fiona stays with Richard, a photographer friend from the old days in Chicago, who is getting ready for a major solo exhibition featuring many photos and videos of their crowd in the 1980s. Makkai fills the book with wonderful characters and subplots too numerous to mention, but all the plots cause the reader to think about love, family, relationships, art, and cause-and-effect. She also made me see what it must have been like to be a gay man when AIDS was a death sentence in a way I never had before. Highly recommended.

Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks may not be Alice Munro or Raymond Carver, but I found the actor's short stories enjoyable. Some characters reappear in several stories; my favorite series was "Our Town Today with Hank Fiset," which featured the ebullient Hank Fiset fulminating about aspects of life in his small town and, in one case, why it is superior to New York. In one story, a man cracks under the pressure of bowling several perfect games in a row while in another an injured veteran talks to a former comrade every Christmas Eve. Hanks gives us some insights into his world--one story features a minor actor on a press junket in Europe--as well as some good doses of humor. In a tip of the hat to his love of old typewriters, each story contains a reference to a machine in his collection.

Also Read

Two Nights, by Kathy Reichs. This is the first Reichs book I've read that wasn't a Temperance Brennan book. It features Sunday Night (and her brother, thus two Nights), a reclusive, scarred heroine who gets drawn from her haven to search for a missing girl. Okay, but not super. I enjoyed most the time she spent searching in Chicago because so many of the restaurants and locations were familiar to me (I know, how provincial).

A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penney. Another Inspector Gamache mystery, this one seemed to revisit themes that I'd had enough of in earlier works in the series. Not exciting.

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine. A young woman plots to insinuate herself into a wealthy family and steal the husband. There are twists, but ugh, just ugh.

Kudos, by Rachel Cusk. This is the third of Cusk's Outline trilogy, and I think I was just tired of her style of narrating through the stories of people the protagonist Faye, a novelist. There's some humor and some insight into the work of creating, but overall I'm glad the trilogy is finished.

A Gathering of Secrets, by Linda Castillo. Another mediocre Kate Burkholder mystery.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. A collection of poetry with some lovely imagery, especially about nature but it occasoinally lapses into the graphic (a bird poops in the poet's mouth--seriously?).

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. Ward writes beautifully (although perhaps occasionally a little too fond of simile/metaphor), but I cannot love her work, which I am sure is totally about me and not her. JoJo, the hero of Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a biracial 13-year-old whose white father is in prison and whose African American mother is a mostly absent drug addict who enjoys hitting the children. He must take care of his toddler sister, under the loving eye of his grandfather; his grandmother is dying of cancer. When his mother decides to take the children and her best friend to pick up his father from jail, the road trip can only bring trouble. A couple of dead people who can't or won't move on make their presence known to some family members. I feel shallow saying this, but the book is so depressing I found it nearly unbearable.

Are You Sleeping? by Kathleen Barber. I just finished this psychological thriller a few days ago and have already forgotten what it was about. Nuf said.

Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I will never be a Sherlock Holmes person. Sorry.

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. I had to renew this book about a boy nicknamed Bit being raised in a commune in upstate New York twice--and I was still finishing it the night before the third due date. The commune is plagued with the problems I would expect--inadequate housing, inadequate food, and a "leader" who makes actually running the community difficult. Somehow I just was not compelled by life in the commune--or what happened to Bit and his family once things fell apart at the commune and they took off for a more mainstream life.

Favorite Passages

This section of a poem by Ross Gay in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is describing shame:

stitched together like a quilt
with all its just legible
patterning which could be a thing
heavy and warm
to be buried in
or instead might be helped up
to the light
where we see the threads
barely holding
so human and frail
so beautiful and sad and small
from this remove.


You have given me a thing I could never have imagined, before I knew you. It's like I had the word "book," and you put one in my hands. I had the word "game," and you taught me how to play. I had the word "life," and then you came along and said, "Oh! You mean this."

But people have no idea of what time is. They think it's a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can't see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.

Richard Powers, The Overstory


Sunday, July 1, 2018

How Do You Feel about Goodreads?

This month, I was thinking about posting on Goodreads instead of maintaining this blog, which doesn't exactly have high readership. However, I tried posting a review on that site and found it somewhat annoying to deal with their format, many questions/prompts, and visually distracting design. But I know it's really, really popular. So I'd be interested in hearing why people like it so much. Meanwhile, still at it here . . .

Best Books I Read This Month

Cherries in Winter, by Suzan Colon. The author had her dream job as a magazine editor. Then, in the economic downturn in 2008,  she was laid off and suddenly had to spend less. One of her methods of doing so was to consult her grandmother’s recipes. As she experimented with a simpler and cheaper way of eating, her mother shared family stories with her. The result is a charming little book—neither the recipes or stories will change your life, but they provide a pleasant diversion (or they did for me--many reader-reviewers on Amazon were annoyed by the fact that her dream job was such a good job and she did immediately fall into penury).

No Time to Spare, by Ursula K. LeGuin. This collection of essays, while containing too many pieces about LeGuin’s cat (I'm sure cat-lovers would find them charming), features many thought-provoking pieces on such topics as women and anger, sacrifice, “spare time,” and not using the word believe when talking about science. Some topics—exorcism, why uniforms are ugly—qualify as odd, but overall the collection is worth your time.

Transit, by Rachel Cusk. Cusk's novels (Transit is the middle book in a trilogy) feature Faye, writer, mother of two, and recent divorcee. In Transit, she has moved to London (in Outline she was teaching a writing course in Athens) and is renovating a newly purchased flat, so her children are once again not an essential part of her story. However, there isn't really that much of a story (although the flat renovation piece is funny, marked by extremely horrible neighbors), as Cusk constructs the books from the stories of the people Faye encounters in her life. It's an innovative approach, which I admire without, to be honest, truly understanding her point. Thus, I include the book in the "Best Books" category more out of respect than actual enjoyment. 

The Nest, by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. The Plumb are a dysfunctional lot: the four siblings--Melody, Beatrice, Jack, and Leo--have been waiting for decades to receive a family inheritance (referred to as "The Nest") that will be paid out when the youngest child turns 40. Then, a year before they will become eligible for the money, Leo (the eldest) gets into an accident in which a young waitress loses her foot and the family agrees to borrow against the inheritance to pay her off, accepting (for no apparent reason) Leo's assurances that he will pay them back. Of course, he doesn't, but somehow I enjoyed reading about the messed up lives of the siblings as they worked their way to a resolution--and the ending is surprisingly positive. Although the book has been a bestseller, I noticed a lot of really negative reviews on Amazon. Nonetheless, I liked it.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, by Sherry Turkle. Turkle is a professor at MIT, so she works in an environment that tends to see technology positively. She has spent a number of years researching the impact of technology on people, particularly the switch from conversation (face-to-face interaction) to connection (digital interaction). She examines how technology, especially smart phones, affect our creativity and ability to be empathetic, our friendships, family relations, education, work, politics, and how we treat the aging. It's a fascinating discussion with ideas we ought all to consider implementing. Highly recommended!


Also Read

The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware. This author apparently has a gift for creating stupid protagonists who bug me no end. This, my second Ruth Ware, will be my last!

Good Me, Bad Me, by Ali Land. Creepy story of a teenager in foster care. Her terrible back story--her mother is in jail awaiting trial for killing several children in their home--at first generates sympathy, but then . . .

The Murder at the Vicarage and The Mysterious Affair at Styles (audio versions packaged together), by Agatha Christie. I hadn't read any Agatha Christie since high school, so thought I'd revisit her. I found the books a great insomnia cure and can't figure out why she's considered such a goddess in the mystery world.

All Fall Down and See How They Run, by Ally Carter. My granddaughter recommended these books in the Embassy Row series. They feature Grace, the teenaged granddaughter of the long-time U.S. ambassador to the fictional European country of Adria. In the first book, Grace has been in psychological trouble since her mother's mysterious death three years ago and hopes to figure out what really happened, with the help of her group of international friends (who are much more likable than Grace herself). For someone whose been under a psychiatrist's care, it's amazing she has so much freedom to get into trouble, but that's what keeps the pace of the books extremely fast. I was lukewarm on the books; my granddaughter raced through the first one but has stalled out in the second.

The Silent Sister, by Diane Chamberlain. Riley has always been told that her sister Lisa committed suicide as a teenager because of the pressure of being a musical prodigy. When she is cleaning out her parents' home following her father's death, she finds evidence that the truth is vastly different and sets out to find Lisa. An interesting premise, but the book becomes predictable soap opera before the quest is over.

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Perhaps I am the only person who read a lot as a child who never read Anne of Green Gables--and I think it might have been better to read it than to listen, as I did, as Anne's loquaciousness because rather irritating. On the other hand, the softening of the hearts of her adoptive "parents," Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, is a sweet story.

The Wife, by Alafair Burke. The Wife poses the question: How far would you go to protect your husband if he were accused of something heinous? The wife in the story has a complicated back story that affects how she responds to the accusations against her husband, and for about half the book, it's an interesting exploration. But then the author throws in a passing reference to another book and it's a total spoiler--I knew instantly (and trust me, I'm not that quick at figuring out what's going to happen) how the book was going to turn out. Bummer.

Restless, by William Boyd. A friend loaned me this book several years ago because she loved the story of a young scholar who learns that her mother was a spy during World War II--a great premise for a book. Although I finally finished it and found the story of British spycraft interesting, I didn't love the book.

One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson. I have several friends who love Bill Bryson; one of them recommended this book, which falls into the pile of his more serious works. Bryson looks at the big stories of summer 1927--Lindbergh's flight, Calvin Coolidge's absence from Washington, Henry Ford's shutting down of Model T production to launch a new vehicle, the terrible weather, Babe Ruth's record home run-hitting season--and creates a collage-like portrayal of a moment in American history. Sadly, however, Bryson is not a historian and he makes some mistakes (in my opinion) fails to draw the diverse stories into a meaningful account. I remain unconverted to the cult of Bryson.

Favorite Passages

I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain and it causes pain.
—Ursula K. LeGuin, No Time to Spare

What do we forget when we talk to machines? We forget what is special about being human. We forget what it means to have authentic conversation. Machines are programmed to have conversations "as if" they understood what the conversation is about. So when we talk to them, we, too, are reduced and confined to the "as if."

In recent years, psychologists have learned more about how creative ideas come from the reveries of solitude. When we let our minds wander, we set our brains free. Our brains are most productive when there is no demand that they be reactive. For some, this goes against cultural expectations. American culture tends to worship sociality. We have wanted to believe that we are our most creative during "brainstorming" and "groupthink" sessions. But this turns out not to be the case. New ideas are more likely to emerge from people thinking on their own. Solitude is where we learn to trust our imaginations.

. . . boredom can be recognized as your imagination calling you.

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Writing and Promoting Your Writing: Finding the Balance

This month, I heard the novelist John Shors talk at our library's local author fair. Because we had read one of his books in book group and had a phone conversation with him at our meeting, I knew he was one of the first writers to make a concerted effort to reach out to book groups. At the talk, I learned he also organizes tours for readers to the Asian locales in which his books are set--but he hates doing readings (he feels it's pretentious and "just not him"). Even knowing his history with book groups, I was surprised when he said he spends approximately equal amounts of time writing and promoting his work--that seems like a lot of time spent on promotion. I follow several authors on Facebook and can see that they, too, spend a lot of time on promotional activities, but I wonder if 50% is a typical time allotment for writers.

Best Books I Read This Month

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penney. For me, this is by far the best of the Armand Gamache mysteries (well, the best of the first seven, since that's all I've read). It is really three stories in one book, but each feels fully developed. One involves a disastrous operation that occurred in the recent past that has left Gamache and his second-in-command Inspector Beauvoir physically and psychologically damaged. Gamache has been healing himself by reading at the Literary and Historical Society in Quebec (an Anglophone institution) when a man obsessed with finding the body of Samuel Champlain turns up dead in the Society's basement. Gamache becomes involved in the case, in the process learning a lot about Champlain. Meanwhile, Gamache has sent Beauvoir to Three Pines to do some follow-up on Olivier's murder conviction. It sounds like a lot, but all the stories are interesting, and Beauvoir for the first time becomes a three-dimensional character. I had thought about giving up on Penney, but now I'm on board for a few more!

The Flight Attendant, by Chris Bohjalian. I really enjoy Bohjalian's writing, especially his ability to write great female characters. The Flight Attendant is not among his best--the protagonist is unlikable (an alcoholic flight attendant who sleeps with random dudes, one of whom ends up dead next to her in bed), the mystery around how said dude ended up dead is overly complicated and paranoid, and the ending is dumb. Yet inexplicably, it held my interest.

What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons. This book is hard to describe. The narrator is a young woman named Thandi; Thandi grew up in a middle-class Pennsylvania neighborhood with a South African mother and African American father. Much of the book is about how Thandi coped (or didn't) following her mother's death, but the author also delves into South African history, Thandi's dating history, the birth of her child, and more. The book generally feels like a series of vignettes, yet some sections read more like essays. Clemmons also includes and comments on primary sources (excerpts from President Obama's first book). Occasionally, the book is confusing, but it's also beautifully written and insightful.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait, by Pete Souza. Former White House photographer Pete Souza has been throwing shade at Donald Trump since his 2017 inauguration--and I've enjoyed those posts immensely. I think I may have expected some sarcasm in the book, but it's a straightforward and admiring chronicle of President Obama's time in the White House. It's fun to look at the photos and read the brief text, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Still good though.

Also Read

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. Like listening to your 10-year old and his friends talk about playing video games. Clearly (as my son pointed out), I am not the target demographic for this very popular book.

Split Second, by David Baldacci. I don't know why I keep reading Baldacci--I never find them satisfying. This is the first entry in his King and Maxwell series featuring characters who were or are Secret Service agents. Rife with conspiracy theories.

Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. The other two Jennifer Egan novels I have read were experimental in form--and I enjoyed both of them (A Visit from the Goon Squad and Look at Me). Manhattan Beach is a much more traditional historical novel about a woman growing up in New York in the Depression and then working as a diver in World War II. That character is interesting, but the book itself didn't sparkle.

Duel to the Death, by J. A. Jance. The more Jance's Ali Reynolds series focuses on cyber crimes, the less interesting I find it. This one was, for me, a snooze-fest.

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. Wonder, the story of a middle-schooler born with numerous facial deformities,  has been a sensation in the YA field. I liked it, but thought it was pretty predictable and perhaps overly sunny.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne Du Maurier. Why do people like Du Maurier? I hated this book and thought Phillip Ashley was perhaps the stupidest protagonist ever! Ugh.

The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connolly.  Legal thriller featuring the "Lincoln Lawyer"--okay but not great.

Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen. I like about every third Quindlen, and this one I did not like. The book features a couple who lives on a lovely dead-end street in Manhattan. The setting is idyllic until there is an incident involving one of the residents and the local handyman--the incident serves as a trigger for a negative spiral in the narrator's life. As someone who has always lived in flyover country, I thought this book was a perfect reflection of the provincial attitudes of New Yorkers. It's hard to care about their ever-so-first-world problems.

My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent. This is a sickening tale of a young woman abused sexually, physically, and psychologically by her survivalist father. I recently read a movie review in which the critic described a movie's intense violence as "audience abuse"--and that's how I felt about this book. For a more complete analysis of the problems with this book, which was much ballyhooed, read Roxane Gay's review on GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2116465636).

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke. Okay mystery with an interesting focus on race.

Favorite Passages

This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.


I thought about how every place on Earth contained its tragedies, love stories, people surviving and others falling, and for this reason, from far enough of a distance and under enough darkness, they were all essentially the same. 

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose


When they were first married they had vowed they would never be one of those married couples who sat silently at dinner because they’d run out of things to say. They were determined that they would never run out of things to say. So they repeated themselves a lot.

You could argue they’d lost their way, in their choices, their work, their marriage. But the truth was, there wasn’t any way. There was just day after day, small stuff, idle conversation, scheduling. And then after a couple of decades it somehow added up to something, for good or for ill or for both.

Anna Quindlen, Alternate Side

Monday, April 30, 2018

Exes Writing Novels: A Puzzle of This Month's Reading

The oddest reading experience this month was the mostly accidental pairing of ex-married-couple Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer's new novels. The highly regarded and formerly married authors released Forest Dark (Krauss) and Here I Am (Foer) after long intervals since their previous novels. Both books feature characters in failing marriages; those characters spend a lot of time either thinking about the significance of Israel to American Jews; both are struggling--Jacob in Here I Am is having a midlife crisis that plays out in sexting with a colleague and a decision to go to Israel to fight in the war that has broken out following a natural disaster while Nicole in Forest Dark is a writer who can't find the thread for her next book (and who feels that she has somehow slipped into the multiverse). I didn't love either book, but of the two I preferred Here I Am, in part because the children in the failing marriage were so interesting; the book's narrative structure was also more traditional than that of Forest Dark, which in this case I thought worked better. Finally, Forest Dark had so many long passages about Kafka that it sometimes felt more like a textbook than a novel. I wonder if Krauss and Foer see the similarities in their books or whether they would deny, pointing to the many differences. Still, to me it was fascinating that a couple who is no longer coupled would produce works with so many similarities.

On to other reading . . .

The Best Books I Read This Month

Tales from the Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin. Mr. Trillin describes some of his eating adventures, and it's not deep but it is good fun. I also always appreciate the way Trillin talks about his late wife, for whom he obviously had great respect and affection.

Improvement, by Joan Silber. Improvement is a novel in the form of linked short stories. It starts and ends with a young single mother Reyna, living in New York; her boyfriend Boyd is on Ryker's Island. When he gets out, he involves her in an illegal scheme with some of his friends. We bounce from her life, to her eccentric aunt who lived in Turkey as a young woman, to a couple the aunt met casually while traveling across Europe, to the girlfriend of one of Boyd's friends who doesn't know he was killed in a car accident, to the sister of another friend. There are some overly coincidental connections, but overall the book works, in part because Silber makes us care about nearly all the characters.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Matilda is a very funny book about a gifted little girl who wreaks havoc on her horrible parents and the abusive headmistress of her school. Dahl captures the revenge fantasies every child must have felt, while still making Matilda entirely lovable. Recommended by me and my granddaughter!

The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer.  Greer Kadetsky is a young college student, enraged to be stuck at a second-rate New Jersey college because her aging hippy parents couldn't figure out the financial aid forms at Yale. She becomes friends with the much more political Zee Eisenstadt and, through her, meets the feminist Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinem-esque character. The timing is perfect, as Greer is recovering from being groped by a fraternity bro and needs inspiration for her new activism. After a conversation in the restroom following a campus speech by Frank, Frank gives Greer her card. Upon graduation, Greer calls Faith and gets a job with her (in the process, betraying Zee). Greer and her high school boyfriend have managed to sustain a long-distance relationship (he went to Princeton and then got a job in Asia) until a family tragedy turns his life upside down. The book explores feminism, friendship, and mentorship (along with an unnecessary side trip to lambaste Teach for America--I agree with Wolitzer's point but the section in which Zee works for a TFA stand-in is out of place in the book) and I enjoyed it--although the ending seemed a tad too neat.

Also Read

The Babysitter's Club: Kristy's Great Idea, by Ann M. Martin, and Katie and the Cupcake Cure, by Coco Simon. My granddaughter's been loaning me books (I feel honored) and I found it interesting that these two are both about entrepreneurial girls struggling with friendship issues. Both were entertaining and gave me some insight into my granddaughter's fifth-grade life! I'm afraid of middle school!

Drinking in America, by Susan Cheever. My sister found this book really interesting and I can understand why, but I was irritated by Cheever's historical misstatements and attempts to draw connections for which she provided little evidence. Still, I was intrigued by the idea that drinking has been rampant among soldiers at war throughout U.S. history. I'd need more evidence to feel really confident she's right about this, but it's an idea that makes sense to me.

Defensive Wounds, by Lisa Black. I can't even remember this book, so . . .

Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin. An intern has an affair with a politician, gets vilified by the press, and rebuilds her life. Okay but lacks the heart of Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. I read this book years ago and wasn't crazy about it but decided to give the audible version (featuring Meryl Streep) a try. I liked it better this time but still didn't love it--perhaps if I had read it just as I was getting divorced, it might have resonated.

The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman. A young couple meets, falls in love, marries, and takes up life as lighthouse keepers. When a child washes up in a boat, the wife, who has had multiple miscarriages, begs the husband to keep the child and pretend she is theirs. The husband agrees but his regrets will bubble up again, dooming their happiness. Ugh.

The Leavers, by Lisa Ko. I heard Lisa Ko talking on NPR and enjoyed the interview, so decided to read her highly reviewed book, which is an immigrant and adoption story. It took me three starts to get through it and almost didn't make it--the two mothers in the book are so terrible and their shared child's life so screwed up, it was really hard to take.

Daughters of the Samurai, by Janice P. Nimura. Somewhat interesting account of Japanese girls sent to the United States to be educated in the late 1800s and how they fared when they returned to Japan.

A Criminal Defense, William L. Myers, Jr. At first, I thought this legal thriller was somewhat interesting, but as the book progressed, every character was revealed as to be so morally repellent and the story so far-fetched that it lost its appeal.

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff.  There really wasn't that much new in this book--just a close-up view of what we already knew to be true about the Trump White House. My favorite moment: George W. Bush saying about Trump's inaugural address: "That was some weird shit."

Favorite Passages

And how strange, too, that laughter would characterize so much of what they did from that night on, even if some of it was the laughter of helplessness in the face of what was unfixable.

Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion

But people often wanted payment for what they only wished they'd done.

Joan Silber, Improvement


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hamilton--Better than Any March Books!

I saw Hamilton this month and it did not disappoint. In fact, it dazzled. None of the books I read this month came close to Hamilton's virtuosity (write a book, Lin-Manuel!), but that will not stop me from some literary commentary. The month's reading seemed to have a couple of themes--how hard it is to be a teenager (or pre-teen) and what home means. 

The Best Books I Read This Month

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Set in wealthy suburb Shaker Heights, OH, in the 1990s, Little Fires Everywhere is an indictment of suburban smugness and conventionality. The Richardsons appear to be an ideal family, both parents are professional, their four children are (mostly) doing well. Certainly, Pearl Warren, who lives with her art photographer mother Mia in a house owned by the Richardsons, is enamored by the family's surface perfection.  Little Fires Everywhere has a structural similarity with Ng's earlier book Everything I Never Told You, in that we know from the beginning that the story will end with a disaster, in this case an arson fire at the Richardsons' home. Between the arrival of the Warrens in Shaker Heights and the fire, Ng deals with many issues, notably teen pregnancy and abortion, cross-cultural adoption, race, and what it means to be a good mother. Although some of the characters are one-dimensional, the story is still engaging. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Mia's work--I really wanted to see the photographs (much like the installation constructed by the protagonist's mother in Bee Season).  Not a perfect novel, but well worth reading.

The Story of Arthur Truluv, by Elizabeth Berg. Arthur is a widower in his 80s who eats lunch every day at his dead wife's grave. He has a special gift (or an especially good imagination) for sensing the lives of the folks buried nearby. Maddy is a bullied teenager with an unhappy home life who spends her lunch hour at the cemetery to avoid the school cafeteria. Most of what happens after the two meet is utterly predictable, and it still manages to charm. An actual feel-good book.

Also Read

Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia, by Gerda Saunders. Saunders combines a rather clinical discussion of dementia with recollections of her childhood in South Africa and her adult life in Utah. I appreciate the author's courage in taking on this task following her diagnosis, but I didn't love the book.

Blubber, by Judy Blume. This book scared the bejesus out of me on behalf of my fifth-grade granddaughter, who loaned me the book. I asked her if fifth-grade was as bad as it is portrayed in this book (these kids are freaking brutal!) and she said "no," but I'm still scared.

Stalking Susan, by Julie Kramer. Number 1 in a mystery series featuring a Twin Cities TV reporter--mediocre but not bad enough to ensure I won't try number 2 in the series.

Night Moves, by Jonathan Kellerman. Better than some of the other recent entries in the Alex Delaware series.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate.  The story of child stealing and illegal adoption in the first half of the 20th century that this novel reveals is shocking, but the novel itself is not that great.

The People We Hate at the Wedding, by Grant Ginder. I perversely loved the title of this novel, but perhaps it should have warned me the book would be full of hideous people. Ugh.

The Martian, by Andy Weir. I am late to The Martian party and didn't really love it--too much "uh-oh something broke," "How can Mark fix it?", "Mark can fix it," "Yay, Mark fixed it!" for me.

Down a Dark Road, by Linda Castillo. A bit of a bounce-back for the Kate Burkholder series but by no means a fabulous mystery. 

Dear Fahrenheit 451, by Annie Spence. I really wanted to like this book, which is a series of letters from the author to books she has read and it wasn't the two subtitles, the foul language, and the ironic sass that ruined it--it was the fact that it essentially added up to nothing.

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband, by David Finch. Good insight in Asperger's (and how hard it would be to be married to someone with Asperger's), but perhaps not the book for a devoted anti-marriagist like me.

Say You're Sorry, by Melinda Leigh. More a romance than a mystery.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. Like a couple of the other books on this "Also Read" list, An American Marriage deals with important content: the devastation to families/marriages when someone is wrongly convicted due to racism. If I hadn't developed such a strong dislike for all of the characters, I might recommend the book, which was an Oprah book club selection.

Best Day Ever, by Kaira Rouda. The author chose to have the villain be the narrator of the book and he is perhaps one of the most despicable characters ever. And predictable, so totally predictable.

The Burning Girl, by Claire Messud. This was a highly regarded book in 2017, and I admit that the author writes beautifully. However, the plot feels like something I've read before: BFFs grow apart as they grow older and one spirals downward, in part due to the villainy of her mother's boyfriend.

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell. This book has some similarities to The Burning Girl except that it involves a high school romance that allows a troubled girl to escape her home, where life is hell due to the villainy of her stepfather. Many reviewers seem to find the description of the young couple falling in love "delightful," but I (perhaps because of my grandmotherly status) found it slightly creepy.

What Remains True, by Janis Thomas. The free Kindle books you get from Amazon Prime really aren't very good.


Favorite Passages


Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would sound like if everybody stopped their complaining. It sure would be a quiet place.

Hiraeth: A Welsh word that means a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or maybe never was. It means nostalgia and yearning and grief for lost places.

Elizabeth Berg, in The Story of Arthur Truluv


“Home”was that feeling of falling asleep to the distant muffle of your parents’conversation, a sound rising through the floorboards almost as a reverberation not just in your ears but in your body. It was a particular set of familiar smells—the orange-flower soap in the downstairs bathroom, or the tinge of old fire smoke in the living room even in summertime, when it rained—and patches of warm air near the vents, followed by a chill near the windows.

Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid.


--Claire Messud, The Burning Girl

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Cold February, Hot Books: The Best Books I Read This Month

It was a cold February in Denver, but I did read some good books--two of which were books I had originally read years ago and decided to "revisit"--good decision!  I also (as usual) read some less-good books, but such is life.

The Best Books I Read This Month

Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Set in Kansas City in the 1930s, Mrs. Bridge is the story of a well-to-do woman who lives as an appendage to her husband and children. In a series of vignettes, we see her go to the club; interact with her children, husband, friends, and household help with little apparent insight into their wants or needs; judge others for their clothes and their children's behavior (while fearing that others are judging her). Her life is essentially meaningless, and at some level she knows and regrets this. The book has a flat tone but still manages to be funny (the family's attempts to engage a chauffeur, for example), insightful, and sad.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I read this book in my late teens or early twenties and found the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student whose mental health breaks down over the course of a summer, devastating. While it doesn't have quite the same emotional resonance when read at 67, it's still a wonderfully written (semi-autobiographical) novel that provides a window into how depression colors every part of life and insights into gender relations as seen through the eyes of a young woman. The book is doubly sad because of our knowledge of the author's own life.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.  I also read this book some time ago (probably in my 40s), but it was well worth a second look. Angle of Repose operates on two levels: it is simultaneously the story of retired and wheelchair-bound historian Lyman Ward, who is writing a family history focused on his grandparents (especially his grandmother), who lived in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the family history that he writes. Ward's grandfather, Oliver Ward, was a mining engineer and inventor who worked at various locations around the West, often being screwed over by the mine owners and investors. His grandmother, Susan Ward, was an Easterner, disappointed in love when the refined man she wanted married her best friend; she brings to her Western life with her rough-around-the-edges husband a rather stiff and judgmental point of view. Yet she perseveres, even in light of tragedies and numerous setbacks. As he constructs Susan and Oliver's story, largely from Susan's letters to her best friend, he reconsiders his own life. The book works on both levels and is beautifully written, though those who don't like kind of a iterative style may not enjoy it as much as I did. I also think the title is one of the best ever, since it has both a geological meaning and a metaphorical one and is, to me, beautiful.

The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. First  I have to say I am happy A.J. Finn did not call this The Girl in the Window (I am heartily sick of titles that use the term "girl" to describe a woman in peril). The book is about a woman suffering from agoraphobia who spends her days observing the people in her neighborhood and posting on a webpage for agoraphobics. Things start to get strange when a new family moves into the neighborhood. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just say the book is very "twisty" and I was surprised by several developments throughout the novel. Not perfect, but it kept me interested!

The View from Mount Joy, by Lorna Landvik, I read Landvik's Patty Jane's House of Curl 20 years ago and thought it was hilarious but have been disappointed by subsequent books until The View from Mount Joy. Joe Andreson is a budding hockey star who moves to Minneapolis with his widowed mother. He becomes enamored with the high school's "hot girl," Kristi Casey, who manages to keep his attention for 30 years. At the same time, however, he makes lifelong friends in the quirky Darva and Kristi's brother Kirk. As Joe and Kristi grow into adulthood, their paths diverge (Joe becomes a grocer whose store is a community in itself, Kristi becomes an evangelist) but always seem to "re-tangle." The book is funny and a bit corny, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sunburn, by Laura Lippmann. Sunburn is one of Lippmann's stand-alone mystery/thrillers and it's a pretty good one. I enjoyed it primarily because I didn't see the twists coming. The characters are a pretty despicable lot. Basic plot outline: a PI (he's not so much despicable as stupid) is hired to find out where a woman has hidden money his client regards as rightfully his; the PI and his subject become involved. As more is revealed about the woman's past, he begins to question whether he can stay with her--but he can't make himself leave. Things end badly--but not for everyone.

Also Read

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann. I have enjoyed Colum McCann's work, but this was more a collection of one-line encouragements than deep advice about writing. If you love an Irish accent, however, the author's voice reading his work on the audiobook edition will be enough to satisfy.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan. Because it was written by a former employee of the Tattered Cover, I wanted to enjoy this mystery, but it was rather pedestrian.

Running Blind, by Lee Child. My first and last Jack Reacher.

Look for Me, by Lisa Gardner. Okay mystery featuring both D.D. Warren and Flora Dane--but the guilty person was obvious long before the end.

Tips for Living, by Renee Safransky. A ridiculous mystery with a potentially fun device (the protagonist writes an advice column) that isn't used in any meaningful or entertaining way.

All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke. Dumb, just dumb.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Funny memoir focused on a period of the author's life after her husband left her for a man and she returned to her parents' home to recover from a car accident. I wish she hadn't made quite so much fun of her mother, who I thought was charming (perhaps this is the defensive mother in me reacting).

M Train, by Patti Smith. Random thoughts and accounts that bored me silly (sorry to the many people who love Patti Smith's work). The author's recording of the book was nominated for a Grammy but I thought it was as monotonic, mostly good for falling asleep to.

The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather. It took me years to finish this book and I was unmoved by the story of Thea Kronberg, her musical talent, and her (to me) inexplicable ability to get adult men to fall in love with her while still a child.


Favorite Passages


For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, an dlooked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However, nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.

Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge


I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to. It is not quite true that you can't go home again. I have done it, combing back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose


It was one of those still days of intense light, when every particle of mica in the soil flashed like a little mirror, and the glare from the plain below seemed more intense than the rays from above. The sand ridges ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics. The sky looked like blue lava, forever incapable of clouds—a turquoise bowl that was the lid of the desert. And yet within Mrs. Kohler’s green patch the water dripped, the beds had all been hosed, and the air was fresh with rapidly evaporating moisture.

Willa Cather, Song of the Lark

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In the Bleak Midwinter: The Best Books I Read in January

January was not a great reading month--in part because I was so busy with work that I mostly read mindless fair and in part because I listened to a 36-hour book, which sucked up a lot of the reading time I did have. Thus, the "best books" list is a bit slim this month.

The Best Books I Read This Month

Conscience of a Conservative, by Jeff Flake. There's a lot of space on the political spectrum between Jeff Flake and me. I disagree with him on most issues and cringe at his oft-expressed admiration for Barry Goldwater. But I do agree with his analysis of the destructiveness of our current political climate and his call for a return to debating ideas and fighting for principles. While the book has been billed as an attack on Trump--and it certainly is that--it is also broader, pointing out the contributions of both parties to the polarization and dysfunction that characterize government today. Even if you, like me, are a progressive/liberal/lefty, it's a worthwhile read.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. A highly regarded book of 2017, Exit West is the story of two young lovers fleeing a war-torn country. Sound like any other refugee story? Not so much, as fantastical and dystopic features and wonderful writing give the story a deeper resonance. I'm not describing this well--it's hard to describe--but it's interesting and strange and recommended.

Black Man, White House, by D.L. Hughley and Michael Malice. This is not a book I would have picked up, except that I was having trouble finding any interesting audio books on Overdrive and this was available. Presented as a set of fake oral history comments about the Obama campaign and presidency, with (fake) Michelle Obama providing the narrative thread (President Obama himself gets only one line), it is laugh-out-loud funny. Like most satires, it sometimes misfires, but if you can't laugh at Dick Cheney and Rahm Emanuel (two of my least favorite politicians of the past 20 years), I feel bad for you. I don't know if it would be as amusing in print, but the audio book is very entertaining.

Also Read

Water Signs, by Janet Dawson. Mediocre mystery but I was interested to learn that the publisher, Perseverance Press, is completely dedicated to mid-list mystery authors dropped by larger houses. Interesting mission!
The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. A weird book about elevator inspectors and race. I admire the creativity but didn't really love the book.
I Almost Forgot about You, by Terry McMillan. I think McMillan peaked with Waiting to Exhale.
No One Is Coming to Save Us, by Stephanie Powell Watts. This book has been called Great Gatsby set amid African Americans in the South . . . but I do not get it at all.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundahti Roy. I did not care for this book (and I feel bad about that).
Host, by Robin Cook. I hadn't read a Robin Cook book for at least a decade, but they haven't changed at all--nefarious doings in drug companies and hospitals. Plus this one has a slightly weird racial vibe between the best friends who uncover the wrongdoing.
Where They Found Her, by Kimberley McCreight. Bad mothers in various guises--ugh! By the end, we learn the dads are bad, too, but it doesn't redeem the book.
All the Missing Girls, by Meagan Miranda. I thought this sounded interesting because part of it is told in reverse chronological order. Not really.
4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. This is the 36-hour book--I listened to the whole thing and it held my interest. But it's too long--even given the fact that it's really four books in one, since it presents four different versions of the life of Archie Ferguson. However, it's not the best of what I call "Sliding Doors" books; for a better review than I could write, see the review in the New Yorker, which was spot on (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance).

Favorite Passages

Decency on this occasion won out, and bravery, for courage is demanded not to attack when afraid.

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

If principle is only defended when there's nothing at stake, then it is probably not much of a principle after all.

Jeff Flake, The Conscience of a Conservative