Friday, December 1, 2017

Book Reviews November 2017

Deep Freeze by John Sandford.  I really enjoy Sandford’s Virgil Flowers mysteries, and this most recent one was excellent.  It is Virgil at his best.  He gets called to solve a murder in Trippton, Minnesota, and in the midst of snow and negative-degree weather and many surprising turns, he slowly figures out the case.  The class of ’92 is getting ready for a reunion, and after a planning meeting a woman at the meeting, who also runs the town’s bank, is murdered.  The reader knows from the first chapter who did it, and so we just get to watch Virgil figure it out.  Virgil, as ever, is patient and calm and funny and doesn’t take himself too seriously, and it is a delightful read.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslitt.  I did not enjoy reading this book.  My main problem with it was that all the characters actively annoyed me for various reasons.  I certainly don’t need to like a character to like a book, but the only plot was really the characters, and if you can’t root for any of them, or in my case, if you actively wanted them to shut up, then it makes for a book whose ending is welcome.  The chapters switched viewpoints between five members of a family:  the father is an Englishman living in America and who is suffering from very serious mental illness.  The mother starts off interesting and stoic, but for most of the book she is just trying to help her son, Michael, who inherited the mental illness from his father. Michael is often manic in his chapters, which also tended toward the run-on stream of consciousness style.  He seemed realistic, but it was hard to read his chapters.  The youngest son, Alec, was a jerk, and Celia, the middle daughter, escaped to her own life in California, but basically that wasn’t far enough.  Michael also becomes addicted to the psychiatric medicines he is prescribed, and his addiction propels most of the events of the book.  Perhaps it would’ve been interesting for me if I liked the characters, but again:  I did not.

Good As Gone by Amy Gentry.  This was a fun, suspenseful read.  Gentry takes the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping – a younger sister seeing her older sister kidnapped out of her bedroom – and runs with it.  When the book begins, Julie, the kidnapped daughter has reappeared eight years later.  Her parents and sister, all in their own ways broken by the kidnapping, are ecstatic, but doubts begin to surface as to whether it is actually Julie or not.  We also get Julie’s experiences, chapter by chapter, going backwards for the past years.  It’s an interesting way to structure the book and it works.  It was hard to put the book down.

Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker.  I loved this book.  Parker is an excellent writer and it was such a good idea to write a memoir like this.  The whole book is written as letters to the men in her life, but the “in her life” part is very all-encompassing, from obvious figures like her father, and grandfather, and lovers, and son, to more random ones like a taxi driver, and the oyster-picker who picked the oysters for her father’s last meal, and to the man that will one day fall in love with her daughter.  It was an interesting approach and her writing was beautiful – poetic and funny, and achieving the right balance of reveal.  I was surprised at how good it was and sad when it ended.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.  I did not really enjoy this book.  For me, it was too lacking in nuance, and I felt like I was being hit over the head with Picoult’s points for 500 pages.  It read like an adult version of the kid’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day.  The story is about Ruth, a labor and delivery nurse of twenty years’ standing, who has a newborn patient whose parents are white supremacists.  They do not want Ruth to touch their child, so when Ruth is the only nurse around when the baby goes into distress, she is not sure what to do.  Turk & Brittany, the white supremacist parents later sue Ruth for murder, and the hospital, despite Ruth’s years of excellent service, throws her to the wolves.  The book switches between Ruth, Turk, and Ruth’s lawyer, Kennedy, a white liberal who is not aware how hard Ruth has it on a daily basis.  But this is the part that we get hit over the head with:  Ruth has to confront racism every day.  Picoult seems to think that her readers are going to be surprised by this notion, and in order to make her point, she shows non-stop how racism is everywhere.  She does not do this with any sophistication or, as I said above, nuance, and the result is a very tiresome read (although the court scenes move quickly).

Fast Falls The Night by Julia Keller.  I read the first two novels in the “Bell Elkins” series a few years ago and enjoyed them, and then recently saw that Keller had published a new one, so got it and read it without realizing that it was actually number six in the series (and that several of the middle numbers were divided between two or more books).  So I read 6 after 1 and 2, and didn’t realize this until I had finished 6.  I could tell there were references to things that I didn’t know, but it didn’t interfere with my mild, pleasant enjoyment of this book.  I think I will mosey to the library to get the middle volumes, but not with any sense of urgency.  Bell Elkins is confronted with an astonishing amount of overdoses and works hard with the sheriff and deputies to try to get the word out that there is a tainted batch of heroin in the town.  She runs into people’s prejudice against drug addicts and interfering in their self-destruction, etc.  Bell’s sister, Shirley, is in this book, and she keeps trying to reveal a secret to Bell.  Basically if you want a nice little crime drama that takes place in the mountains of West Virginia and involves a small town’s depressing battle with heroin, then this is the book for you. 

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson.  I loved this perfect, strange little novel.  I’ve always heard of Shirley Jackson but this is the first book of hers that I read – thanks to my sister, Martha, for the recommendation and loan of it.  It’s a gothic tale about two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine, who live with their senile Uncle Julian in a large country house outside of a village.  When the book begins, Mary Katherine is doing one of her twice weekly trips into the village for food and library books, and is hoping to do so unnoticed by the villagers, who when they do notice her, are unkind.  We soon learn that Merricat’s (as she is called by her sister) family was murdered by arsenic in their sugar, and Constance was accused and acquitted of the murder, yet the villagers still think she is guilty.  So the three of them live a secluded life, with Constance cooking and gardening, and Merricat, an eccentric 18 year-old, perhaps on the spectrum, going on long adventures in the woods with her cat, Jonas.  It’s perfectly written and perfectly structured: as the reader you slowly learn the truth of what is going on, while becoming completely on the side of the sisters.  It’s odd and funny and sad and full of tension, and extremely well-done.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Owen Flotsam

Me:  When you are 18, you get to vote; and when you are 21, you can have a beer.
Owen:  But what happens when I’m 26?

Owen likes to help brush the cats.  Posy loves it, but Plum is not so sure.  I’ve told Owen he has to be careful and not brush near Plum’s “family jewels,” as this makes Plum angry.  The other day I was brushing Plum and Owen warned me not to go near “the people’s genitals.”

Owen’s teacher last year made a silhouette of Owen and framed it for mother’s day.  I have it on my bedroom wall and Owen refers to it as “Mystery Me”.

Owen:  I was a little angry in school today, Mom, but I can’t tell you about it because it would take all night.
Me:  Try!

When we were visiting my parents this summer:
Granny:  Owen, you can do so much more this year than last.
Owen:  But I can’t put the star on top of the Christmas tree.

We had told Owen on our way to Maine this summer that he had to follow Granny & Pa’s rules, since we were staying in their house.  My mother and Owen were playing in the living room on our second day there and my mom had to tell Dorothy to stop scratching her behind on the carpet.  Owen queried:  “Granny, is that a rule?”  (Yes, and a pretty fair one!)

Owen:  I’m going to be a scientist when I grow up.  Dad says he’s going to be a pizza scientist.

Owen to himself as he plays:  I’m doing what I want, me-style.

Owen:  Why does my pasta taste cold and smell hot?

On our way to the pharmacy to pick up some meds for Owen.
Owen:  Is the pharmacy inside or outside?
Me:  Inside!  It’s a store.
Owen:  Oh.  I thought since it was a farm it might be outside.
Thus ensued a conversation about the difference between a farm and a pharmacy….

Owen:  I’d like this muffin better if it had icing and was called a cupcake.

I was getting dressed to go to a wedding and put on a pair of black heels, which I don’t wear much anymore.  Owen said, “Nice shoes, mom, but heels are supposed to be red.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Land Shark!

Owen was a shark for Halloween this year.  He started off wanting to be a million different Pokemon characters, and then decided he wanted to be a blob fish.  We couldn’t find a blob fish costume though, and I wasn’t feeling crafty enough to make one.  Martha suggested a shark, and when I told Owen that idea he loved it, so I ordered a cheap amazon costume right away.  I’ve had good luck with cheap amazon costumes in years past; this one wasn’t quite as sturdy as the others, but he looked very cute in it.  I didn’t remember to get any good pictures before we went trick or treating, but Susan sent me a few pictures of him getting into character at his school parade:

And then here are two blurry ones when we were out trick or treating:

I took him out this year while Sean stayed on our porch and gave out candy to the kids who stopped by.  It was my first time taking Owen around and it was much more fun than I had expected, mainly because Owen was so filled with excitement and wonder at the activity.  You dress up!  And then knock on doors and get candy!  Mind blown.  Plus the night was nice with the moon shining and tons of kids and parents out and about:  it was very carnivalesque. 

I had coached Owen to say “trick or treat!” and then “thank you!” and he did very well.  People laughed at his costume.  One woman waiting at the curb warned him that her son up at the door had a scary mask on, and Owen replied, “Well, you know, a shark is very scary too.”  One man asked him if he was a land shark and Owen told him it was just a costume.  And another jokester asked him if he wanted toilet paper or tooth paste, to which Owen said, “What the what the what the?”  Besides the bucket of candy (which he really is not that interested in eating, oddly enough), he was most excited about seeing a teenager at one house cuddling a bearded dragon.  When I erroneously called it a lizard, Owen corrected me and then went on to discuss bearded dragon facts with the owner.

I’ll put in a plug for Dorothy too and say that she was very well-behaved.  She is really a calm dog.  She would have liked to have been out on the porch greeting all the trick-or-treaters, but when that wasn’t allowed, she just curled up in her bed inside and had a snooze.  It was the cats who sat by the door peeking out.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Reviews October 2017

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman.  I usually really love Allegra Goodman’s fiction but I had a hard time getting in to this book.  I liked her characters as always, and her writing, but the book was mostly about gaming, and I didn’t at all enjoy the descriptions of the gaming itself.  I’ve never played a video game, really, so to me the game scenes were akin to hearing in detail about someone’s dream:  rather endless and boring.  But there was a lot that was good in the book:  it is about Nina, a young inner-city teacher who is trying to get her students engrossed in Shakespeare, while being evaluated herself.  She meets Collin at Grendel’s in Cambridge, and after they start dating and she realizes how talented an artist he is (his medium is chalk), she gets him a job in her father’s world-famous game company.  The chapters also concentrate on twins, Diana and Aidan:  Diana is a student in Nina’s class, and Aidan is a gamer who tends more towards cutting class.  Goodman tries to make a parallel between classical mythologies and the story lines of the games, I think, making Diana a runner and another character, Daphne, chased by everyone (and at one point while gaming she actually turns into a tree).  So the book is clever, the characters well created, and a lot of it is interesting and a good read.  I’m just not the right audience for the gaming subject.

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss.  I wanted to like this book – as I could appreciate a lot of what she was trying to do in it, and was impressed with its whole structure and meta moments – but ultimately I could not.  Krauss is a wonderful writer in many ways, but I do not like Kafka, and I think you have to like Kafka to like this book.  It contains two narrative lines – one story line in every other chapter is about Jules Epstein, an aging lawyer who when the book begins has decided to give away his vast fortune for reasons that aren’t quite clear to him.  He has just gotten divorced, and isn’t very close to his adult children, and ends up in Tel Aviv trying to buy a memorial forest for his long-dead parents.  Meanwhile in the other chapters we get a character named “Nicole,” who is divorcing her husband, and leaves her young sons for a trip to Tel Aviv to try to get over her writer’s block.  While there, in part researching Kafka and the notion that perhaps he didn’t die but emigrated to Tel Aviv and lived there anonymously, she starts having her own Kafka-esque experience, ending up in a tiny woods cottage with an old typewriter where Kafka himself allegedly lived and wrote.  The story of Epstein was excellent, and until Nicole veered into the Kafka-esque, I very much enjoyed her chapters too, but to me the Kafka-stunt that happens to the character Nicole ruined the book.  It made me not care what happened to either of them, as well as disdain their angst.

Lost In The Forest by Sue Miller.  I don’t remember how this book ended up on my kindle, and I don’t think I have read anything else by Sue Miller, but I enjoyed this.  It’s a quiet book about a family living in the late eighties in wine country in California.  When the book begins, Mark and Eva have been divorced for many years and are sharing the raising of their two daughters, Emily and Daisy.  Mark is picking them up from Eva’s when he finds out that Eva’s second husband and the father of her son has just been killed in a car accident.  The point of view switches from Mark to Eva to Daisy over the next few years.  Eva tries to deal with her grief while flirting with the idea of getting back together with Mark, which Mark wants to happen.  Daisy becomes a very prickly and hard to like adolescent who gets preyed upon by a family friend.  It is all much less dramatic than I’m making it out to be, and quite well done on the whole.  The realizations are everyday realizations and handled with intelligence and thoughtfulness.  It was quietly good.

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore.  This was an interesting kind of biography of the life of Ben Franklin’s sister, Jane.  She was close to her brother, and wrote letters to him all her life, yet of course most of her letters to him we don’t still have: just the reverse.  It is fascinating to see their different circumstances – he of course escapes to Philadelphia and a career, while Jane marries at 15, has 12 kids, 10 of whom die in childhood, and has to deal with a deadbeat husband and insane sons.  She’s clearly a smart and thoughtful woman – albeit one who cannot spell – and followed Ben Franklin’s every career move and published book and article while never hesitating to speak her mind to him.  It is very much a “Judith Shakespeare” study of a brother and sister and raised many interesting issues while also remaining true to Jane’s personal story, as much as it can be discerned today. 

The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown.  I did not love this book, although I seem to be in the minority, as everyone else I know who read it did.  I found the history fascinating, as well as the individual stories of the boys from Washington who win Olympic gold in crew in Hitler’s Berlin.  My problem was that I did not enjoy the descriptions of the many crew races themselves – and I’d say those descriptions were more than half of the book.  I also do not think Brown is a particularly adept writer, as he tended to be a bit repetitive in his phrasing.  I thought using the crew team was an interesting way to create a slice of life study of a very particular era – the crew team had all suffered through the depression in different ways and their families had different strategies for getting by.  Brown parallels the making of the team with the events happening in Germany leading up to the Olympics, and this was provocative reading (although I didn’t necessarily agree with his portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl).  Those endless race scenes though!  Argh!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.  I really liked this novel and was sad when it ended.  I described it to my work colleagues and couldn’t make it sound interesting, but trust me!  It is a very good book.  It is basically about Anna, a young girl in NYC who starts to work in the Navy Yard during WWII and eventually becomes a diver repairing boats from under the water.  The chapters switch back and forth between Anna (first as a child and then as an adult), her father Ed Kerrigan, and Dexter Styles, a gangster who crosses paths with both Anna and Ed.  Egan makes all three characters believable and well-rounded and compelling, even when their actions are egregious.  Ed works for Dexter Styles briefly, and then runs into problems; Anna as an adult later seeks out Styles to see if she can find out any additional information about her father.  She also has to work hard to convince her bosses that she can dive, as a woman, and do that kind of work.  It’s a well-done historical novel and a great story to boot.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Posy Wants Cream, Preferably Whipped & Sweetened

I have created a monster, and this is she:

Posy has always had a sweet fang:  she loves licking icing off a finger, and it is absolutely impossible to open the freezer and scoop ice cream into a bowl without her suddenly appearing by your side to help eat it.  She has never once tried anything savory as an extra– not cat treats, and not even tuna water.

So about a month ago I had a can of whipped cream in the fridge, which I don’t usually do, since I prefer the homemade kind.  But I had gotten it to eat with a salted caramel sauce on ice cream, and since Posy was there for the ice cream, I gave her a squirt of the whipped cream in her own dish.

That was a mistake.

She literally did not leave the kitchen for about 48 hours after eating the cream.  She slept on the mat by the sink, and whenever anyone came in the kitchen she would start begging for cream.  Here’s a pic.

Owen gave her artwork to keep her company:

This meant that every time I cooked or prepared a meal, I had a five pound fluff ball begging at my feet and trying to trip me up.  So did I make her go cold turkey?  No, no I did not.  Like a good enabler, I gave her a little puff of whipped cream each day, thus further entrenching her addiction.

It turns out Posy is STUBBORN, and Posy Does. Not. Give. Up.  She’s basically become a kitchen cat, except when she gets too exhausted and simply is forced to waddle away and find a better place to get some shut-eye.

And I keep buying the cream now!  So she can have her daily squirt!  How can one resist this face?

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Boo at the Zoo

We hadn’t been to the zoo in perhaps a year – long enough at any rate so that Owen was claiming that he had never been to the zoo, despite all the pictures we have to prove it.  So with a lot of sun on the roster for Saturday, we headed out early to the zoo and arrived – for the third time, second time unplanned – at Boo at the Zoo, the annual event in which zoo patrons wear costumes and can stop at trick or treating tables for candy.  Owen was not wearing his costume, but he didn’t seem to mind, and in fact wanted nothing to do with the trick or treat tables, despite the fact that they were clearly manned by cheery folk handing out candy.  I’ll chalk it up to a temporary lapse in judgment.

When we go to the zoo, we always arrive about ten minutes before it opens, because that is how we roll, try as we might to NOT be early.  Of course, since the zoo is a huge attraction for the stroller brigade – many of whom get up at 5 and nap in the early afternoons – it tends to be crowded from the get-go.  The neat thing about our trip this time was that Owen had his heart set on seeing the sloths, so instead of following the main path, we veered off to the left in search of the small mammal house.  When we got there, we had the whole place to ourselves!  It was great!  The sloths don’t have cages because they are too slow to escape, so you can stand right in front of them.  One sloth was sleeping in, but the other one was heading slowly towards his breakfast.  You can see him in the shadows right behind Owen.

And across from the sloth was an aardvark frantically searching for her breakfast.  The keeper was in the aardvark’s area fixing a ramp, and the aardvark was sure that her breakfast was there somewhere, she just hadn’t found it yet.  An aardvark is a very strange looking animal – it has the body of a swollen bulldog with a long thin head and nose only about two inches wide.  I regaled (some might say annoyed) the keeper with questions about the aardvark, and discovered that they have the intelligence of a dog.  Who knew?!

We then continued our reverse route and enjoyed a good forty or so minutes of solitude in front of the polar bear and the otters and the hippos and the giraffes before finally meeting up with some strollers going hither to our thither.  We made sure to visit my favorite gorillas and did see the year-old baby who was having fun with his people audience.

Owen ended up with a stuffed sloth as well, which he’s been carrying around ever since.  He is obsessed with the Wild Kratts PBS TV show – an excellent show for animal facts – and will tell anyone who will listen that “a sloth might be slow, but he isn’t boring!”


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fruit Ninja

To say that Owen is not very adventurous when it comes to food is putting it mildly.  At five years old, he still eats about seven things.  (How crazy does this drive me?  Very, very crazy.)  But one thing he does love is fruit.  And he is willing to give any fruit a try, because doing so has generally had the positive result of adding something else to his like list.  A month or so ago I was in the grocery store and near that odd section between the fruits and vegetables that has fruits that aren’t common in this country.  Owen and I stopped to peruse and we decided to get a dragon fruit.  We brought it home, looked up “how to cut dragon fruit” on YouTube, and then Owen proceeded to snarf down the whole dragon fruit with moans of ecstasy.

Feeling emboldened, we then went on in successive weeks to try:  star fruit (delicious! Although we added a tiny sprinkling of sugar, like we do to our blackberries); passion fruit (I liked it!  Owen thought it looked too much like a sneeze, but he did try two substantial bites); dragon fruit with white insides instead of magenta (good!); pepino melon (on YouTube they said this would taste like a cross between a cucumber and a honeydew; it did; bleck); pomegranate (not only did he love it but he wanted to bring the seeds in a baggie for a snack on our walk); and horned melon (very odd looking on the inside – basically all wet green seeds – but it did taste exactly like the YouTube video promised, like a banana and a kiwi; Owen ate it with a spoon and relatively with gusto). 

Next up is a mango, which Owen actually had a lot of as a toddler but doesn’t remember.  We’ve told him often that he is like my father, who is also a fruit lover, and one day Owen had me text Pa to ask him if there was any fruit he did NOT like.  It turns out Pa is not a big fan of mangoes, which he found to be too sweet and too sticky.  So Owen already plans to try this mango with a fork, so as not to get any of the sticky on his hands.  He still has an open mind about it though, and is very impatiently waiting for the mango to ripen.

Of course I am hoping that his trying fruit will transfer over to trying other foods.  It hasn’t yet, but a girl can hope.  In the meantime, I am keeping my eye out for an ugli fruit; apparently right now is not the season.

Owen looking melancholy with a bowl of horned melon.
See what I did there?