Monday, January 1, 2018

Book Reviews December 2017

Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers.  This was an interesting novel and I really like Dave Eggers’s writing—he has such an unique turn of phrase, and he is always very wry and funny.  It’s not a happy novel, and I did spend an inordinate amount of time hoping for the narrator to find happiness – even if doing so would have made no sense to the story.  It’s about Josie, who is having a crisis of sorts.  She’s a dentist but she got sued by a patient who had cancer she thought Josie should have detected, so she ends up selling her practice, and taking her two young children on an adventure in a camper van in Alaska.  She is fleeing from suburbia, definitely, and the materialism that is so often attached to it.  She isn’t sure, however, what she is fleeing to.  The book then consists of the adventures that Josie and her children, Paul and Ana have.  Although they are nominally in Alaska, they really could be in any kind of semi-wilderness: the novel doesn’t strike me as being very specific to place.  And often one wants Josie to snap out of it and be a better parent to her clearly very worried son.  But on the whole I found it unusual and interesting and funny.  Josie’s quest is an important one, and although she is disorganized and klutzy in its execution, she is on track by dint of being on a trek.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  This book was recommended to me by my niece and I enjoyed it.  It was made into a movie, too, and I can see how a movie would be good.  It reads as a comedy, mostly, although the topics are serious.  Madame Michel is the main character, but the chapters switch back and forth from her point of view, to a 12 year old girl, Paloma.  Madame Michel is the  concierge in an apartment building in Paris.  She is a self-taught intellectual, but pretends to be stupid so people will leave her alone.  One day a new tenant moves into the building, a wealthy Japanese man, and when he makes a reference to War &  Peace, Madame Michel mistakenly responds.  She tries to then cover up her intelligence, but Mr. Ozu is on to her, and sets about trying to catch her out.  Meanwhile, Paloma is a smart, quirky girl who has decided that on her next birthday she shall commit suicide and burn the place down, because people are phony and this phoniness is unbearable.  Soon Paloma and Mr. Ozu join forces and befriend Madame Michel.  It is all very funny and well-observed. 

Plot 29: A Love Affair With Land by Allan Jenkins.  This is a very interesting, poignant, and well done memoir by Allan Jenkins who writes for The Guardian and is a foodie (I think he has a cookbook).  He has a garden plot in London and started to write about a year of his gardening life, and ended up writing about his childhood and the search for his biological parents.  His childhood is a mix of nice and very grim:  he spent most of the first five years in a home or in foster care, as his mother wouldn’t care for him.  He and his older brother, Christopher, are finally taken in by a childless couple in the countryside, but they end up never officially adopting the kids and then trying to get rid of both in their midteens.  He is reunited with various family members over the years and makes some very interesting discoveries as to who his parents were and what was going on with them.  This is all interspersed with his gardening on the plot and at a house in Denmark.  His memoir parts aren’t written linearly, necessarily, and sometimes I found his reluctance to explicitly state the details frustrating.  But it was an often fascinating book and a good mix of subject.

Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood.  This memoir made it to the New York Times 10 best books of 2017 list and it is really worth reading.  Lockwood is a poet and an infamous tweeter, and in her early thirties when she and her husband go to live with her parents after suffering a physical and financial setback.  Her parents are cheerily crazy – her father became a catholic priest after he was married, and went on to have five children while working full-time as a priest.  To say he is a “character” is to put it mildly.  Lockwood treats him kindly; more power to her.  The book is ostensibly about her father, but really about her childhood.  Both are interesting, but it is her writing that is the real draw.  She has an amazing and very funny way of putting things, and whereas most good books have a good paragraph here and there, with Lockwood it is really amazing sentence after amazing sentence.  Although it’s hard to not get annoyed at her while reading, it’s a phenomenal book.

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman.  I really enjoyed reading Backman's A Man Called Ove, but when I had glanced at this book, it looked too similar to Ove, so I passed on it for a while.   But then I kept hearing how enjoyable it was, so I read Britt-Marie:  and it IS similar to Ove in concept, in that you have a main character who is kind of on the spectrum and set in his/her ways, and the book is what happens when those odd, yet logical, ways meet contemporary norms.  It's a fun read though.  When the novel begins, Britt-Marie has left her husband, and gotten a job for the first time at age 63.  She's a woman with great cleaning ability, yet not a lot of social graces.  This job is really her first contact with the world outside of her flat since childhood.  Britt-Marie gets a job at a recreational center in Borg, a nowhere town on a highway.  It turns out that its down-and-out citizens are just what Britt-Marie needs and vice versa.  It's lighter than Ove and a bit more grasping at straws, but if you liked Ove, you will like this book.

Bon Appetempt: A Coming of Age Story by Amelia Morris.  This is a food-oriented memoir with recipes at the end of chapters, and was an entertaining and interesting read.  Morris grows up shuttling between her parents' in Pittsburgh and Saegertown, PA and is an intense kid.  She and her husband, a high school friend, go to live in LA and try to break into the industry.  While doing so, she starts learning how to cook, and eventually chronicling her efforts in her blog, Bon Appetempt.  I came across her blog about a year ago, which is what lead me to the book -- although she no longer updates it frequently.  When she does, however, it -- like this memoir -- is worth reading.  She's a funny writer with a good ear for the important takeaway.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Let's Hope It's A Good One

Owen's writing is improving and his interest in the alphabet increasing, but he still has trouble with some letters, including mixing up his M's and W's.  It's hard to know when to write down up down up, and when to write up down up down!

Here is an art project he brought home from school with his name carefully lettered:

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Is Nigh Approaching

We have been busy this December doing Christmas-y things.

We put up our tree a couple of weeks ago, and Owen was great putting all the ornaments on the bottom half of the tree.  He did have a tendency to put as many ornaments as would fit on one branch; I just figured I could move them later, but when I did, he noticed and objected!  He had three Star Wars ornaments on one branch and told me they had to stay there so they could be friends on the branch.  Well, okay then.

Here is a festive picture of Posy, having inserted herself in the Christmas tablescape:

Owen had his Christmas show yesterday, and sang for the first time in it!  When he remembered, that is.  Some of the time he did the hand motions, and jingled the bells, but never all three at once.  He was very excited to wear the red and green plaid shirt his Granny sent him:

And this picture is a bit dark here, but here is he proudly walking down with his class to perform in the front:

He is very excited for Christmas, but has oddly gained a kind of patience that he definitely didn't have last year.  We were able to put wrapped presents under the tree without them making him go crazy in anticipation.

Sometimes Sean will sing "I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus," though and Owen will turn to me in consternation and say, "You didn't, did you, Mom?"

Today I started baking some Christmas cookies, but Owen wasn't as interested in helping as in years' past.  He was too busy playing with his new Hess truck!

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.