Friday, December 15, 2017

My Life in Books - 2017

Adam at Roof Beam Reader did a meme that made me smile, so I copied it and did my own version, based on books read in 2017.

I love this time of year--looking back and planning ahead!

  • In high school I was: The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Laurie R. King) (actually my parents had bees at the time, so this is not totally fabricated!)
  • People might be surprised (by): Dragon Teeth (Michael Crichton)
  • I will never be: A Marked Man (Barbara Hamilton)
  • My fantasy job is: A Walk Along the Wall (Hunter Davies)
  • At the end of a long day I need: Home Cooking (Laurie Colwin)
  • I hate it when: Leaving Everything Most Loved (Jacqueline Winspear)
  • Wish I had: News of the World (Paulette Giles)
  • My family reunions are: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi)
  • At a party you’d find me with: The Brontes (Juliet Barker)
  • I’ve never been to: The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead)
  • A happy day includes: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)
  • Motto I live by: Yes Please (Amy Poehler)
  • On my bucket list is: Journey to Munich (Jacqueline Winspear)
  • In my next life, I want to have: Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)

Feel free to play along and provide a link to your list or provide it in the comments.

Happy holidays and happy reading!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

The book progresses chronologically, discussing the forests, lakes, rivers, prairies, weather, crops, natural vegetation, and animal life that Laura and Almanzo encountered as their families moved around the country. The author suggests reading each book along with its chapter, but since I know the books pretty much by heart, I didn't feel the need to slow down my reading of it by doing so. Although now I definitely am eager to reread another LH book, probably Little Town on the Prairie, before year end.

I did read the book somewhat slowly, just a chapter a night, to savor it and let it seep into my psyche and take root along with the rest of my LH core knowledge.

The book renewed my admiration for LIW as a writer because McDowell basically confirmed all the details that Laura provided in the books. For example, when Laura talks about the trees in Little House in the Big Woods, there are different trees surrounding Pa and Ma's house than those surrounding Pa's parents' house when they go to the sugaring-off dance. That's because the forest itself is different between the two regions.

Here's an excerpt:
...Pa loved the woods. He had the true hunter's love for wild places, and he instilled that love in his daughters. Their part of Wisconsin was the northern edge of the broadleaf forest, dominated by oaks and hickories. Oaks get a prominent place in Little House in the Big Woods, with two in front of the log cabin providing a play space for Laura and May, complete with tree swing. Hickory chips are Ma and Pa's preference for smoking meat. Black cherry and walnut trees, and the shrubby hazel, Wisconsin natives all, make appearances in the novel.
North and east of Pepin, the mix of trees changed to the boreal forest that sweeps far into Canada. Here the conifers--pine, tamarack, and spruce--go to the front of the class, along with birch, beech and maple. So when the Ingallses drove north to Grandpa Ingalls's farm for maple sugaring in late winter, their journey followed the actual distribution of tree species in the woods.
In addition to the chronological structure of the book, McDowell also uses a gardening theme to track the chronology, which makes for a satisfying way to reflect on Laura's personal life journey.

Clearing the Land: The Wisconsin Woods
Preparing the Soil: A New York Farm
Harrowing: The Prairie of Kansas, Indian Territory
Making a Better Garden: Creekside in Minnesota and Iowa
Ripening: The Dakota Prairie
Reaping: Settled Farm and Settled Town
Threshing: From Great Plains to Ozark Ridge
Saving Seed: Rocky Ridge Farm
Putting Food By: The Rock House and the Farmhouse

In addition, the book is gorgeously illustrated with maps, photographs, water colors, and some of my favorite images from the various editions of the LH books.

McDowell provides good biographical info on the Ingalls and Wilder families but the book is less concerned with providing every fact or theory about the family members and their struggles than it is with using their story to convey what America was like when they lived and worked on the land during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It is a lovely book--rich, warm, interesting, and immensely satisfying.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko is one of the few books I read this year that was released this year, and it's on the Tournament of Books 2018 long list and I'm sure it will make to the short list.

I enjoyed it immensely. For starters, it is quite different from just about everything else I've read this year, and that in itself is refreshing.

Here is the Amazon blurb:
One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind. 
Told from the perspective of both Daniel—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another. 
Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past. 
I found the story fascinating and feel that I have a much better understanding of the stresses that immigrants face. Even those who enter the U.S. legally face enormous emotional, cultural, and physical hurdles that are difficult for me to comprehend and appreciate.

I liked Deming/Daniel so much, even when he was making bad choices, doubting himself and his talents, and looking for trouble. Surviving as he did is a testament to his strength of character despite his own misgivings.  Interestingly, I didn't like Polly, his mother, much until we got to the part of the book where she was allowed her own voice. Again, there is a lot about Polly that is unlikable, but at her core she is truly admirable--strong and fierce. A true survivor.

The only part that didn't quite work for me was the portrayals of Daniel's adoptive parents. They were just too cliched white yuppies who were clueless about the enormity of the role they assumed. I felt that Ko neither understood nor wanted to understand them and so left them as distinctly two-dimensional and bland characters in what was otherwise a rich and savory story.

I also absolutely love the synesthesia part of Daniel--he sees color as he hears sounds, especially music, and this helps him develop as a musician. I am fascinated by the concept of synesthesia and don't encounter it much in literature.

Finally, it ends well. There is resolution to the main stories of Deming/Daniel and Polly, but not finality. It is a realistic ending, and doesn't veer off the cliff as sometimes happens in novels. As a debut novel, The Leavers is remarkable in the tightness of structure, authenticity of voice, and cohesion of themes.

Excellent book that I highly recommend.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Holiday Reading...2017

I'm eagerly anticipating December and indulging in holiday reading again.

So far, I am committed to the following:

A Very French Christmas - an anthology of stories and authors, some modern, some classic

Christmas at the Mysterious Bookshop - another anthology, this time all the stories are set in the same NYC bookshop; this one is a read-along with the GoodReads Tuesday Read-Along group.

A Redbird Christmas, by Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I recently reread and fell in love with all over again.

Winter Street, by Elin Hilderbrand - looks light and fun

I'm also considering A Merry Christmas and Other Christmas Stories, by Louisa May Alcott or an anthology of Little House Christmas chapters. I've been reading The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder and so am eager to reread some of the stories again.

I would like to get some non-Christmas holiday reading in there as well, so I'm definitely looking for suggestions from other faiths that celebrate winter holidays.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tournament of Books 2018 - long Long List

I had fun last year reading some of the books in the 2017 Tournament of Books, and have been eagerly anticipating this year's tournament.

The Morning News has published the 72 books that constitute the long list, from which the final contenders from the Tournament will be drawn.  That's a long list to whittle down to 18 finalists!

Here is the long list--I've noted the few that I'm familiar with. Open to recommendations! A lot seem dystopian, which I don't care for, and a few sound very tough to read based on subject matter.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
American War by Omar El Akkad
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Augustown by Kei Miller
Autumn by Ali Smith
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Celine by Peter Heller - read and reviewed, one of the few books I really didn't care for
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall
Chemistry by Weike Wang
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim
Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter
The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
Huck Out West by Robert Coover - I'm intrigued, will add to TBR
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich- on library wait list, mixed review but I like the premise
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Ill Will by Dan Chaon
In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
Isadora by Amelia Gray
A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin
The Leavers by Lisa Ko - currently listening too--really good!
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - tried it and loathed it
The Locals by Jonathan Dee
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Eganm - on library wait list, sounds great
Marlena by Julie Buntin
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris
A Natural by Ross Raisin
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
Not Constantinople by Nicholas Bredie
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
The One-Eyed Man by Ron Currie
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein
Refuge by Dina Nayeri
Release by Patrick Ness
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
The Secret Books by Marcel Theroux
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - it's going on the TBR
Six Degrees of Freedom by Nicolas Dickner
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Smile by Roddy Doyle
So Much Blue by Percival Everett
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini
Ties by Domenico Starnone
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
Void Star by Zachary Mason
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Monday, November 06, 2017

Mailbox Monday: Birthday!

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came in their mailbox during the last week. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.

It's been a long time since I did a Mailbox Monday, but I received a wonderful book for my birthday yesterday that I just had to share.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Marta McDowell, went to the top of my wish list as soon as I heard about it. It's a new book, published in September, and it will be a perfect addition to my LIW collection. 

Here's what Amazon had to say about it:
The universal appeal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books springs from a life lived in partnership with the land, on farms she and her family settled across the Northeast and Midwest. In this revealing exploration of Wilder’s deep connection with the natural world, Marta McDowell follows the wagon trail of the beloved Little House series. You’ll learn details about Wilder’s life and inspirations, pinpoint the Ingalls and Wilder homestead claims on authentic archival maps, and learn to grow the plants and vegetables featured in the series. Excerpts from Wilder’s books, letters, and diaries bring to light her profound appreciation for the landscapes at the heart of her world. Featuring the beloved illustrations by Helen Sewell and Garth Williams, plus hundreds of historic and contemporary photographs, The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder is a treasure for anyone enchanted by Laura’s wild and beautiful life. 

Maps, inventories of flora and fauna of the prairies, illustrations, photos - what a treat I have in store this winter. I may just drop everything and read it next!

If you want to find out what others bloggers received last week, visit the Mailbox Monday site. Great source of new ideas for your reading lists.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of France

Bruno, Chief of Police: A Novel of  the French Countryside by Martin Walker is the last of my R.I.P. mysteries, bringing my total for the month to 5!

As expected, I really enjoyed this mystery and will be a devotee of Bruno from henceforth. Thank goodness there are a number of books in the series already, so I can read the next one whenever the mood strikes.

In a nutshell, Bruno is sweet single policeman taking care of a little rural town, St Denis, in the picturesque Dodorgne valley in southwest France. We are tentatively planning a trip to Paris next summer, and now I am finagling how to spend an extra week exploring this region, which btw is where the famous paleolithic cave paintings were discovered.

Bruno not only is the sole policeman for the town, but he also plays tennis and teaches kids at the tennis club, makes his own vin de noix (a walnut liqueur), cooks heavenly meals, and has a sad romantic backstory.

The story itself was well-crafted and interesting--involving racial tension, neo-Nazis, remnants of WWII and French colonialism, as well as hedonistic teens and indulgent parents.

But, you don't read Bruno for the mystery, you read these stories for the atmosphere, the ambiance, the recipes, French rural life and landscapes.

If this at appeals to you, you might want to check out Martin Walker's website on his beloved Bruno. Here's how Walker describes Bruno:

Who is Bruno Courreges?

Bruno cooks, he hunts, he builds his own house and grows his own food. He organizes the parades and festivities and fireworks displays and keeps order in his fictional home town of St Denis. A pillar of the local tennis and rugby clubs, he teaches sports to the local schoolchildren.

Bruno finds lost dogs, fights fires, registers births and deaths, and enforces the parking regulations. But he maintains a sophisticated intelligence network to outwit the interfering bureaucrats of the European Union in far-off Brussels. The country folk of the Perigord have been making their foie gras and their cheeses and sausages for centuries before the EU was ever heard of, and see no reason to bow to its rules and regulations now.

Bruno also catches criminals.

But Bruno applies his own sense of justice in doing so, which sometimes put him at odds with the local Gendarmes, with the professional detectives of the Police Nationale, and with the politicians in distant Paris.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Marked Man

A Marked Man is the second in a three-part series by Barbara Hamilton featuring the incomparable Abigail Adams as a detective in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

I am not usually a fan of real people showing up historical fiction, but Hamilton's Abigail is masterfully done. The entire time I am reading one of these books, I am seeing and hearing Laura Linney as she portrayed Abigail in the fabulous HBO series John Adams.

Anyway, I read book 1, The Ninth Daughter, a few years ago and liked it, and so put the next book, A Marked Man, on my October mystery reading list.

I absolutely loved it. The mystery itself was quite good. Basic idea is that an absolute rake of a man, Sir Jonathan Cottrell, has been found murdered, and one of the local Patriots, Harry Knox, is accused of his murder.

In solving the mystery of whodunit and how, we get to enjoy life with the young Adams family (John Quincy is a mere 6-year old, but already studying Greek and Latin),  experience the loving banter between Abigail and John, hobnob with the Sons of Liberty (cousin Sam Adams and friend Paul Revere), and sympathize with the British soldiers who are missing home in cold, hostile Boston town.

There's also a missing slave woman, cross dressing, and poison. A connection to Barbados and a troupe of actors. The Boston Tea Party was only a few months earlier and Boston is about to erupt.

A Marked Man is my 4th book in the R.I.P. reading challenge.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult

I knew as soon as I saw this title that I had to read this book. I think the books we love as a child become hardwired into our developing brains and help make us who we become. I regularly reread books I loved when young, and I loved sharing those books with my children--sometimes they fell in love too, sometimes not, but revisiting them regularly is an important part of my reading life.

Maybe this love for kids books is genetic. Towards the end of my father's life, as his eyesight started fading and he felt dementia on the horizon, he bought himself beautiful new editions of all his favorite books and reread them one last time--these included Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Stories of Uncle Remus, and all of Beatrix Potter.

Bruce Handy, author of Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult, did a wonderful job balancing his personal nostalgia for specific books with providing context for the books/authors he profiled, the impact they and their beloved characters had on children and the development of children's lit, and short bios of some of the major authors.

Here's the table of contents, which I found to be a good a way of structuring discussion on the topic:

New Eyes, New Ears: Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon - loved, loved, loved this chapter and I have a whole new appreciation for Goodnight Moon, which I always liked to read to my kids, but now I know why! Mini bio on Brown was excellent--she was an original, took her craft seriously, and worked hard. Also great info on The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Snowy Day--btw, did you know there are winter stamps from the USPS that feature The Snowy Day.  They're going on this year's Xmas cards, for sure!

Runaways: Family Drama in Picture Books--and Well Beyond - Handy compares The Runaway Bunny with Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. The Runaway Bunny was never one of my favorites, but the chapter was interesting nonetheless, especially when Handy brought The Giving Tree into the discussion and especially the Frances series, featuring Frances the badger. I have always loved the Frances books--partly because my older sister Frances got them for me, with Bread and Jam for Frances, which Handy didn't include, being my personal favorite.

Once upon a Time and In and Out of Weeks: Fairy Tales and Maurice Sendak - yep, this is all about Where the Wild Things Are and how Sendak is the modern Brother Grimm. There's also a good bit on the Grimm brothers themselves, and the role and history of fairy tales throughout the ages. Handy also brings in the Disney versions of the classic fairy tales, and has some refreshingly positive things to say about them.

Why a Duck? The Uses of Talking Animals from Aesop to Beatrix Potter to Olivia the Pig - definitely one of the best chapters, especially mini bio on Potter. It was interesting to read about how frank Potter was about life and death--not sugar coating anything for the little tykes. Handy also talks a good deal about Reynard the Fox and Uncle Remus stories, which I heard a lot as a kid. This particular chapter inspired me to dig out my Potter books and reread a bunch of the stories. I still think the illustrations are the best part of the books. I have to say, I think I could write an essay comparing The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck with Tess of the D'urbervilles.

You Have to Know How: Dr. Seuss vs. Dick and Jane - I learned to read with Dick and Jane, and believe me, I wish our school had had more Dr. Seuss on hand instead. Handy dives into The Cat in the Hat in a big way--I was one of the those goody-two-shoes kids who were always very uncomfortable with the Cat in the Hat.  I much preferred Horton Hatches a Who and Green Eggs and Ham, but the bio on Suess (i.e., Ted Geisel) was very interesting.

Kids Being Kids: Ramona Quimby, American Pest - not having encountered Ramona Quimby or even her author, Beverly Cleary, as a child, I didn't have the emotional response to this chapter, but it was interesting nonetheless, especially with regards to the mythos of American suburbia.

God and Man in Narnia - wonderful chapter on C.S. Lewis's Narnia, especially The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I'm not a big Narnia fan, but the storytelling and merging of so many cultural mythological strands make Narnia an important piece of kid lit.

One Nation: Washington's Cherry Tree, Rosa Parks's Bus, and Oz - despite the chapter title, this one is really all about Oz and Frank L. Baum. One of the best chapters in the book, it gave me a much better appreciation for Baum and his never-ending series of Oz books.  I only read the first in the series, but I read it many times as a child. I still remember the look and feel of the blue cover of the copy I had.
One of the best quotes from the book comes from this chapter:
"Lewis never led me toward Christianity, but Baum, for me, was a gateway drug to Mad."

Going on Seventeen (Or Not): Little Women, Little Houses, and Peter Pans - superb chapter. Handy never read Little Women or the Little House series as boy, so he took care of that as a man. He had mixed feelings about Little Women, which I totally get. I only read it myself a few years ago and so could only like it and appreciate it but not love it as happens when you read it as a child, especially a girl-child who wants to be a writer. I loved the fact that Handy loved and appreciated the Little House books, which stand up well for first-time adult readers. Yes, they have their issues, mostly with regards to Native Americans, but Laura as a character is in a class by herself. I loved Handy's summation of Pa Ingalls as the single most competent character in children's literature. I can forgive Handy for finding Anne of Green Gables unreadable--its tone and heroine, much as I love them, are not for everyone, and I find that Anne is another character you have to fall in love with as a child to love as an adult.

The End: Dead Pets, Dead Grandparents, and the Glory of Everything - the chapter is ostensibly about death in children's lit, but it is really a paean to Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. This part of the book was a joy to read because Charlotte's Web is a masterpiece, an American treasure and I agreed with every word of praise that Handy sang about it.

As you can see, I enjoyed picking illustrations for this post as much as I did writing it, and the book gave full credit to the illustrators whose artistry helped to hardwire those stories into our collective unconscious.

An enthusiastic thumbs up for this marvelous, insightful, book. Handy makes a convincing case that the best children's books are as important, meaningful, creative, and inspired as the best non-children's books...and always worth rereading.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Black Moon

I've been reading Graham Winston's Poldark series pretty much in tandem with the PBS broadcast of the new series. Season 3 started at the beginning of October, and so I read book 5, The Black Moon, which provides the basis for the first half of this season, in September/October.

I have been completely absorbed by baseball playoffs this year, and so have only watched episode 1 of season 3, so I don't know how much they actually include from the book. I do know that I was gnashing my teeth during the first half of episode 1, but settled down and liked it again during the second half.

On to The Black Moon--I think it's the best of the series so far. It was written 20 years after book 4, Warleggan, but it picks up the story shortly after book 4 ended, with the birth of Elizabeth and George Warleggan's son, Valentine, during a total eclipse of the moon. This was a nice literary touch to the story, giving Aunt Agatha lots of fodder for her cursing of the child and George, tagging the eclipse as an omen.

I loved the new characters, Demelza's brothers, Sam (the missionary) and Drake (the charmer) Carne, as well as Elizabeth's cousin, Morwenna Chenoweth.  They provide much needed new story threads, and gave the author the opportunity to educate us on the growth of Methodism in Cornwall.

I also enjoyed learning about the English/French military encounters during the late 1790s, as the English tried to help the displaced French aristocrats battle the Republicans who took over their country in 1789.

A ghost from Ross's past, Tholly Tregirls, also surfaces and plays a major role in the latter half of the book. Tholly is the most definitive pirate since Long John Silver, and promises to be a nice counterpoint to the domesticating influence of Demelza.

I thought Graham was wise to send Ross and his mates off to France to break nice Dr. Enys out of a French prison. It turned the book into a good, old-fashioned adventure story, and it was a relief from the monotony of George's machinations.

Caroline Penvenen and Verity Blamey also have key roles in the story, both of whom are wonderful characters and I so enjoy spending time with them, as different as they are.

I have high hopes for sweet Geoffrey Charles Poldark, son of the late Francis Poldark and Elizabeth. He's bright and I love that he has the mind and interests of an engineer. I predict that he and his friend Drake will team up to do good things in Cornwall in the future. I hope so, at least.

The book ends on a couple of grim notes, which means that book 6 will have a fair amount of sturm und drang, but I love that it is titled The Four Swans, and will focus on the four major women in Ross's life: Demelza, Elizabeth, Morwenna, and Caroline. After book 5 being a boy's adventure story, the women of Cornwall get their book in which to hold center stage.

Now, on to book 6 and resuming season 3 of Poldark...that is once the World Series is over!