Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Reviews February 2017

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  This book had been on my kindle for a long time, but I kept skipping over it because I didn’t feel quite up to reading about racism and the death penalty.  I could finally ignore it no longer though, and was quite surprised at how readable it is!  So I recommend it because I think it is important for us to know what goes on in our judicial system, and also as a very interesting read.  Stevenson writes very well and does an excellent job conveying the humanity of the people on death row.  I wasn’t surprised at how unfair death row convictions tend to be, but I was surprised and dismayed at how unequipped our system is at dealing with cases that have clearly gone wrong.  That is, when someone CLEARLY has not gotten a fair trial, the resources available for disrupting the process are very, very limited.  Stevenson is a fascinating person too – he moves down to Atlanta after graduating from Harvard Law School in the eighties and starts working at a foundation that defends those on death row – which means in mostly southern states.  He also starts work defending those who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were under 18 – and sometimes way under, like 13.  Thankfully, he has many successes in changing the rules for child “criminals”.  It is all fascinating and very frustrating; there is so much more work to be done.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore.  I don’t remember how this book got on my kindle – it must have been recommended to me because I don’t know anything about the author.  It was excellent.  It’s about an English family in the early sixties, and Simon, the husband and father gets accused of spying for the Russians.  We as readers know that he is being set up, because you also get the point of view of Giles, who actually was doing the spying.  Simon is married to Lily, who as a child was a Jewish refugee with her mother from Berlin.  So when the police come to her house, it is like Berlin all over again.  The chapters go from Simon to Lily to Giles and it is all fast-paced and well done.  Lily is doing all she can to keep their three children safe:  she lets out their house and moves to the countryside in Kent and works as a housekeeper.  Meanwhile, the forces who are after Simon turn their attention to Lily.  Oh no!  Read it. 

On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman.  I adore Elinor Lipman’s books in general and this one is a true delight.  It is funny and happy – and it is hard to find a book that is both happy and well-written.  She always reminds me a bit of a modern-day Barbara Pym.  Her characters are wry and smart and small-town and funny.  This one concerns a development officer, Faith Frankel, who when the novel begins has moved back to her home town and is buying a house on Turpentine Lane.  She’s engaged to a ne’er do well who is off finding himself, and so she buys the house herself before discovering that it was the site of several crimes in the past.  Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are splitting up, and she is also getting to know quite well a work colleague, Nick.  When police come and dig up her basement for evidence, she decides to find out what had happened herself.  It’s a very fun read.

Noonday by Pat Barker.  Pat Barker is one of my all-time favorite novelists, but I had trouble getting into this one.  It’s the third in a trilogy, and I think what I should have done is re-read the first two, as I only had a vague memory of what had come before.  In my defense, I don’t thinkNoonday works completely as a stand-alone book.  She doesn’t explain much about the characters (assuming you know them from the first two), and thus no one comes across as very likeable or compelling.  Elinor, Paul, and Kit are now dealing with the second world war, and are all part of rescue teams or ambulance drivers helping people nightly after the Germans bomb London.  They are all in their own way dealing with the ghosts from world war one, and Elinor and Paul are still painting.  Elinor’s dead brother Toby figures large in this book too.  Her writing is just as understated and marvelous as ever, so I was happy each night to read a few chapters, but I did not – yet – find it gripping.

Your 4 Year-Old: Wild & Wonderful by Louise Bates Ames & Frances L. Ilg.  I’ve read these books each year as Owen reaches the age and have found them helpful.  All the other books were really about the half-age, so for this one I waited until he was 4 ½ to read it, and of course this one is about 4 year-olds in general.  They can be a bit old-fashioned as far as gender goes (your boy will play with trucks and your girl with dolls, etc.), and this one had a weird chapter on whether your child is an endomorph, ectomorph, or one other –morph, but in general they do a very good job of portraying and explaining what the age’s general characteristics are.  The consensus seems to be that four is pretty great, and I am definitely finding it so.  They say that at five kids become all of a sudden more conservative and cautious and rule-following, which should be interesting. 

My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry.  This novel started out good, and with a lot of suspense, but I was disappointed with it on the whole.  When the book begins, Lily is a young lawyer who is trying to get a convicted murderer out on appeal.  He becomes involved in her life in disturbing ways.  Also when the book begins Lily is newly married to Ed, and their marriage is rocky.  They start helping out a young Italian girl who lives in their apartment building, Carla.  Half of the chapters in the book are from Carla’s point of view, as she grows up and returns to England.  It’s a novel of suspense, and in the prologue of the book you learn that someone is wounded and dying, and throughout the novel that scene is returned to for a page or two.  But even with that foreshadowing, and the psychotic prisoner, the story is a little too easy and the characters a little too flat.  It’s an easy read, and I was eager to find out what happened, but it could have been a much better book.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Villain Pens

It was the night before picture day at Owen’s school, and he had pen on his face so I was making sure to scrub it off him in the bath.  Then, apparently because I am a mean person, I told him that maybe the pen would sneak up the stairs in the middle of the night and creep into his room and try to draw a mustache on his face.  As one does.  So then Owen decided he needed to set up a guard in his room, and drafted all his stuffed animals to serve in his pen-fighting army.  Now most of the surfaces in his bedroom look like this:

And days later, when I suggested that it was time to put them away, he gave me a horrified look and said, “But Mom!  The pen still might sneak in and draw a mustache on my face!”  Oh dear.  Does your kid need to be creeped out?  Because I’ll be glad to think of something that will torment him or her.  Apparently it’s a talent of mine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Owen Flotsam

I was telling Owen the other day about how when Dorothy was a puppy she didn’t like to go on walks, and so when I would walk her in the city she would lie down on the sidewalk.  And then people would sometimes come up to me and start giving me a lecture about how I shouldn’t walk bulldogs in the hot, and I would politely let them know that we were one door down from our house and that Dorothy had walked a few feet. 
Owen considered this a minute and then said:  So they electrocuted you?
Me:  No!  they lectured me!  It means to scold or be bossy!

I’ve noticed that Owen is in general quite good at coming up with thoughtful gift ideas.  When we go to one of his friend’s parties, he will tell me what he thinks they will like.  And when we got Sean Christmas and birthday gifts, the gifts Owen suggested were actually quite on point.  Related to this, Owen likes to ask me what my favorite movie is, because he likes to listen to me say, “The Double Life of Veronique” in a fake French accent.  Anyway, my birthday is coming up, and he’s been asking me what I want as a gift and making some suggestions, and the other day he suggested that he could get me action figures for “The Double Life of Veronique.”  He was quite confused with I explained that such figures did not exist.  A movie with no action figures?!!!  Oh the horror.  He had a fever last Saturday and we were having a movie binge (he watched “Finding Dory” – he sobbed when Dory couldn’t find her parents at the end.  Note to self:  lost kid movies aren’t his favorite; “The Wizard of Oz”; and “Up”) and he asked if we could watch “The Double Life of Veronique.”  I told him it was too old for him, and besides, it has subtitles and since he can’t read yet he wouldn’t know what was happening.  He then suggested that I could read him the words?  So we did for about thirty minutes before he (rightly) lost interest.

Me:  Where’s Plum?
Owen, walking by:  He’s in my lair.
Owen from the other room:  HE’S MY LAIR CAT!

I was talking to Owen and mentioned something about him needing a new pair of pants.
Owen:  A pear of pants?
Me:  No!  A pair of pants!  It kind of means two.
Owen:  Can you have a pair of pears?

We were talking about rollercoasters and how some people hold on tightly, while others put their hands in the air and go, woo hoo! 
Me:  So what would you do on a rollercoaster?
Owen:  I’d hold on tightly with one hand, and raise the other hand in the air and go woo hoo!
Me:  Fair enough!

Sean likes to quote Rocky (I think.  I’m a terrible Philadelphian, as despite living here for 13 years now, I’ve never had a cheesesteak and I’ve never seen a Rocky movie) at Dorothy and say, “She’s a bum!  And she’ll always be a bum!”  Owen mishears the quote and will say to Dorothy, “Beetlebum!  And be a bum!”

Owen, getting angry at me for something I was making him do:  You’re making me have to hit you!

At one point a few months ago he kept trying to wear different shoes on his feet, so a sneaker, say, with a saddleshoe.  When I protested, he said, “But I want them to be friends on my feet!”

Owen:  Tomorrow, Mom, I get to be the boss and you have to do what I say.
Me:  No, that’s not how it works, Owen.  The adult is always the boss.
Owen:  But you have to take turns!

He still has language mishaps which amuse me.  He insists on saying “ephelant” for elephant still, and when we practice the alphabet he’ll say “Hat is for H” and “Cat is for C” instead of the other way around.  He has a lot of Thomas trains which he’ll play with every now and again.  Since he doesn’t play with them as much as he used to, he forgets some of their names (he has about 60).  The other day I realized he was calling the “Fearless Freddie” train “Terrified Mike”.  Ha!

Owen:  I love fruit.
Me:  That’s nice!
Owen:  My favorite kind of blueberries are raspberries.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book Reviews January 2017

Unspoken and The Inner Circle by Mari Jungstedt.  I continued on with Mari Jungstedt’s Anders Knutas detective series books 2 and 3, but I will not read further.  I had hopes that she would be as good a writer as Asa Larsson, but Larsson is too hard of an act to follow.  Jungstedt’s writing is just not good and her characters are two-dimensional.  Anders Knutas, the lead detective himself is uninteresting – he’s supposed to come off as cautious and thoughtful, but he ends up seeming just not very bright.  The recurring journalist character Johan Berg is a bit more skillfully put together, but she drags out the story of his relationship with Emma, a victim in the first book, way too annoyingly and slowly.  Anyway, both books were about crimes on the island of Gotland.  You basically can figure out who committed the crimes, because there is always only one other character who is not police or journalist.  Both books were disappointing.

Little Labors by Rivka Galchen.  Galchen often writes for The New Yorker, and when I heard she had published a nonfiction book, I was eager to read it.  And it did not disappoint.  The book is basically about Galchen’s having a baby and how the baby changes and fits in to her NYC life.  I found her observations astute and well put.  She writes of her mother’s interactions with her daughter, how the people on the street who she sees everyday interact with her now, and even how elevator encounters are changed by the addition of an infant.  It’s the best example of a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to writing.  She goes off on tangents and they are always interesting.  She’s also a sparse writer – the book can be read in a couple of hours – and each piece is a gem. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  This is a good novel and well worth the acclaim given to it.  I was a little hesitant about the first third of it – I felt like Whitehead chose to go the easy sensational route in the beginning.  But then he settled in and hit his stride.  The novel is about Cora, a slave who tries to escape from her plantation, and her many triumphs and even more setbacks on her journey.  The immediately interesting aspect is that she uses the underground railroad, which in this book is an actual underground railroad – complete with train cars and tracks and tunnels.  It works, I’m not completely sure why, except that didn’t everyone want it to be an actual railroad when they first heard about it?  And Whitehead does a good job playing up the metaphors and symbolism of the unknown labor and laborers who built it.  Cora’s journey is a very harrowing one, and as a reader, I found it infuriating how she would often choose to stay put instead of immediately moving on to safety.  There is also a slave catcher, Ridgeway, whose nemesis Cora becomes (as does her mother who also got away).  There’s a lot of violence, and on occasion the characters veer a little toward caricatures, but it is a compelling read.

Trespass by Rose Tremain.  This is not a happy novel, but I very much enjoyed reading it nonetheless.  It takes place in the French countryside and tells the story of two brother and sister pairs whose lives intersect tragically.  Audrun and Aramon Lunel grew up outside of Ruasse and are on the brink of selling their crumbling mansion that was, when they were little, a working silkworm farm.  They have a sad family history (to put it mildly) and both are damaged by their past – one as the victim, and one the perpetrator.  Then there is Veronica Verey, who also lives outside of Ruasse with her partner Kitty Meadows.  Together they are working on a gardening book, and all is well until Veronica’s brother, Anthony, comes to visit.  Anthony is an antiques dealer in England who was once wealthy and reknown, but both his fame and fortune are dwindling.  Anthony thinks maybe he will buy the Mas Lunel from Aramon, and this is where everything begins to collide.  It is beautifully written and interesting, even though there isn’t really anyone to root for.  Tremain gets everything just right though and I now want to read anything else she has written.  I recommend it, but expect to be sad.

An Unbeaten Man by Brendan Reilly.  I wanted to like this thriller since it is written by a fellow Bowdoin alum, but it just didn’t work for me.  I think it could possibly be made into a good movie, except for the fact that it is a little old school with very typical “cold war” villains.  It definitely contained a lot of action and violence.  The writing was way too clumsy for me (all sorts of moments where the hero or heroine are knuckling their eyes for clearer vision), and too much didn’t make sense.  There’s the fact that almost everyone gets killed except for the hero, which is the kind of belief I’m willing to suspend, but there were needless torture scenes and also needless villains.  It was often overdone and the plot was cartoony.  Basically, a Bowdoin professor, Michael McKeon, gets kidnapped and is forced to destroy Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil fields; his wife and daughter are being held hostage so that he will do as asked.  Unbeknownst to McKeon, another Bowdoin professor is really a secret agent, so sets a rescue in motion.   Characters come and go and it is hard to care what happens to them.  There’s also a revelation regarding his wife at the end which was downright silly.

The River At Night by Erica Ferencik.  This is an excellent thriller and one of the best reads I’ve read in a while.  Wini is nearing forty and is going on a white water rafting trip with three old friends.  One, Pia, is a bit of an adventure addict, so talks Wini, Sandra, and Rachel into going on the maiden voyage of a rafting expedition set up by a son of a friend of hers way up in the north of Maine.  Their guide, Rory, is very young and his idea of a good time is not shared by the majority of the four women.  The trip is to last three days and as you might imagine, everything goes wrong.  Everything!  It is scary and intense and I couldn’t put it down.  Ferencik writes beautifully – her descriptions of the river are great throughout the whole novel; she also does a really excellent job of creating believable characters and revealing just enough so that you understand them.  Wini, especially, is well-crafted; she’s at a crossroads in her life and is a self-professed coward, yet is able to rise to the ensuing challenges in ways that are poignantly described.  This book too would make an excellent movie; I would think the rights have already been sold.  It is gripping and unexpected and scary and interesting.  Read it!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Women's March in Philadelphia

We took Owen to the Women’s march in Philadelphia on Saturday, and it was a very positive experience.  On Friday we made some signs:

On Saturday morning we got up at our usual weekday time, got ready, and after practicing a few call and response chants with Owen (You say dump!  I say Trump!  Dump Trump!  Dump! Trump!  And: we’re here, we’re nasty, get used to it!) which he did while marching in place, headed out the door at 8 to drive to the train.  Owen was excited about the march, but he probably was most excited about going on the train.  It had been awhile since we last took him on one, and it was long enough ago so that he had no memory of it.  There were a lot of people at the station with signs waiting to get on the train, and when the first one came it was quite crowded.  We had to stand!  That is not unusual for septa of course, but it was unusual for Saturday morning. 

The march was scheduled to start at 10, and we arrived in the city at 9 and went to the location where Planned Parenthood supporters were meeting.  Once there, we picked up a pink sign:

Owen, although sitting, is serious about standing 
up for Planned Parenthood.  After all, he is a PP baby.

We had a good time watching the crowd gather and reading the signs – which were so clever and funny and spot on.  There were tons about Trump’s small hands (keep your tiny orange paws off my laws), and in general such a variety of approaches.  I kept chuckling over “Trump’s so vain, he probably thinks this march is about him” and enjoyed seeing some older folk with signs reading, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” 

We were towards the front of the group when the march began, so once we got to where it ended at the art museum, we turned around and walked the other way.  This was when I realized how much bigger the Philadelphia march was than had been expected.  On Thursday they were thinking 20,000 would show and it ended up being over 50,000.  As we walked away from the endpoint, we passed thousands and thousands of people marching, and queuing up to get to where the march began.  And then when we went back down to the subway, there were still hundreds getting off trains and going to hear the speakers.  There were tons of men and children and all in all it was such a hopeful, positive atmosphere.

I don’t expect the march to make much a difference to Trump himself, but I do think it might make a difference to the senators and representatives and to the march participants.  It was so heartening to see all the protests in the cities all over the world standing up against Trump’s ignorance and bullying and hate.  Not so fast, cheeto. We are watching and waiting and ready to act.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

But What Does She Say?

Right now we are smack dab in the middle of a phase with Owen, in which he anthropomorphizes every single object.  Which wouldn’t be so bad, really, except that he insists that we “do” the voices of the object or animal.  Pretty much non-stop.

So for example, he’ll come downstairs after his bath and freshly ensconced in footie pajamas to pick a stuffed animal (or “pet” as he calls them) to sleep with that night.  First up:  I’m instructed to make all the animals clamor, pick me!  I do.  It’s easier, trust me.  Then as we walk upstairs, Owen clutching the lucky chosen pet, he’ll ask, “And what does the cat say once I’ve chosen her?”  And believe me, I can’t just answer:  “she’s happy,” because if I do that he’ll remonstrate, “No, but what does she saaaaaaaayyyy?”  He’s not happy unless I use exact words – although thankfully enough, we don’t have to use funny voices. 

He’s also always asking us to give a narrative of what our real pets are saying about any given topic – although I suppose this one is more our fault for giving our pets speaking voices in the first place.  Since Owen has no siblings to rival against, he likes to make sure that the animals can appreciate/envy what he has or is doing.  He’ll say, “What does Posy say about the fact that I have all these Star Wars cars and made a track from them?”  To which my inside voice replies, NOTHING!  POSY COULDN’T CARE LESS ABOUT YOUR PLASTIC OBJECTS! But to which my outside  voice has to reply, “Owen is so lucky he has all those cars!  I wish I had cars.”  And then sometimes I’ll entertain myself by making Posy say, “But I’m going to take them all when he’s at school.”  And then I get him all worried.  J

On the whole, I am glad he is imaginative, and some of the “conversations” he has with the objects can be pretty funny.  And I like that he’ll always answer right back to the voice as if he is talking to the object itself, and ignoring the ventriloquist, me.  It is also a good way of imparting information, because he will always consider what is “said” and then talk about it then or later.  Other times, however, I think, get this child a human friend, stat! 


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book Reviews December 2016

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.  This is a short nonfiction book about Manguso’s daily writing in her diary, and how she didn’t feel like something had happened in her life until she had a chance to write about it.  It’s not uninteresting, but I couldn’t help but feel that the real subject is not writing in a diary but suffering from OCD, and how she became a slave to its compulsions.  She ends up not sharing any of the diary in the book, and writes well about her decision not to do so.  To me the book got interesting when she has a son at an older age and his arrival and presence interrupts her diary writing, and she no longer has the need to write obsessively.  What she writes about having a newborn I found very compelling.  And it is a quick and interesting read overall – just not always about what it is seemingly about, if you know what I mean.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante.  I’m not sure I really have anything new to say about this, the fourth and final book of her Neapolitan novels.  I stand by what I’ve written about the first three:  they are interesting and odd and I’m still surprised they were such a popular hit.  I found them all rather Proustian in that Ferrante goes over the same ground repeatedly with nuanced variation.  I enjoyed seeing the lives of Elena and Lila unfold, and I also appreciated an extensive look at female friendship – which is the main topic of the book.  However, it is an odd friendship, to be sure, and not one I’d call typical.  They don’t confide, but play off of one another, subconsciously, often mean-spiritedly, and fascinatingly.  Each one would not have been who she was without the other, but that is not necessarily a good thing.  I’m glad I read them.

Escape Clause by John Sandford.  This is the ninth Virgil Flowers book and just as fun to read as all the others.  This one was a little different in that for once, everything goes wrong for Virgil.  He arrives just as the perpetrator successfully leaves, he doesn’t get messages in time, he does a lot of waiting for nothing that happens until he leaves.  It was a fun change from the other books, and just as entertainingly written.  Two tigers get stolen from the Minnesota zoo and Virgil is assigned to try to find them before disaster ensues.  Disaster ensues.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  This novel I read and loved in graduate school years ago, but hadn’t revisited since then.  I began it with a bit of trepidation, as I’m always wary of being disappointed by novels that I used to love.  And it was still quite delightful, although I must admit to now not quite understanding the ending.  It was written in the 1920’s and is about a woman, Laura, a typical spinster of the times, who when her beloved father dies is shunted off to live with her married brother and his family in London, without anyone ever asking her what she would like to do.  Ever dutiful, Laura lives there for years, an aunt to her nieces and nephew, and the kind of woman whose needs always go second to everyone else’s.  But Lolly, as she is called by her family, has an epiphany one day while buying branches at a small shop.  The shopkeeper tells her they are from his family property in the Chilterns, and Lolly immediately buys a guide book to the Chilterns and decides she will move to a village called Great Mop.  Her family is loath to “let” her leave, but she stands her ground, and ends up in Great Mop as a lodger (her brother has lost most of her large inheritance on the stock exchange as it turns out).  It is at this point that the novel becomes a little fanciful and symbolic.  Her nephew Titus comes to visit and decides to move to Great Mop too, and Lolly is so afraid of being drawn back into secondary family life that she makes a deal with the devil and becomes a witch.  It’s fun and wonderfully written; the symbolism which was so clear to me when I read it in my late twenties is a little more slippery for me now, but that didn’t take away my enjoyment of the book.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.  This is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time.  I had heard it had been number one in Sweden for a very long time, so got it on my kindle and it did not disappoint.  Backman does an excellent job with Ove’s voice.  Ove is a very exacting man who does not put up with fools gladly.  He’s logical and expects everyone else to accede to his logic.  He’s the kind of guy who has driven a saab his entire life, and can understand if you are a Volvo guy, but will not talk to you if you buy a BMW or something French.  When the book begins, Ove’s beloved wife, Sonja, has died, and Ove doesn’t see how he can carry on without her.  He continues on with his daily routines and finds himself making ties with his new (and old) neighbors in ways that he wouldn’t have thought possible.  Along the way he gets adopted by a “Cat Annoyance”.  It is all very moving and hilarious and well done.  I highly recommend it.