Friday, June 1, 2018

Book Reviews May 2018

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara.  I borrowed this from Martha, and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to read it in full, as I might have found it too frightening.  However, after I was a few chapters in, they arrested the man who they think is the killer, so my fear dissipated somewhat.  The book was half-written by McNamara when she died, and then was pieced together by a fellow true crime writer, and a detective.  McNamara’s writing is excellent, so the first half of the book – the parts she wrote – really pull you in.  The second half of the book is more scattered, and the part that I found frustrating is that she never had a chance to outline her suspects.  As it turned out, the man they arrested wasn’t on anyone’s list of possibilities, but McNamara had predicted that he might be found out by genealogy tests, which indeed he was.  It’s suspenseful and frightening; the man is a monster and he completely terrorized a whole region.  I’m glad he is (likely) behind bars.

Tangerine By Christine Mangan.  This was a good book, although definitely one of those reads that I’m rather glad when it is over.  You can see which way it is headed (although it certainly has a lot of surprises), and can do nothing to help.  It takes place in Tangier in the 1950’s.  Alice has gotten married to an Englishman who is in love with Tangier, but she is depressed and is having trouble leaving their apartment daily.  Lucy, Alice’s former roommate at Bennington College, shows up one day and moves in.  The chapters switch from Alice’s point of view to Lucy’s, as well as from current events back to events that happened at Bennington.  It soon becomes clear that Lucy is obsessed with Alice and has her own agenda.  Poor Alice does not stand a chance.  It’s very atmospheric and well done, but as I said above, I was glad when it was over, because it was a tense read.

A Girl Like You by Gemma Burgess.  This was a fun read – it’s like a Bridget Jones novel but with more detail.  It would be a good movie, and since I know Burgess writes screenplays, I imagine it is on its way to being one.  Abigail is a 27 year old living and working in London.  She’s recently broken up with a very long-term boyfriend and is single for the first time in her adult life.  The book is basically a story of her dating travails, complete with friend sidekicks, and handsome platonic roommate.  It is witty – Burgess is a really funny writer – and a fun, light read.  It made me want to partake in the constant cocktail drinking Abigail and her friends did daily.  

Back To Blood by Tom Wolfe.  I have never read any books by Tom Wolfe (just the Look Homeward, Angel Thomas Wolfe), and a colleague recommended that I try Back To Blood.  I am surprised at how much I enjoyed reading it – I would have guessed his style wasn’t something I’d enjoy, but I guessed wrong.  This book is about a Cuban-American cop in Miami, Nestor Camacho, who at the beginning of the book rescues a refugee off a ship’s mask, thus dooming the guy to be sent back to Cuba and angering his community.  This sets off a series of events that has Nestor always in the middle of a newsworthy crime solving, in very entertaining and detailed ways.  What I like best about the book and Wolfe’s writing is the saturation of details; he obviously has good powers of observation, but he must also have done prodigious research.  I also really liked how Wolfe had several different characters that he’d spend time on, and one could sense the stories of the characters would all fit together before being able to figure out how.  My criticism is that except – perhaps – for Nestor, I felt like Wolfe was making fun of all the other characters, which is fine, but if everyone is laughable it becomes less funny.  I also was often bothered by Wolfe's often overt misogyny, sigh, especially with regards to the character Magdalena.  On the whole though, a surprisingly (to me) enjoyable and clever book.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Book Reviews April 2018

The Day She Disappeared by Christobel Kent.  This was a really good read and so suspenseful that I got out my kindle at night to continue reading it.  It begins with a murder, which the reader is privy to, although only to the action, not to the identity of the perpetrator.  So although we know that Nat’s friend and co-worker, Beth, is probably the one killed, we do not know who did it.  Kent switches chapters between Nat’s point of view – she is increasingly sure that something happened to Beth, and that Beth did not just run away – and Victor, an old man who often comes into the pub in which Nat and Beth work.  Kent is really good at building suspense and fear, and the story is set up in such a way that there really are multiple credible suspects.  The writing is excellent and it was interesting having the point of view be from two such disparate characters.  It was an excellent read.

Where There’s Hope:  Healing, Moving Forward, and Never Giving Up by Elizabeth Smart.  This is a nonfiction book filled with stories of people who have overcome often quite significant adversity.  Smart herself interviews them all and asks them how they moved on from their traumatic event.  She also goes into detail about what she herself did and did not do to not let her life become only what had happened to her.  It was well done on the whole and more interesting than I would have thought.

End Of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina.  This is the second book in Mina’s Alex Morrow series and it was really good.  A few years have passed since the first book and Alex Morrow is in a better place and pregnant with twins.  She gets called to the scene of a murder and when questioning potential witnesses she realizes one witness is an old school friend of hers.  Kay’s sons might be involved, and there is also a slight connection with Alex’s estranged brother.  The chapters change between Alex and Thomas Anderson, one of the murderers, who is dealing with his own horrors.  It is well played out and develops suspensefully at a good pace.  Thomas Anderson’s circumstances are almost too horrible to believe, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the book.  Onward to book 3!

Educated by Tara Westover.  To me, this is the book that Hillbilly Elegy tried to be and failed miserably, because of the author’s cluelessness (or deviousness, take your pick) regarding his own politics.  It’s a similar story, although Tara Westover’s upbringing is truly horrible, and she is kept at a great distance her whole life from school and the real world.  She grows up in the mountains of Idaho, with parents who are at best anti-society Mormons.  Her father is a paranoid schizophrenic and her mother goes along with almost all of his craziness.  She and her six brothers and sisters have no schooling and no birth certificates; they are not allowed to see a doctor –even for the frequent horrible accidents that befall them – and she really knows nothing true about the world.  She has one brother, Tyler, who escapes and goes off to college and grad school, and when Westover is 16, she takes the ACT and sets off to escape her home life – which has become even more horrible from the violent abuse another brother subjects her to – and attends Brigham Young University.  There she is able to do well, even though she really has had zero education, and goes on to Cambridge, Harvard, and then back to Cambridge for her Ph.D.  The odds Westover was up against were truly daunting and her story of overcoming them an amazing one.  I loved it.



Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Reviews March 2018

My Story by Elizabeth Smart.  I have a lot of admiration for the work that Elizabeth Smart does today, so I finally got ahold of her first book and read it.  One has heard a lot of it already, of course, but it was fascinating to read her account of her horrible kidnapping and nine months of captivity.  Her ghostwriter is not the best — and I often thought it would be interesting to have her story paired with what her parents were doing to find her — but she is smart and sensible, and doesn’t shy away from delving into any and all aspects of the experience.  I often found her religion frustrating, too:  you get a lot of her feeling like god is looking out for her, while meanwhile she is being raped daily and near-starved.  With friends like that, who needs enemies, etc. etc.  But it is a powerful read and I do recommend it.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman.  I love Laura Lippman’s novels (even though I still have yet to read what she is most known for, her Tess Monaghan series), and was excited to read her latest.  And it didn’t disappoint, even though I found it a bit of a stressful read.  She’s a great writer, and this story is interesting right from the very beginning, but (although really I should say “and” since it is a thriller, and suspense is par for the course) the way it is set up, it is obvious something bad is going to happen, so I was all on edge throughout the whole book until it does.  The story begins with Polly, a woman on the run, who ends up in a small town in Delaware of all places.  She meets Adam in a bar, and both eventually end up working there.  Polly has several pasts which she is trying to hide, and she obviously has an agenda, but we also learn that Adam is a detective hired to keep an eye on her.  It’s a fun and sad and stressful book, superbly crafted by Lippman.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  I had heard many wonderful things about this novel, Gyasi’s first, and there are ways in which it was excellent.  It’s an epic story that begins in the 1700’s with two women in Ghana, Effia and Esi.  One stays in Ghana, and one becomes a slave sent to America.  The interesting thing about the book is that each generation gets one chapter each, and then the next chapter is the next generation, so you speed through the centuries pretty quickly.  Gyasi is a really good story-teller and I was always excited to begin learning about the next person.  It was also fascinating to see how the two branches of the family diverged.  My criticisms are two:  first, I think it is really hard to write and read stories of slavery.  I feel like it has almost all been done, and thus when you read about the torture of slaves and the escapes that end in torture, and the slave owner’s young child having total power over the slaves — well it has all been done before, and it also comes to seem a bit like torture porn.  My other criticism is that because of the way the novel was set up, it can seem like an overview at times, as she tries to capture the general African American experience (and I’m assuming the same is true for the Ghana half).  However, I do recommend it:  she has talent.

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo.  I enjoyed reading this novel in the same way I enjoyed reading Nobody’s Fool last month.  Russo is such a fun, relaxed writer, and both books reminded me of a modern day Trollope novel, in that they easily depicted a whole community in a very particular window of time.  This book is definitely a continuation of Nobody’s Fool, except the main characters are a little different.  We get a lot of Sully still, and some of Rub, but Russo surprised me in focusing on Douglas Raymer, the policeman in the first book who Sully sucker punches.  There’s tension with Ruth’s horrible criminal son-in-law, and I certainly missed the presence of Miss Beryl, who is still mentioned quite often.  It is, undoubtedly, a romp.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware.  If you want a headache, then read this book.  Harrumph.  I do think Ware’s writing has improved with each thriller she writes:  In a Dark Dark Wood, her first, was okay, whereas The Woman in Cabin 10 was much better done.  For some reason with this one though, I just found the stress of it unpleasant.  It’s one of those situations where the characters do something stupid, and then how they handle that stupid things snowballs, and things get worse and worse, and if one character had just stepped back and confided in someone else, so much of what goes wrong could have been avoided.  This doesn’t make it a bad book; on the contrary, I think it could be argued that this is evidence of its success.  But it just made me very tense every time I read it, and it got so I was looking forward to being done with it, although there are things Ware does at the end of the book that I thought were good.  In a nutshell:  Isa, the main character, is a lawyer with a newborn, who gets a text from an old friend that she is needed.  Isa and two other women, Fatima and Thea, immediately travel to Salten, a beach town, where they all went to school for a year when they were 15.  Something happened that year, and how they covered it up is about to be exposed.  There are lies, and then lies upon lies upon lies.  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Playing With Owen

Owen goes through phases when it comes to toys.  For a while it was the Thomas trains, and then it was matchbox cars, and then stuffed animals, and then Pokemon, and for a long time it has been Star Wars.  He's really only seen the 7th (I think?) movie and parts of the original three, but he loves reciting Star Wars facts ad nauseam, and then getting annoyed with me when I can't keep the facts straight.  (For the record, although I have nothing against Star Wars, I am a Star Trek TNG woman, and whereas I can tell you all sorts of interesting tidbits (oh yes, they are interesting!) about Data's neural net, I am rusty when it comes to droids and bounty hunters and millennium falcons and the like.)

This is what things looked like around here for awhile:




And I can't forget the Chewbacca slippers:



A funny thing about Owen's Star Wars play is that he played Star Wars with Posy, whether or not she was aware of this fact.  She was, of course, Commander Posy, and he would go on missions and then check in with said Commander, who was busy sleeping in a nook.  It was very amusing, much more so than the times he started poking a pet with his lightsaber.

But this brings me to a related topic, and that is the topic of playing with one's children.  There are weekends when Owen is perfectly happy playing with his toys, and whereas he will check in with us every now and then, and get help here and there, he is content with solo play.  But then there are times when he cannot play by himself for more than a few minutes and is constantly begging Sean or me to join in a game.  And of course we do, although sometimes -- especially if it is the end of a day -- we do so rather grudgingly.  I don't remember my parents ever getting down on the floor and playing with me, but that is probably because I had two sisters.  If Owen had a sibling, I wouldn't at all feel guilty telling them to go play with each other, but since he doesn't, I do feel guilty in the moments when I just cannot continue with the "floor play," as my friend, Megan, terms it.

Part of the problem for me (although not for Sean, who loves Star Wars and battles and the like), is that playing with Owen usually means doing what he wants to do, and that often involves two bad guys fighting (I asked him once why we always had to be bad guys, and he replied that it was because he's a good guy in real life, so it is fun to pretend), or cars crashing, or bounty hunters looking for bounty -- all things I absolutely did not play as a child myself.  So sometimes I try to redirect:  I'll say I'll play if we can do something with legos, or color, or play with play dough, or do an arts project, or something like that.

But I still feel a bit guilty.  It's not Owen's fault that he is an only child. And I try to remind myself that someday quite soon he is going to want nothing to do with us, and I'll remember fondly and probably wistfully the days when he wanted me to chase him with a cardboard weapon.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Elephant Sweater

Back in the day pre-bulldogge puppy and pre-child, I had a lot of evenings in which to knit.  I went a bit crazy knitting sweaters, and my final sweater before I got Dorothy was a Rowan cape-y type sweater that looks like this:



I even purchased a special kilt-pin to close it with, although I'm not quite sure where I stashed said pin.  But then I got Dorothy, and since I was working all day, I needed to tire her out and give her my attention, so my knitting fell temporarily by the wayside.

But then I got pregnant and had Owen, and as you can imagine, my spare time for knitting did not increase.  Cut to the beginning of last summer when Owen found some of my knitting paraphernalia, and asked if I could knit him a sweater, preferably one with an elephant on it.

I said yes, and found a really cute free pattern (Stitch Nation by Debbie Stoller).  I thought I could easily do a kid-size sweater in a few months, but I ended up knitting a bit and then stopping for a bit, etc., so it wasn't until February when I finally finished.  Here it is:



And here is Owen wearing it and making the trunk look for a peanut:



I'm pleased with it and had fun doing it once I worked on it more regularly. I found another project I had half finished -- some sort of chocolate-brown sweater for me that I have no memory of buying the yarn for or starting -- and am finishing the final sleeve now.  If I can muster a bit more energy, I shall one day soon go through my way too large knitting stash and try to match yarn to knitting pattern.  I'm not sure it is possible!  But I am back from my hiatus, baby.  Or back from my baby hiatus.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Kindness Rocks

In January, when Owen and I were on a walk at Penn State Abington, Owen found a painted rock with a quotation on it and #kindnessrocks.  We looked it up when we got home, and read about how it was started a couple of years ago to spread a bit of joy.  People paint the rocks and then leave them all over the place to uplift and inspire.

We thought it would be a good January project and went on our own rock hunting expedition, found a few suitable specimens, got some paint at our local Michael's and set to work.  Owen did the painting, and then once they had dried, I added a few quotations with a sharpie.


Here is a picture of our handiwork before distribution:


We then walked back to campus and found good places for our own kindness rocks.  It's been a few months now and we still see a few where we put them, whereas others have made their way elsewhere.

At one point Owen was going to put one under a pricker bush, and I warned him off saying that it wouldn't be good if someone got pricked while picking up what was meant to be a bit of good fortune.  Which got us to thinking about how it would be funny if we made some #meannessrocks and put suitable quotations on them.  Owen at this point was having fits of giggles and came up with all sorts of meanness rock quotes in the fart genre, whereas I kept smirking at the notion of printing on a rock:  Die a spinster.

Reader, we did not do it.  So if you find a meanness rock you cannot blame us for it.  We went high and spread good cheer.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Book Reviews February 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld.  This was a very good read that was also slightly unusual in concept.  Naomi is a child-finder, a detective of sorts who specializes in finding missing children when no one else can.  When the book begins, she has been hired by the parents of Madison Culver, a girl who went missing in a snowstorm in Oregon three years ago and has not been seen since.  It has become a cold case and most presume she is dead, so Naomi is the parents’ last chance.  Naomi is good at finding missing children partly because her past is similar:  when she was 9 or so she escaped from some kind of captivity she has almost no memory of.  Bits and pieces of her horrific past come back to her, but most of what happened is unknown.  Naomi was raised by a beloved foster parent, who helped her heal by letting her run free.  Anyway, chapters of Naomi’s search are interspersed with chapters of Madison herself, who has been saved yet held captive by a kind of hermit.  She keeps herself sane by thinking of her plight like that of the Snow Girl in her favorite fairy tale.  It was all slightly odd, yet very well-conceived and hard to put down.  I will definitely read her next book.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.  I loved this book.  Amy Liptrot is in her early thirties and when the book begins has just returned to Orkney, an island off the coast of Scotland on which she grew up.  She spent the majority of her twenties becoming a partying alcoholic in London, and has just completed rehab and is embarking on a sober life.  She writes about her wild downward spiral in London, but the majority of the book is about her learning to live without alcohol, and doing so on Orkney and its surrounding, even smaller islands, which are all wind and sea and migrating birds.  She’s such a good writer:  there are no lectures or typical flashbacks or sobriety-speak.  Rather, she concentrates on the small things, and on really seeing and experiencing, and random and poignant lessons learned.  Part of what is so fascinating about it is the nature of those islands – they sounded to me like another planet, and one I would like to experience.  I will read again.

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley.  This was a wonderful read: there was nothing extraneous in the writing, the story was exciting, and the characters well-created.  There is a plane accident, and a painter from Martha’s Vineyard rescues someone and swims for eight hours to safety.  Hawley examines one by one the experiences of all the passengers in the days leading up to the plane crash.  Then he details the painter’s immediate post-crash life, as well as the investigation into what went wrong and whether it was an accident or a terrorist act.  It also ends up being an astute examination of our current 24-hour news cycle, and how the potential story is more important than the facts.  It was excellent!

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.  I kept reading people say that this is one of the parenting books that they return to again and again, so finally got curious enough to procure myself a copy.  And it was interesting – although my problem with the parenting books I’ve read so far, is that you basically get all you need to know from the first chapter, and then are stuck reading and reading and reading all the examples and the reiterations.  If I were less OCD I would just, you know, read ONE chapter; but I can’t do that.  So I read the whole thing and learned some good techniques about how not to shut your child down when they speak, and how not to lecture, but rather to re-phrase what the child has just told you, so that s/he feels heard and understood.

The Martian by Andy Weir.  I read and reviewed this book a couple of years ago, so won’t write much again.  I started thinking about it a couple of weeks ago and decided it would be fun to read again.  And it was!  Just as good the second time around.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper.  The tag line for this new mystery by Jane Harper (her second) is:  “5 women go on a hike.  Only 4 return.”  Ha!  ‘Tis true, and it is up to Aaron Falk – the main character of her first mystery, The Dry, to figure out what happened.  Things are complicated by the fact that one of the women was helping them build a case against the employer that sent the women into the bush in the first place (it was a company character/trust-building mandatory trip).  Harper switches back and forth from current day and Falk and his partner’s work on the case, to the four days of the camping trip.  It was really well-done and a fun read.  Harper gets people right, and she focuses in on all the cross-currents between the women.  It was suspenseful.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell.  This was a really wonderful memoir, conceived when O’Farrell’s middle child is diagnosed as a baby with horrible allergies.  They are always having to administer her shots and rush her to a hospital, and it got her thinking about her own “brushes with death” in her life, and how experiencing such moments in life really isn’t an unusual thing.  So she writes chapters of all different lengths and about moments as diverse as running into the street as a toddler to getting caught in a riptide to being mugged.  It’s a brilliant idea and her writing is excellent.  Her first story is about hiking to the top of a mountain by herself and encountering a lone man whom she immediately knew meant her extreme harm.  It was the most terrifying story I’ve ever read!!  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  O’Farrell doesn’t shy away from, well, anything, and her writing is as brave as she.  It’s a fascinating book and I now want to read her novels.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.  I had heard a lot about this book before I purchased it and then had it around for a while before reading it.  I was a little resistant to what she was doing when I first began – which is writing a book that is many genres wrapped into one, mainly memoir and theory – the theory part of my brain is rusty from lack of use and at first resisted being awakened.  However, I ended up really loving it and finding most of it quite interesting and very well done.  Nelson writes of becoming a mother for the first time at a late-ish age, and dives deep into family and gender, queer theory, and heteronormative restrictions.  While she was pregnant, her partner was having trans surgery, and she writes of the peculiars of that situation.  She brings in a lot of art theory and exhibits she visits that are about gender and family, and then also writes a lot about the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and perversions and marriage.  It’s much more cohesive than I’m making it out to be, and is very smart and thought-provoking.