Wednesday, July 1, 2015

June 2015 Book Reviews

The Dinner by Herman Koch.  I didn’t like this book.  Two couples meet for dinner at a restaurant, and at first the “plot,” such as it is, goes course by course.  That is, the book is broken into sections, such as “aperitif”, “salad”, etc.  But although this remains the format, it doesn’t really stick to this structure, as we start getting flashbacks from the narrator, which end up being longer than the dinner parts.  What I liked is that you start out thinking one thing about the narrator – he seems a stand-up guy, if a little curmudgeonly – but it gradually becomes obvious that he is at best a sociopath.  So this was sort of “fun”, although I don’t think it was particularly well done.  The whole book seemed rushed to me, like Koch had the idea and gave himself a set time to execute it.  The version I read was translated from the Dutch, though, so perhaps in its original language it was a better book?  I found it sloppy.

A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett.  This is an excellent book, albeit not for the faint at heart.  It’s the memoirs of Amanda Lindhout (written with NY Times writer Sara Corbett), who was kidnapped and held prisoner in Somalia for 15 months.  They very wisely begin with Lindhout’s childhood in Calgary, and how when things were difficult she would readNational Geographic magazines and dream of traveling to other places.  And in her twenties, she did just that, working as a high-end waitress in Calgary for four or five months, and then traveling the world for seven or eight months.  She eventually wanted to figure out a way that she could make travel pay, and tried to become an international journalist and photographer.  Since she didn’t have the usual established credentials, she first went to Baghdad and got a job working for an Iranian television station there.  She traveled to Somalia in 2008 with an ex-boyfriend, the Australian Nigel Brennan, despite the fact that it was very dangerous to do so.  She had a security team, but she and Nigel were still kidnapped by kidnappers who thought they were taking twoNational Geographic photographers who were there at the same time.  Anyway, the first 40% of the book is Amanda Lindhout’s travels, and the remaining 60% is about her kidnapping and the horrors she experiences there.  And what happens to her is very, very horrible – she and Brennan nominally convert to Islam, in the hope this will keep them from being killed, but it doesn’t keep them from being separated, and Lindhout from being repeatedly gang-raped and tortured.  Perhaps oddly enough, it’s still a very hopeful and inspiring book.  Lindhout is much better than I would be at seeing how her captors were controlled by their own horrible circumstances.  It is fascinating and very well-written.

The Furies by Natalie Haynes.  I enjoyed this novel well enough but wasn’t hugely impressed by it.  It’s Haynes’s first novel though, and I think I came to it via blog recommendation.  Basically the chapters are in two voices – the main voice is Alex Morris, a young drama teacher and director who has returned to Edinburgh, where she went to university, to teach drama/counsel at a school for troubled youth.  She was an up-and-coming director in London, when her fiancĂ© was murdered on the street.  Her old drama teacher gets her the Edinburgh job, and as you would expect, it is sort of an “in trying to heal the kids, the kids heal her” kind of story.  However, the other chapters are the diary of one of her students, who becomes obsessed with the death of Alex’s fiancĂ©.  And eventually the trajectories of the two characters collide.  The writing was okay – not wonderful, but not bad either.  I get a little cranky about non-linear story-telling when I feel it is being used as a crutch, and occasionally this novel came off that way.  There’s something to be said for telling a story from back to front and I think it is often easy –and unnecessary – to start with a tiny snippet of something horrible to come and then spiral back from that.  Grumble grumble.  An enjoyable aspect of the novel was that she teaches Greek tragedies to her students and some of the scenes in which the kids (not intellectuals, per se) begin to understand and relate to the actions in the plays were entertaining.

Wait for Me by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire.  I am very fond of reading about the Mitfords, as is my sister, Martha, and am happy to read any Mitford tidbit she might pass along.  If you too are a Mitford dabbler, then these memoirs, written by the youngest, Debo, who went on to become the Duchess of Devonshire, will not disappoint.  Several of her famous siblings were teenagers by the time Debo was born, but she was raised spending all her time with “Decca”, aka Jessica Mitford.  She seems to have been a lot calmer than the majority of Mitfords as well; she was athletic and enjoyed the outdoor sports of the English well-to-do, and then married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the family, who became the Duke of Devonshire when his older brother (who was married to Kick Kennedy) died in the war.  DD, as she calls herself, has written a lot of memoirs before this one, and so this is a bit rambling in nature.  She vaguely follows a chronological timeline, but seems to be concentrating on things that were perhaps overlooked in previous books.  She writes in depth of how they turned Chatsworth and all the other properties into estates that were able to open to the public and thus pay for themselves, while also still remaining private residences.  I enjoyed reading it slowly, a chapter here and a chapter there, despite the fact that I do not share DD’s politics, to put it mildly.  (For example, she mourned the ending of the traditional fox hunt in England, and campaigned to keep it going).  Ah well!  Still an interesting read.

Euphoria by Lily King.  This is a wonderful book and a way-too-short read!  It is the story an English anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, tells about meeting and working with two other anthropologists, Nell and Fen (based on Margaret Mead and her companion) in the Territory of New Guinea in the 1930’s.  Nell and Fen are passing through having left their study of the Mumpanyo tribe early, and Bankson, lonely and feeling an immediate rapport, both professionally and emotionally with Nell, convinces them to study the Tam, a people who live a few hours up-river from the Kiona, who Bankson himself is living with.  Nell, who has written a best-selling book, is an anthropology prodigy, and Bankson is awed by her methods and drive.  He also immediately sees the tension between her and her husband, Fen, and the problems between them are gradually revealed to the reader, as Nell and Bankson grow close.  Throughout the narrative we also get to read a quick diary Nell has written about her study with the Tam and her interactions with Bankson.  It’s one of those novels where even though the setting is not the “usual”, the reader is immediately drawn into the midst of it and happy to figure things out as the novel progresses.  It’s a really tight, compelling and heartbreaking novel that you will not be able to put down.  Lovely!

Early Warning by Jane Smiley.  This is the second book in her trilogy, and goes from 1953 to 1986, with each chapter a year.  It is still following the same family – the Langdons, from Iowa – but now there are grandchildren and thus a much wider cast of characters.  I liked the book, but didn’t love it.  Partly I think it’s that as a reader, you are spread too thin – you don’t spend enough time with a character to care that much about them.  It seems more interesting a book to me as a portrait of the times and how the people change with the decades; I just wish that the people were more likeable.  She does seem to make each character a type more than an individual.  For example, one woman is an alcoholic who in the sixties gets caught up in going to Freudian therapy daily; one teenager is susceptible and dissatisfied and ends up in the Jonestown cult; etc.  Again it is more that she is using the characters to demonstrate a trend and she doesn’t always do so artfully enough.  I’ll read the third when it comes out and will be happy to do so – I did look forward to my nightly chapter from this book.  It’s just I was a little underwhelmed on the whole.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton.  This is a book that was on my kindle and whose provenance was forgotten by me.  I think a blog I read recommended it, but at any rate, I started it “blind,” not knowing anything about it or the author.  And it’s been a fun train read; as such, I recommend it.  It goes back in time between 1941 in wartime London, and 2011.  The main characters are a mother, Dorothy Smitham, who in 2011 is dying, and her daughter, Laurel, who in 1961 witnessed her mother kill an intruder.  Laurel, an Oscar-winning character actress, has a vague memory (she was 16 at the time) that the man said her mother’s name when he first saw her; she decides at long last to try to find out whether her mother knew the man and what the story is behind it all.  So we go from 1941 when Dorothy is 19 and living in London and working in a munitions factory to Laurel’s sleuthing in 2011.  As I said before:  it’s fun.  Dorothy gets herself into a muddle, and Morton does a good job at slowly unfolding all that is going on, without resorting to gimmick.  She takes her time – it’s a meaty book in a good way.  There are perhaps a bit too many coincidences at the end, but it’s a very enjoyable read.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

June Adventures

We have been busy this month – or at least three-sixths of us have.  Some of us have been lying in sinks and on beds, or draped upside down upon couches, only leaving to bark at the mailman, or roll about in attics.

And we have had Saturday adventures!  In the beginning of June we went to the June Fete held by Abington Hospital.  Owen was old and tall enough to go on many of the rides, and although I wasn’t sure if he’d like the ones that he had to go on by himself, it turns out he did!

Then one week we went to check out a castle playground we had been told we would like.  And it was fun, except for one panicky moment when Sean and Owen were brave and unclaustrophobic enough to go down a windy enclosed four-story slide, whereas I decided to retrace my steps and couldn’t find an exit from the castle for a while.

Then last Saturday they had a Touch A Truck event in the parking lot of the library – which was really quite a brilliant idea.  We went early so we could stock up on new library books first, and then we joined the hordes of 2 year-olds waiting mostly quite patiently in line to sit in a truck and honk the horn.  They had a nice variety of large trucks too – Fire, Cement, Dump, Digger, Army, Police, Ambulance, etc. – plus  a 1950’s Ford which Sean longed for.

And this Saturday is supposed to be rainy so our adventures will have to be of the indoor variety!...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

June Owen

When we were planning Owen’s first train trip, we told him about it, and then tried hard to get him to understand that we weren’t going on the train that very minute.  We kept saying “not today, tomorrow.”  Although I’m not sure how much of that he understood, it is now one of his favorite instructions to pass on to others, including geese.  Owen and I went to feed the geese with their five goslings on Sunday, and after we had given them their food, we left saying we would be back.  And then Owen added several times, “But not today!  Tomorrow”  “Not today!  Tomorrow!”  I hope the geese understood.

Owen still gets the order of words mixed up, and pronouns in general.  He says “I carry you” when he means “Will you carry me?”  And he always shrieks, “Catch you me!” and then runs away, and we are supposed to run after him and catch him.

Susan will be stern with Owen when he isn’t listening to her (plus they have a running joke that Dorothy doesn’t listen to Nanny.)  So the other day, Owen was trying to follow Sean into the front yard, instead of staying in the back with me, as he was supposed to do.  I called for him to come here, and Owen called back, “Owen’s not listening to mommy!”

I warned Owen the other day that it was almost bath time, so that he should prepare himself to go upstairs.  He first held out a bouquet of splayed fingers and said, “I need four times!” (times meaning minutes).  Then when I agreed to four minutes, he said, “Be patient, Mommy.  Take a deep breath.”

He makes us laugh by making our kisses fly off his face with a little whoosh sound.  He did this one day when we were outside and I kissed his cheek.  We were under a tree, so after whooshing the kiss away, he told me it was flying up to the kiss tree above (to perch on the branches I suppose).  And now he often talks about the kiss tree.

Ever since we planted the garden, he is very aware of seeds, and seeds growing into plants.  Sean eats sesame seed bagels, so as I’m sure you can guess, Owen now calls them bagel seeds and asked if they’d grow into a bagel if we planted them.

He says “wheelbabble” for wheelbarrow, and “cracksmasher” for backscratcher.

He’s also completely lost his shyness, and will say, “Hi, I’m Owen!  What are you doing?” to anyone we see, including everyone shopping in Target and anyone we pass by on a walk.  People often ask him how old he is, but he doesn’t quite get the question (or counting yet in general), so will answer with gusto, “Owen Martin Gares!”

He’s still having mini-fits, although they are generally too fleeting to be called tantrums.  For example, he came with me last Saturday to take Dorothy to the vet, and when we left, and got in the car, he had a HUGE fit that came out of nowhere, because he didn’t want to take Dorothy home.  He wanted to a) go straight to the carnival we were going to in an hour, and b) go back to the vet.  He screamed and tears poured from his face for the whole ten-minute ride home, and then it was over.  I will try to redirect his interest during these fits, and if that doesn’t work, I just ignore him.

The screaming at us – it’s a quick shriek – is a new thing.  He was doing it to Sean the other day, for a reason I forget, and when I asked him if he wanted to go somewhere with me, he turned to face me, stopped the shrieking, and said in a quiet, pleasant voice, “But Mommy, I’m screaming at Daddy.”  Well, then!  Carry on!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Farmer Elizabeth

Can one become an amateur gardener if one hates bugs and being hot?  The jury is still out on that.  I am slowly familiarizing myself with some gardening tasks in our front and back yards, and finding it rather enjoyable (except for said bugs and said heat).  I spent two hours last weekend clipping daffodil stalks, and although the work was satisfying, I concluded that a yard with 5 or 6 daffodils was preferable to a yard with 50. 

I did some general weeding, and then began this year’s war on the Horrible Plant-, Tree-, and Bush-killing Vine that we have been battling each summer since we’ve moved in.  We’ve hacked it thick off trees and windy and snaky off bushes and plants.  It’s evil!  It had almost succeeded in choking a big tree in our backyard, which last summer only put out a few feeble leaves, but after I convinced Sean to attack it with a machete, this year the tree came back to life and is flourishing!  But I keep finding the vine intent on sucking out the lifeforce from the bushes in our side yard.  The problem seems to be that it is hard to spot amongst the real bush branches until the damage has been done.  I didn’t notice it was on our holly bush in the backyard, for example, until last fall when it began to turn red and yellow like proper fall foliage, while the holly stayed dark green.

We’ve also planted a small vegetable garden for the first time.  Sean built a raised garden bed and filled it with mulch and earth, and we planted four rows of veggies.  It’s been a week and now:  

Greenery!  We put up a fence so we wouldn’t merely be creating a vegan buffet for our backyard woodcharlene, although she might find a way past our tricky barricade eventually. 

A month or so ago we planted two Thuja Green Giants to eventually block out our neighbors’ appliance garden.  They are only about a foot high so far, but we have high hopes for the duo whom we have named Hall & Oates.  

And it seems I have more weeding to do....

We have these two tall things sprouting in our backyard.  Any ideas as to what they are?  They are both almost taller than me:

We also have this bush in the backyard which is flowering now and looking pretty.  The picture below is overexposed, but it has nice lacy pink flowers.  I don't know what it is either! 

The new hydrangea we got at the end of last year is doing well.  There was a sale at Lowes and all the plants looked bedraggled and sad, so we rescued one called a pinky winky (Owen thinks it is the long-lost fifth Teletubby) and it is thriving.  I'll show you a picture once it blooms.  Suspense! 

Monday, June 1, 2015

May 2015 Book Reviews

Hypothetical Future Baby: An Unsentimental Adoption Memoir by Claudia Chapman.  I read this book because I enjoy this woman’s blog – she’s a funny writer and often quite irreverent in a refreshing way.  However, on the whole the book was both too overtly religious for my tastes, and also not revealing enough.  Chapman decides that she doesn’t want to tell the details of her adopted twins’ back story – and I do respect her wanting to respect their privacy, but it makes for a very vague book.  The book is about Chapman’s and her husband’s decision to not get pregnant due to a genetic condition she has that had a 1 in 4 chance of being passed on to a genetic child in a drastic form.  They eventually decide to adopt, and then decide to adopt from Ethiopia, and are matched up with twins, who they bring back to England with them at the age of five months.  So the book goes from her pain at not having kids while everyone else she knows is having them, to the long drawn-out adoption process, to what they face as they bond with the children and become a biracial family.  There are definitely a lot of well-written and very funny moments, but not enough for me to recommend the book.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  I have mixed feelings about this book.  It is a story about Victoria, who as the book begins is aging out of the foster care system, where she has spent most of her life.  The story jumps from the present, where she is homeless for a while, but then gets a job as a florist due to her talent with flowers, to her past when she was 9 years old and almost adopted by a woman, Elizabeth, before things went wrong.  Interspersed with all this is Victoria’s fascination with the (Victorian) language of flowers, in which every flower has a meaning and people communicated specifics with their bouquets.  (For example, a red carnation means “My heart breaks”;  rhododendron means “Beware”, etc.)  My main problem with the book was that the writing was rather rudimentary and had no nuance.  My second problem with the book is that because I learned right away that Victoria’s adoption was disrupted, the reading experience was all fraught with tension as I waited for the horrible events to be revealed.  There’s also a section in the middle about an infant and breastfeeding and abandonment that was very, very hard to read.  By the very end of the book I was won over, albeit rather begrudgingly.  But still:  not spectacular is my final opinion.

Victory by Joseph Conrad.  I have problems with Conrad.  I had to read The Heart of Darknessad nauseum when I was doing postcolonial studies, and when it comes right down to it, I just don’t get what the fuss is all about.  I decided to read Victory upon reading online that it was someone’s favorite book of all time (of course, I forget who), but I was not very impressed.  I know that with Conrad it is not necessarily about the story or the plot, but more that he delves into (or skirts around? I’m not sure) a particular (generally angst-filled) emotion.  So Victory – a story about a man, Heyst, and a woman, Lena, who have escaped or retreated from various aspects of their lives onto a small island in Surinam, and then get visited by three sociopathic villains intent on doing them harm – is really about Heyst’s helplessness, and how doing the right thing and keeping to himself got him in trouble.  And then because it was written in 1914 and because it is Conrad, there is also a whole lot of the us and them dichotomy – with the “us” being white gentlefolk and the “them” being the island natives and the Chinese who work there.  I definitely got into a zone halfway through the book, and began to enjoy the slowly unfolding narrative.  But to me the book remains a curiosity and not great literature.

New and Selected Poems, Volume One by Mary Oliver.  I’ve always been a little snobby about (the little I knew of) Mary Oliver’s poetry; I considered her a second-tier poet, although I’m not sure why—perhaps because of the popularity of certain of her works.  It is hard to go a week, for example, without coming across the end of her “The Summer Day” poem:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”  But I suppose being overly quoted is not the poet’s fault.  She is a nature poet and her language is very straight-forward; she’s like a modern Robert Frost, only less wordy.  The book was set up to go backwards in time, so you read what was – at the time the book was published – her newest poems, and then read poems from her books in reverse chronology.  I would have preferred it the other way around, as it had the odd effect of showing her style unravel, in that her voice was stronger in the newer poems than it was in the beginning.  I’ve started the second volume of her collected works and will withhold further opinion until I finish volume 2.

We Are Called To Rise by Laura McBride.  I loved this book!  It’s a simultaneously heartbreakingly sad and ultimately very hopeful story of four people whose lives intersect in one tiny moment that has huge consequences for all involved.  McBride writes the various chapters in the different voices of the four characters (although it is mainly three – one woman has only a few short chapters):  an 8 year-old boy, Bashkim Ahmeti, who lives in Las Vegas and whose parents are Albanian refugees; Avis, a woman in her fifties whose husband has just ended their 30-year marriage and who has a son, Nate, who is having PTSD issues after returning from Iraq; and Luis, an American soldier who is recovering from wounds in a veterans hospital in Washington DC.  Bashkim especially is such a well written character – he’s an anxiety-prone kid for good reason, as there is a lot in his life for him to worry about.  I was surprised to learn that McBride is a first-time author, as this is a really wonderful novel.  She has an interesting author’s note at the end of the book explaining a few things about the incident around which the book is centered.  She discusses what she set out to do, and she clearly achieved her goals.  I very much recommend this book; I’ll be reading anything else she cares to write.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley.  I haven’t read a Jane Smiley novel for a while, and I enjoyed this one, which is apparently the first in a trilogy (the second one is just now out).  It follows the various members of a family of Iowa farmers, starting in 1920 and in this volume going up to 1953.  Each chapter is one year.  Because of this, time moves quickly, yet the book still feels slow-paced in a good way – I was always happy to pick it up and read.  In each chapter she switches the viewpoint from character to character, dipping in here and there to the events of that year.  Because of that, you don’t really know any character very intimately – it’s more “a day in the life of”, yet Smiley is a good writer, so she is still able to convey what is important.  It also ends up being a series of historical snapshots:  you see the family get their first car, switch from horses to tractors, go to college, stay and leave the farming life, etc.  I am looking forward to volumes two and three.

Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe.  This was a wonderfully entertaining read and I adored it.  It reminded me very much of a modern day I Capture the Castle, a book of which there cannot be too many imitators, as far as I’m concerned.  Nina Stibbe recently published her first book, Love, Nina, which was a collection of letters she wrote to her sister twenty plus years ago while she was working as a nanny in London.  The tone and voice in this book was similar – that is, her quirky sense of humor is very visible – but this was much better because as a novel, it could have the plot that a collection of letters lacks.  Anyway, Man At The Helm is told from the point of view of an 11 year-old girl, Lizzie, who has an older sister (who annoyingly is never named in the book, but is just called “my sister”; that’s my only complaint) and a younger brother, Little Jack.  Her wealthy parents get a divorce in the beginning of the book, and Lizzie and her siblings go to live with their mother in a village, which does not compare favorably to the city they are used to.  Lizzie and her sister decide that all their problems stem from not having a man at the helm of their family, so set about finding a man for their mother.  It is really hilarious and well written and delightful.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

All Aboard

We decided that at long last we would take Owen – a train lover – on his very first train ride, and then we made the mistake of telling him this a few days before the ride.  It turns out that toddlers, like pug dogs, do not understand the future tense.  And Owen apparently thinks “tomorrow” means in a few minutes.  So there was much anticipation for the trip, yet also a bit of angst and tears.

Sunday finally arrived, however, and we went to the station to take the train into center city Philadelphia.  Owen was very excited, and very cute on the train.  He sat in between us and observed away.  He was a little upset when the conductor took Sean’s ticket, and this resulted in multiple exclamations for the rest of the ride about how “The doctor took my ticket!”  So we wizened up on the way back and had Owen give the ticket to the conductor, so he wouldn’t feel like he was being robbed.

Once in the city we kept the activities to a minimum, and first had a cookie at Reading Terminal Market:

And then we walked a mile or so to a playground, where Owen had a good time swinging and going on a rope merry-go-round.

It was a short morning excursion but a good one!  Owen is ready for his next commute.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I Was Grumpy

Owen is going through a bit of a “willful” phase…or perhaps it is just the terrible two and a halfs.  It’s certainly not as bad as it could be, and in general he is a happy fellow, but in the past two weeks he seems often to want to do the opposite of what we suggest, even if what we suggest is normally something he’d love.  And then god forbid I insist we get dressed in the morning, even though that is something that we of course always do, and pretty much at the same time daily.  This morning I ignored his rantings and ravings and tried to get him dressed, until halfway through his mood changed on a dime and he asked for a “mommy hug” and then all was okay.

If he hasn’t napped, he is often grumpy in the car when he and Sean pick me up after work:  he’ll turn his head away from me and grunt when I talk to him.  He did this yesterday, but then a few minutes after we were in the house, he was back to cheerful, and cheerfully proclaimed, “I was grumpy in the car!”  Yes, Owen, you were.

I’m assuming it is just a phase and that it will soon end.  He still will immediately answer “I cahn’t and I won’t!” if we ask him if he has to go potty.  And then after a few minutes of dancing around – obviously having to go – he will say, “I have to go to the potty right away!  Right away!”  And then we do and he does.

His favorite word seems to be “disgusting” said “dee-gusting”.  Many things in our house, apparently, are dee-gusting, from the half eaten bowl of catfood to an ant on the floor.

Last night we went out on the porch during an odd thunder rainstorm to see if there was a rainbow, since the sun was also out.  (There was, but just a faint one!)  Anyway, Owen was running up and down the length of the porch and after twenty minutes or so I was trying to herd him back in without making it seem like it was my suggestion.  I asked him if he wanted to go play with his trucks and cars, or read books, and he said he wanted to stay out on the porch, because “It’s bootiful out here.”  Well okay then.  Hard to argue with that.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading, at long last!  There are still some books he will immediately turn his nose up at, but we are now reading relatively wordy books that he will be obsessed with for four or so days until moving on to the next one.  Right now he is all about “Caps For Sale,” “Be-Bim-Bop,” and “Hop on Pop”.  Before that it was “Doctor Ted,” “Go Dog Go,” and “Hazel’s Amazing Mother”.  I’m looking forward to seeing what it will be next!  (Although I also admit to hiding certain books in his bookshelf that I can’t bear to read again, like “8 Monkeys Jumping On The Bed” and “Your Turn Doctor.”  I figure it's a parent's prerogative!)