Wednesday, September 2, 2015

August 2015 Book Reviews

The Expats by Chris Pavone.  I decided to read this, Pavone’s first book, after enjoying his second, The Accident, last month.  The Expats apparently was even more of a best seller, and is being made into a movie, but I didn’t like it as much.  What I liked about The Accident is that it was very smart and stripped down.  The Expats is baggier and a little more obvious, and contains one of my main pet peeves, which is to jumble up the chronology of the scenes for no apparent reason other than cheap suspense.  That is, the book starts with a scene towards the end of the timeline of the plot, and then jumps back to the beginning, and continues this jumping backward and forward in a way that is not necessary to the plot.  It’s a crutch and used too much, in my opinion.  The story is basically this:  Kate moves to Luxembourg with her I.T. husband and for the first time is a stay at home mom to her two young boys.  She is befriended by the expat community there, but soon becomes suspicious of a couple with whom they spend a lot of time.  It turns out the reader should take Kate’s suspicions seriously, since the career she resigned was as a CIA agent – and an assassin.  Kate begins to dig into the background of her new friend, Julia, and as she does, begins to realize that her husband might not just be the naïve tech guy she thought he was.  You get the gist.  It’s a fun read, too, but not the most skilled of books.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.  I’m still really working out what I think about this novel.  Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and I think her previous novel, Life After Life, is brilliant.  A God In Ruins centers on Teddy Todd, the brother of Ursula, the main character of Life After Life.  I do think you need to have read the first book to really appreciate the second.  I’m not sure I would have cared enough about the characters if I were meeting them for the first time in this book.  The two points I keep returning to mull over are this:  first, in Life After Life, Ursula keeps redoing her life as things go wrong.  She is born again and has to live through certain events again until she gets them “right.”  What IS “right” is never really resolved or spelled out in that book.  Yet in A God in Ruins, Atkinson picks one version of events to continue forward.  (She talks about this in an epilogue, and what she says there is fascinating and complicated.)  Atkinson also backtracks a bit about choosing the one course at the end of this novel too.  I like that she does this more than I dislike it, but it brings up so much to ponder about both novels, and I’m not done doing so yet.  The second snag I keep returning to is that in this novel, Teddy’s life is sad in a mundane way that becomes very depressing.  He made a vow during WWII that if he made it through the war, he would be kind and delight in the small things of life.  He does this , and isn’t unsatisfied.  But his relationship with his wife (Nancy Shawcross) is rather sad (if very ordinary) and they have a dreadful daughter who is a narcissist at best.  I keep thinking of what this all means in the context of Life After Life (and all of Teddy’s promise):  it is not unlike Eliot’s Middlemarch, in a way, in that it is a book about what happens in the “happily ever after part” – after the wedding, after the war, etc.  Atkinson is a brilliant writer and also a really good story-teller.  She goes back and forth from the war to after the war, to Teddy’s midlife and the end of his very long life, and does it all with skill and not mere manipulation.  Teddy was a fighter pilot in the war and she delves into this in detail.  So in a nutshell:  in this as always, Atkinson’s writing is superb.  I’m still mulling over how this fits in with and changes Life After Life, as its sequel. It can be read on many levels though and enjoyed, albeit in a bittersweet way, as the story of one man’s life after life:  the “after” he thought he’d never make it to see.

In Your Prime:  Older, Wiser, Happier by India Knight.  This is a fun advice book about enjoying middle age.  I don’t know much about India Knight, although I know she is English, lives in London, is in her late forties, and is known primarily as a nonfiction writer, although she’s also written novels.  This particular book concentrates on the physical, and her advice runs the gamut from what to do during menopause, to what face cream to use, to more general, state-of-mind metrics.  She’s opinionated and fun, and whereas some of the topics are obvious to the point of being surprising that anyone would need to be told this stuff, as the book progressed I fell into the rhythm of it and found it enjoyable on the whole (even though I fell into a category that she often scoffs at in the book – old people with young kids.  Harrumph.)  She’s witty and bossy:  it’s an amusing, “how true” kind of read.

The House At Riverton by Kate Morton.  I read Morton’s fourth novel, The Secret Keeper a month or so ago and enjoyed it, so decided to read her remaining novels in order in which they were written.  This is her first, and it really wasn’t up to the same level of writing as her fourth.  (So, progress!  I guess that’s a good thing).  It seemed a bit derivative of Downton Abbey to me (although it came first), and the characters fell a little flat.  Most were stereotypes of both downstairs and upstairs folk – the noble butler, the hardworking, self-effacing ladies’ maid, etc.   And the life that the main character, Grace, goes on to have seemed a stretch, as did the main reason for the central plot twist of the novel – which was why Hannah would stay in her loveless marriage.  It was an okay light read and in it Morton shows promise in her ability to tell an “intriguing” story, but overall the characters weren’t well done and the plot twists were too made up out of thin air.  Basically, the story is told by Grace, a one-time ladies maid and house servant, at the end of her long life.  She wants to unburden herself of a secret which she kept since the 1920’s, and decides to tell the details to her grandson via tape.  She then discloses her experiences working for an aristocratic family on the down and out pre and post WWI.  She ends up working for the older sister, Hannah, after she gets married and moves to London, and plays a part in a deception that proves fatal. 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.  I loved this book.  Elizabeth Strout’s writing is wonderful, as is her character creation.  I looked forward to reading it each night and was sad when it was over.  She writes about the Burgess family, three adult siblings from Maine.  The Burgess brothers left Maine to live in NYC, while their sister, Susan, stayed in their home town of Shirley Falls.  Both brothers are lawyers, but the oldest, Jim, became famous in the nineties for successfully defending a pop star, while the other, Bob, ended up doing nonprofit law.  We learn right away in the book that when Bob was 4, he released the brake in a parked car, causing it to roll down a hill and kill his father.  This of course haunts him, and he seems to have lived his life in a bit of a muddle and in awe of Jim.  When the story begins, Bob and Jim return to Maine to help out their nephew, who has gotten into trouble involving the Somali community in his hometown.  The return sets off a series of events that upends the relationship between the siblings, but also changes how they appear to the reader.  It’s an interesting plot, but I think her characters are genius.  We see things from all the siblings’ point of view, as well as Jim’s wife and Bob’s ex-wife.  They are somehow better than real, and Strout is able to reveal their foibles and weaknesses while remaining kind.  It’s a sad book at times, and there is a rather strange prologue framework in which the “author”, also a Mainer living in NYC, decides while gossiping with her mother to write about the Burgess Boys from their hometown.  This “author” never appears again in the book, so I’m not quite sure if that extra layer of narrative is needed.  It’s a truly delightful book.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Rainy Maine

Owen and I are enjoying our second week of vacation in Maine right now, despite the preponderance of rain for the past six days!  The days have really been more cloudy than rainy, and there have been pockets of nice in the mix, including one beautiful beach afternoon on Monday.  But we are not letting the clouds and fog hinder our activity.  For example, here we are this morning on a cloudy walk, admiring the foggy view:

One of the advantages of being the youngest grandchild by seven years is that your Granny will interrupt her exercise walk every few feet to pick you wild blackberries from the side of the road, while you sit in your stroller like a wee king.  Then since you forgot the blackberry tupperware, she will feed them to you one by one, while you busily point out more possible bushes for her to clamber to even further from the road.

Here is Owen later on in the day, looking like Christopher Robin as he jumps in "muddy puddles":

Owen is at an age where he loves to be helpful, and he has very much enjoyed helping his Granny clean and do whatever projects she might be attempting, including picking blueberries and veggies in the garden.

I'm sure my mother does not want me to post the pictures I have of Owen helping her scrub the tub or make salad or change the sheets, but trust me when I say there are a lot of those photos and they are awfully cute.  Owen keeps an eye on her activities so that he can run over at the slightest sign of activity and say, "What are you doing?" and "I want to help!"

Today a highlight of his morning was helping Pa call Nellie down from upstairs.

I am sure that when the vacation is over and we are back in Pennsylvania, I will hear many Granny and Pa stories, told repeatedly, and then told again.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

To Feed Or Not To Feed

We live within short walking distance from the Penn State Abington campus, and we walk there frequently to enjoy the woods.  Lately we’ve been visiting the pond on a Sunday and feeding the geese.  Now I know that this is a somewhat controversial statement – it turns out that some people are against feeding wild geese, and especially feeding wild geese bread – which is Very Bad for them.  I asked the worker at the store where I get my wild bird seed what one should feed geese and she told me I should not feed them at all in the spring/summer, and that they should have moved from ponds to streams to do their breeding, scold scold.

Although when I googled it to find out if indeed bread is bad, it seems that non-moldy bread is okay, it’s just that it doesn’t meet their nutritional needs, so it’s the equivalent of getting your caloric needs met by a mealful of twinkies, say.  We saw on-line also that a good alternative to feeding bread to geese is peas.  Geese love green peas!  You can get a bag of frozen peas and let them thaw and voila!  A geese buffet.  Except that no one had informed the geese at Penn State Abington that they were supposed to love peas.  We tossed them peas and they picked them up in their beaks and then promptly spit them out with a ptui!  The pair of mallards that used to be at the pond felt the same way about the peas.  No thank you.

I did some more on-line searching and found out that cracked corn is something geese like and it’s good for them.  If I ever find some cracked corn I shall give it a try, but in the meantime we are giving them a bit of whole wheat bread on a Sunday and hoping that we are not doing them a disservice.  This particular family had six tiny goslings when we first saw them, which became five tiny goslings a week later – and now all five goslings are full grown and hard to tell apart from the parents.  I also discovered online that geese are as smart as dogs (can this be true?) and can recognize you after they’ve seen you a few times.  This seems to be true with “our” geese family, since they will be in the field grazing a bit when we walk down the hill, and when they see us walking down the hill, they will go to the pond and swim over to the side where we feed them.

About a month ago when we were there feeding the geese Sean heard a splash on the other side of the pond and then saw two turtles coming towards us, their heads sticking out of the water as they made their way.  Now I will usually try to keep the geese occupied so that Sean can lob bread out to the turtles.  The only problem is that the pond is teeming with fish and the fish will often rise up and grab the bread before the turtles can get it.  I worry a little about the amount of fish in this pond.  It seems very crowded and with not a lot of natural greenery for the fish to eat.  We used to occasionally see a heron at the pond, but we haven’t seen it this year.  A heron could thin out the fish school a bit.  When Owen and I were at the pond last week a HUGE fish swam up to inspect our bread – it was whitish in color and was at least 14 inches long.  A goldfish gone amok?  The other fish we see are black and about four inches.  Anyway, I pointed out the fish to Owen and told him he was Douglas the Pond Monster, a Scottish serpent, and Owen talked about Douglas the whole way home.  And in fact is still talking about Douglas.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “monster” in Douglas’s epithet.

Update:  We did end up finding cracked corn at the wild birdseed store, and for two weeks the geese loved it (even though I found that feeding geese cracked corn ensured that for the rest of the day I had "Jimmy Crack Corn" stuck in my head.)  But the last time we went to the pond, the geese were gone!  I'm hoping it was just time for them to join up with the flock that flies over our house several times daily, landing on the nearby playing field for some grazing.  We still have corn left if they should need it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Library Lament

I love a library.  I spent many an hour finding a weekly stack of books to bring home from the Summit Public Library when I was a kid, and while getting my graduate degrees of course had to become a resident of sorts of various university libraries.  And whereas every once in a while I think how nice it would be if there were a library version of Netflix where the next book on my “to read” list could just be sent to me when I need it, on the whole, I am a big fan of libraries as they are now.  And our neighborhood library in PA seems to really be an excellent one, with a good selection of books, and all sorts of programs scheduled daily and nightly.

All this is a preamble to justify what follows next:  a complaint about how I have yet to find a rhythm going to the library with Owen.  We go every two weeks or so and get a stack of books, but there is nothing about the process that is enjoyable.  Primarily it is probably my fault, in that Owen isn’t completely obedient in the library.  He likes using his library voice in the beginning of the trip, but he doesn’t like to stay by me while I look for books for him, and wants very much to take off at a sprint to certain displays that he finds intriguing, like the pirate ship and the water fountain and the free computers.  He won’t quite actually leave when I tell him to stay, but he will inch farther and farther away while getting more frustrated with me and louder and louder, saying things like, “I WAN’T TO BITE YOU!”  Fun times.

So anyway, should a 3 year-old be able to stay in one area when his mother tells him to do so?  Probably, although I don’t know this for sure.  But I’m certainly not blaming the library for this, only explaining why our visits there aren’t fun.  I’ve thought of going without him – and it is a very tempting scenario – but I want him to be used to going to the library weekly, and want him to look forward to doing so.

But here is the part where I do blame the library.  The kid section of our library consists of shelves with three layers of shelving, all very low down so that the kids have access.  Great.  But what 2 or 3 or even 4 year old is picking out her/his own books?  Maybe 4 and 5 year olds do, but I think even they have a lot of help from their parents.  So anyway, to try and find good books for Owen, I am generally on my hands and knees, or duck-walking in a squat, trying desperately and quickly to find books that Owen will like, while simultaneously keeping my eye on a cranky Owen who is inching pirate-ship-ward.  And to make matters worse, the bottom shelf is too short for the books to stand upright, so if you want to see books on the bottom shelf, you have to pull each one out by its spine and then push it back in.  Could not the shelves be higher?  With perhaps some sturdy stools to help the precocious toddler set?

I usually go armed with a list of great-sounding books recommended by my friend, Elisabeth, (a children’s lit professor!), and yet I can’t find most of the books on my list.  I’m sure some of them must be there, yet I get a cramp in my back or a crick in my neck before pulling out the correct book spine.  I know our library has a good computer system so perhaps I can order or reserve books from home?  I need to look into seeing if that is possible.

And one final complaint before I shall sign off and take my first-world problems with me.  Almost every single children’s book in that library stars an animal.  I am animal-obsessed myself, and always  have more pets than I can handle, but even I find myself  inwardly groaning, “Another animal?!”  Is there a particular reason all kids books have animals in them?  It is odd.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Owen Is Three!

A lot has been happening in our neck of the woods, in a quotidian kind of way, and I keep neglecting to write about it.  Last Saturday, for example, Owen turned 3, which doesn’t quite seem possible.  He looks long-ish and lean-ish to me, and is definitely no longer a baby.  He’ll tell you he is 3 if you catch him feeling cooperative, but he didn’t really understand the birthday concept.  All the week before and the day of, he kept wishing everyone he saw a magnanimous, “Happy Birthday!” like one would say “Merry Christmas”, as if it were a shared holiday.  I had let him peek at a few wrapped gifts in my closet, and he asked Susan many times that week if she wanted to peek at her birthday gifts.  He certainly wasn’t inclined to share in the unwrapping of the gifts when the day came, but he still spent his birthday wishing everyone else a good one.

We had a small party with Sean’s parents and sister as guests, and Owen very much enjoyed their visit, as well as his Thomas birthday cake and many gifts.  And now he is 3, although he also finds it funny to say he is 5-6-7-8.

A week or so before Owen’s birthday, he enjoyed a visit from his Aunt Meredith and cousin Lily, who were in town while my niece Avery was at a college tennis clinic of sorts.  Owen did a lot of showing off with feats of physical prowess (jumping with two feet, running around the dining room table, throwing toys, offering Meredith lemonade, building towers of toys, etc.), and very much liked running after “Cousin Willy” as she got exercise at our nearby track (and shouting, “Cousin Willy! Cousin Willy!” to her retreating back).  In fact when we went back to the track after Meredith and Lily had left, he thought every blonde runner was Cousin Willy, and looked at me suspiciously when I assured him they were not one and the same.

And finally, yesterday Owen had his 3 year-old check-up, which I did not attend, and for which I felt guilty all day.  But I’m told that he did well, and that when the doctor walked in to his examination room, Owen first asked her what her name was, and then when told it was Dr. Mary, replied, “Well hello, Dr. Mary!  I’m Owen and this is Nanny.”  He’s a companionable little fellow, albeit one who still has reverse supermodel proportions of girth and height.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

July 2015 Book Reviews

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch.  This book was a big old mess, although I must admit that once I had figured that out, I rather enjoyed reading it on the train each morning.  It was just generally a bit schizophrenic:  it started out a book about clergymen (well, it remains this all throughout) and seemed to be a theological comedy of manners kind of story, situated in England between the world wars (although I did have trouble remembering when it was taking place, as there aren’t a lot of historical or cultural markers that place it in the 30s.)  But then all of a sudden, the main character, Dr. Charles Ashworth, a clergyman scholar at Cambridge, is having sex in the bushes with an older American (of course!) – and sex six times in a couple of hours too, might I add.  It was at this point that I rightly began to wonder, is this a romance?  A bodice ripper?!  What am I reading?  And it is also at this point that Dr. Ashworth, wracked with guilt over his consensual rendezvous with Professor Loretta, cloisters himself away at an abbey so that he can partake in daily Freudian analysis with the head monk there, Jon Darrow.  Wait, what?!  I know!  There was truly something to annoy everyone.  And then the remaining half of the very long book consisted primarily of Dr. Ashworth’s analysis, and his coming to terms with traumas in his childhood that made him separate into two people, the “Glittering Image” of the title, a social and glib fellow, and the real, damaged self underneath.  He also tries to puzzle out a mystery involving a ménage a trois and another bishop.  Apparently there are three or four more books written in this particular series about these characters, and although I’m a tiny bit curious, I don’t think I shall read the rest.

The Accident by Chris Pavone.  This book was a recommendation I took from The New York Times “By The Book” column, and it was an excellent read.  I guess you’d say it was in the thriller/spy genre, and was my first foray into spy novels.  It was very fast-paced and fascinating from the get-go.  Each chapter switched from person to person (some repeatedly and some making only one appearance) and it read like the best qualities of a good action movie:  smart and suspenseful and surprising.  It is very much located in the world of book publishing (the author worked or still works in publishing), and it begins with an agent reading a manuscript that had been mysteriously delivered to her, and that is a biographical expose of a media mogul half-Oprah Winfrey/half Rupert Murdoch kind of figure.  The book has all sorts of revelations that the mogul, Charlie Wolfe, of course wants to keep hidden.  So you have one side trying to get the book published, and you have the Wolfe side trying to kill everyone who knows about the manuscript.  It’s very well done and a very “fun” (albeit somewhat stressful at times) read.

The Shepherd’s Life:   Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks.  This is an interesting read.  James Rebanks, in his forties now, grew up in the Lake District on a working sheep farm, and learned how to be a sheep farmer from his grandfather and father.  The chapters are all very short and in no particular order, and he writes of the daily work of a northern sheep farmer, as well as what it was like growing up in that world – which was positioned inside a world of touristry and escape.  As a teen, he was very aware of how sheep farming was dismissed by the modern world, and how their land was perceived so differently from Wordsworth’s time on.  Rebanks wasn’t a student as a youth and dropped out of school at age 15 to help farm.  But he knew he wouldn’t be able to just be a farmer, that in these times you needed a second job, so he eventually goes to Oxford (surprising all, including himself) in his twenties and becomes a historical preservationist, while still sheep farming full time.  It’s all very fascinating, as most of the daily activities of sheep farming I knew nothing of.  Rebanks is also a breeder of a special kind of sheep (two kinds, actually) and that whole breeding, and sheep showing world was equally interesting.  It’s a thought-provoking book; I recommend it.  

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  I was all set to read Atkinson’s new novel, God In Ruins, and read a few chapters of it.  But it is about a minor character who appeared in the amazing Life After Life, and I wanted to remember more about who did what in Life After Life, so decided I had to re-read it before moving on to God In Ruins.  So this was my second reading of Life After Life, and it was just as spectacular as the first time I read it.  Truly.  If you haven’t read this book, go do so:  it will probably be one of the best books of the century.  It’s also a hard book to describe!  Basically it follows the many lives of Ursula Todd, who is born in 1910 outside of London.  However, Ursula keeps getting a do-over, and her life starts again and again, although each time she is able to at least slightly avert the disaster that happened in the previous life.  Some of the different things she does result in the same end, and some do not.  It’s fascinating and beautifully written and wonderful, and is a good read on its own, even without the reincarnation kind of structure.  A superb novel.

Among The Ten-Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont.  This novel has been getting a lot of buzz, primarily because it was a first novel that sold for a lot of money.  And I do think it is a good book, although I am still processing what I think about how she structured it.  There are four parts:  most of the novel consists of the first and third part, which occur in the present day.  The third part picks up right where the first part left off.  However, in the second part Pierpont writes short vignettes (in a very Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse way) that lays out what happens to the characters for the rest of their lives in bits and pieces.  So then it is rather surprising to start part three and find out it is a continuation of part one, and that you now know more than the characters do about what will happen to them.  I think it’s an interesting idea, and thought-provoking, but I’m still undecided as to whether I think it works or not.  It would have been a much more hopeful book without the glimpse into the future, for sure.  The fourth part is a few more vignettes like were in the second (some almost word for word), with a bit more here and there.  Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about the structure.  Before I read the book I had heard that it was a book about the break-up of a marriage told from the children’s point of view.  And it is, although you get as much of the parents’ point of view as you do of the children’s, if not more.  So I guess it is the break-up of a family from everyone’s point of view.  The writing is lovely and the characters interesting and real and well-drawn, with perhaps the weakest being the mother, Deb, an ex-dancer who is not blindsided by her husband, Jack’s, affairs, yet still acts like she is.  Because Jack is more expertly created, it is hard not to end up on his side.  On the whole, very well done.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Mr. Owen

I need to be better at writing down what Owen says daily, because he is still very funny these days and I’d like to remember.  In general right now he is very into talking about emotions, specifically being grumpy and/or angry.  If we ask him if he wants to do something, he will often answer, “No!  I want to be grumpy right now!”  To which I often reply, “Well it seems as if you’ve met your goal.”  He is often grumpy, although that will change on a dime.

He still gets very angry if things do not go his way, and Sean has started taking him to the steps to have a little talk (usually after he has tried to hit me).  They sit on the steps and Owen counts to ten, and then takes three deep breaths.  Then they might talk about anger for a bit and how you shouldn’t hit, etc.  Then he’ll come to apologize to me with an “I sorry I hit you Mommy.”  It’s not so much a time out or a punishment, but more just a way of resetting his temper.  He will now ask to go sit with Daddy on the steps right at the beginning of his anger, so I suppose it is working!

And then he later likes to ask us to tell him a story about when he was angry earlier in the day, and he still will also ask us, “Did you get a picture?”

He’s also fascinated by when we are angry, and when I start to get exasperated at him for something or the other, he will say, “Are you angry Mommy?”  And then he will insist that I “Be happy, Mommy!” 

He went over to Sean’s iced tea the other day and started to take a sip.  When Sean told him to stop, he replied:  “I not listening to Daddy.”  And then when he had finished what was left in the cup, he said to Sean, “You’ll have to go buy more, Daddy.”

He will want toys when we go to the store, and doesn’t understand why he can’t just take what he sees.  We’ve been telling him that we have no money for that or that it’s too expensive.  Yesterday when he was helping me change the sheets on the bed, he didn’t like the clean ones I had picked out, and brought them back to the closet telling me as he went that “These are too expensive.”

As we were driving in the car the other day, Sean was quizzing Owen about traffic lights, asking him what red means, what green means, and what yellow means.  After replying correctly, Owen asked, “What does brown mean?”  After a bit of thought, I told him brown meant chocolate.  As it so often does to me.