Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Reviews May 2017

The Wilder Life:  My Adventures in the Lost World of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Wendy McClure.  This was a fun book about the journey McClure takes when she decides to re-examine her childhood obsession with the Little House books.  She documents her travels to all the existing museums and historical sites; she attends Little House pageants out in De Smet; she churns butter; and she discusses a lot of the controversies between fact and fiction with which the Little House series is fraught.  She’s a funny writer, and she doesn’t take herself too seriously.  She writes a lot about the television series too, which I wasn’t as interested in, but it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the book.  It is a fun read.

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy.  This is a phenomenal book.  I’ve long been a fan of Levy’s writing in The New Yorker, but this was even better and I couldn’t put it down.  It is about her professional and personal life leading up to when she had a miscarriage at five-months pregnant in Mongolia.  She wrote about (and won awards) for this in The New Yorker, but it is about so much more than that though – it’s about choices and expectations, and coming to terms with the realization that things might not be okay.  At 43, Levy has certainly had an impressive writing career, but it’s the little things that are so good in this book.  Her writing is so on the mark and insightful and funny and brusque.  She tells stories about things that can be very run of the mill, yet she makes them fascinating.  I am hugely impressed.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  I really like Elizabeth’s Strout’s writing, although I can see how it might not be for everyone.  The style of this book, too, ends up being all of her writing quirks in the forefront.  She writes from one person’s point of view and circuitously and goes over and over the same thing.  Those are the drawbacks.  They are outweighed by the good things, though, which primarily are that you get immediately drawn into the life of the main character and feel you know her.  She is so talented at creating an atmosphere and choosing important, yet small, revelatory details.  In this novel, Lucy is looking back to a nine-week stint she had at a hospital after a routine appendectomy.  She had an infection and was there for a long time, and her mother – her abusive mother from whom she was more or less estranged – comes to stay for five days.  Lucy grew up very poor in a small farming town in Illinois, and is now a writer living in New York City.  Her mother has basically never left the small town, so it is amazing that she flew to NYC and is there in the hospital.  As the story unfolds, you learn of Lucy’s poverty and abuse growing up, and how she was able to escape by getting a scholarship to college.  She is now married with two young daughters.  She and her mother don’t talk about the important things – or don’t do so directly.  Her mother distracts her with talk of people in the hometown, what’s happened to them and what they are doing.  There’s a really well-done moment where it is in the future and Lucy is going to a writer’s workshop and hands in to the teacher the excerpt which will become the book we are reading; the teacher loves the excerpt and points out exactly what the mother is doing when she talks about what she talks about.  It’s a meta moment in the middle of the book that works really well. 

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.  This is a child’s chapter book which Owen inherited and I was curious about because I’ve read some of her other books.  It’s a very simple story.  I like that her writing is sparse and stripped down, although the story itself is so bare bones that one gets a bit knocked about by all that isn’t fleshed out.  A 12 year-old boy, Robert, has moved to the backwoods of Florida with his father once his mother dies.  He is miserable, and on his way to school one day comes across a tiger in a cage in the middle of the woods.  He meets Sistine, a new girl at school, whose parents have just separated and who is also miserable.  Rob and Sistine end up helping each other with what they need most, and set about figuring out how to free the tiger. 

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.  This is basically a book of short stories, but the people in them intersect, and almost all are people that Lucy Barton’s mother mentions in My Name Is Lucy Barton (and Lucy herself appears in some).  All lived at one point in the small farming town of Amgash, Il.  Strout’s writing is wonderful, for the most part, and I will happily read any of her books.  And I liked hearing about a character in several stories and then coming across that character as the starring voice in the next.  Such a style has its drawbacks too though – you just get snippets of a character’s life, so you feel like you never quite hear as much as you want to.  Also, so much of the stories are depressing – realistically so, but still.  It was a very compelling read, but looking back on it as a whole, I’m a little more doubtful about it.

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis.  This is a book primarily about the education of preschoolers and how we are so often failing our kids.  It was well written, persuasive, and logical.  Her point is mainly that kids are too often condescended to, and that they have a real need for play time, outdoor time, and one on one interactions with teachers/adults that aren’t proscribed by curriculum.  She goes into how the failures of our education system encroach on the preschool set.  Curriculum is becoming test oriented and doesn’t allow for the main way that children of that age learn, which is more a meandering give and take:  you have to follow where the interests and conversation of the child leads.  She also talks of how the terrible salaries of preschool teachers and caregivers mean of course that often those with the less skills end up doing the work.  Until we pay good salaries, this isn’t going to change.  It was an interesting book.  It was especially useful when Christakis would set side-by-side a lesson following some bad curriculum, versus a lesson from an experienced teacher who could use the children’s responses in her teaching, instead of corralling them back to The Leaf, or The Thanksgiving Hand Turkey.  She does also address how often children of a certain class in the U.S. are overscheduled and overwatched. 

And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass.  I think Julia Glass writes wonderfully and I will happily read anything she writes.  This novel begins with Kit Noonan, a man in his early forties who is having a crisis of sorts.  He is an academic without a job, and he has reached the point in his job search where he is no longer searching.  He lives with his wife, Sandra, and nine year-old twins, and his wife reaches her breaking point with Kit’s despondency.  She suggests he set about finding out the truth about the identity of his missing father; she thinks that is the root of his problems.  Kit then goes to Vermont to visit his stepfather, Jasper, a ski instructor/dog sled trainer/outdoorsman.  Kit’s mother is no longer married to Jasper, but Kit believes it is Jasper who is more likely to tell him about his past.  Jasper is a very entertaining character, and this was probably my favorite section of the book.  We then start learning about Kit’s biological family, and the viewpoint switches to them.  The third section of the book is from the viewpoint of Fenno McLeod, a character from Glass’s first novel, The Three Junes.  There is a tenuous reason why Glass would do this, although I do think it weakened the structure of the book.  I was glad enough to see Fenno again, but it puts the reader on the outside of Kit’s story looking in, and that was frustrating.  So on the whole, the novel is a bit meandering, and a bit structurally off; having said that, the writing is a treat to read and the characters are all interesting and entertaining.

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan.  This is Sullivan’s fourth novel and each one has been better than the next.  This one is excellent—I couldn’t put it down.  She writes of two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, who travel to the U.S. from Ireland in the fifties.  Nora becomes the head of a large family in Dorchester outside Boston, and Theresa ends up becoming a nun in Vermont.  When the book begins, the sisters have not spoken for thirty years, and a death is about to bring them together.  Sullivan is excellent at moving back and forth from the past to the present.  She does so skillfully so it doesn’t feel like a gimmick.  She writes from the point of view of several of Nora’s adult children too, John, Bridget, and Brian, and the different relationships they have with their mother.  It’s a novel about family, but also about secrets, and who knows what and how both keeping a secret and revealing it can damage.  I recommend!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Owen Flotsam

Owen:  I’m ready for my breakfast, Miss Pee.
Me:  Don’t call me that Owen; it’s not nice.
Owen, earnestly:  But you said I could call you anything just as long as I don’t call you late for dinner.
Me:  ba dum bum.


Word mix ups:  we planted new lilac bushes a few weekends ago, and Owen calls them violacs.  I was going to correct him, but violacs seemed rather apropos.  Instead of “don’t mind of I do,” he’ll say:  “I don’t mind what I do.”


Owen is very into making rhymes these days, and the other day he came running to me, saying: “Mom!  I made a rhyme!  Greenest penis!”


I was talking to Sean and said to him about someone:  I think she is Armenian.  Owen promptly interrupted:   No, Dorothy is our minion!

The other day Owen said to me:  I think Dorothy needs a hearing aid.  She never listens to me or Nanny.


When we were driving home from Massachusetts after the holidays, Sean thought he had lost his new pocketknife at a rest-stop and let out a few choice words.  (He later found the knife.)  Anyway an hour or so later when we were still in the car driving, Owen mused:  “Daddy said a bad word when he lost his knife.”
Me:  That’s right, he did.
Owen:  Daddy said “stupid.”
Me, thinking:  he said a lot worse than that!

Wise words from Owen:  Sometimes, Mom, you don’t know if a cat is happy.

Owen took this picture of me with my happy cat:

Around Thanksgiving time Owen learned the history of Thanksgiving at school.  I realized he didn’t quite understand it when he started talking as if WE had taken our particular house from the Indians.  I had to do some explaining.

After finishing a slice of cake not too long ago, Owen said, “Today I fell in love with chocolate.”

 

Owen one day sitting next to a very loudly snoring Dorothy:  “I don’t like snoring.  I like to be quiet like a pig alone in its puddle.”

The issue of death has also come up often lately – mainly in regards to pets.  He knows that I had my pug, Tulip, and Sean had his cat, Kilman, and that both are no longer with us.  He still doesn’t get the sadness of death – which I suppose is a good thing on the whole, but it leads to him making comments to me such as the following.  He was pretending to talk on an old landline phone of mine and said to me, “Mom, Tulip is on the phone!  She’s not dead; she’s just living somewhere else!”  Me, thinking:  well that is just horrible!!

I spy a bulldogge:

I was between Owen and the spray of water one night and apologized for being a waterhog.  A few minutes later Owen said:  “Mom, you’re doing it again!  You’re being a wet groundhog!”

Owen's Bed


Here is a picture of Owen’s new bed!  The bedspread is my sister, Meredith’s college bedspread (and thus a million years old J), and the pillows are handmade by my sister, Martha!  The fabric pleases me – camping scenes and ogling clams – how could it not?



We put off getting a bed for him for way too long, mainly because, let’s face it, he doesn’t spend more than a few hours each night in said bed, so it didn’t seem urgent.  He was sleeping in the converted crib – basically a crib with one side removed – but eventually that got too small to contain comfortable blankets and a pillow.

The posters and artwork, such as it is, are still situated from when the dresser was where the bed is now, and we have yet to change the positioning, as you can see.  Owen is a big fan of hanging up his own artwork, and he has strong opinions as to what should go where.

I told him I will make the bed for him in the mornings until he turns five, and then it will be one of his jobs.

I have noticed now that when Owen leaves his bed and joins us in the night, then Posy will often go into Owen’s room and use his bed.  Smart kitty.  Plum also has recently discovered that there is a good view from Owen's bed.  At least someone is getting good use out of it!



Monday, May 1, 2017

Book Reviews April 2017

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Countryby Helen Russell.  This was a fun book – it’s sort of the book you’d get if Bridget Jones traveled to Denmark and lived there for a year.  Helen Russell had a successful career in the fashion magazine world in London, but left to go live in Denmark when her husband got his dream job at Lego.  She had been having a stressful time of it in London, and decides to move to Denmark and embrace exactly what makes it such a happy place.  They move in January and the book is divided by one month per chapter.  The “downside” of the book is that basically all the reasons that the Danish are happy can’t be emulated in another country—you basically need to move to Denmark (or Norway) to achieve that happiness for yourself.  Drat.  It’s interesting to see how well the social safety net works there, although Russell is also honest about the problems she encounters with the Danish way of life.  Russell is a very entertaining writer – she’s very irreverent and very funny, and very au courant.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse.  I loved this thriller and couldn’t put it down.  Rowan is a woman in her thirties living as an academic in London when she learns that a childhood friend of hers, Marianne Glass, died in a freak accident falling off the roof of her house.  Although Rowan had been estranged from Marianne for the past ten years, she goes up to Oxford for the funeral and ends up agreeing to house-sit for the family.  Marianne was an extremely successful and famous painter, and it turns out that right before she died she sent Rowan a letter.  Rowan is not convinced that the death was an accident, although she doesn’t know if it was suicide or murder.  She decides to investigate on her own.  Her search reveals more and more, but the reader also finds out some interesting information about Rowan herself, which has the potential to change everything.  It is very suspenseful and very well written.  It’s an excellent book!

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  This novel is about the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who in real life were southern women abolitionists in Charleston in the 1800s, and a slave from their household, Handful.  The chapters switch back and forth from Sarah to Handful.  Handful was given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday, but even at that age Sarah was anti-slavery so tried all she could do to “give her back.”  She and Handful become friends, and Sarah illicitly teaches Handful to read.  Sarah ends up so out of place in Charleston that she goes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker.  Later Angelina joins her and they become abolitionist speakers, which they did in real life.  Meanwhile Handful and her mother meet up with Denmark Vesey and their situation becomes even more complicated.  Sarah had made a promise to Handful’s mother to try to free her, and she attempts to keep that promise.  It’s an interesting book, although I was never able to get very enthusiastic about it.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron.  This was a really good read.  Two couples go on vacation together to Italy, and while in Siracusa, disaster ensues.  Each chapter is from the viewpoint of one of the four main characters, and it is entertaining to get all the different takes on the trip.  Lizzie and Michael are writers from New York, and Finn and Taylor are living in Maine, where Finn owns a restaurant and Taylor works at the tourist bureau.  Finn and Lizzie dated once in their early twenties.  Finn and Taylor also have a daughter, Snow, who is ten and on the spectrum.  Both couples are having marriage problems:  Michael is in the midst of an affair back in New York, and Finn and Taylor have troubles because Taylor is obsessed with their daughter.  Ephron is a really funny writer – I laughed out loud frequently, even though the topics are fraught.  My one criticism would be that Taylor is too one-note and not believable.  She’s too easy to thoroughly dislike.  It’s a fun book though and I will definitely seek out more of Ephron’s novels.

Little Deaths by Emma Flint.  I didn’t enjoy this one very much.  It is about a woman in the early sixties in Queens, Ruth, whose young children, age 5 and 4, go missing and then are found dead.  The detectives believe she did it and do everything they can to convict her.  The reader knows she didn’t do it – although we don’t know who did until the end.  The majority of the story is told from the point of view of Pete, a young reporter who finagles getting assigned to this story in the hopes that it will make his career.  He starts investigating and thinks Ruth is innocent, but more so because he becomes attracted to and obsessed by her.  My problem with the book is that the main point of it seems to be to show how unfairly Ruth is treated because she is a beautiful woman who sleeps around.  This more than anything else motivates the police and detectives to try to prove her guilt, even though she isn’t guilty.  The stressful part is that we only see Ruth through the eyes of the men surrounding her, so as readers you feel rather complicit in her objectification.  Flint doesn’t help us out, because she doesn’t make Ruth really anything more than her like of losing herself in sex with men.  We really don’t know more about Ruth than what the men think they know, and that makes it frustrating to read.

 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Owen Flotsam


Owen is very into the movie, Moana, these days.  (It’s a very cute movie – I recommend it!)  He thinks the characters are named Rihanna and Molly, however, instead of Moana and Maui.  And for some reason he thinks that “Molly” is a boy’s name (he has an imaginary friend who is a boy named Molly).  So now when we are outside, he makes me be “Rihanna” and he is Molly, and I have to force him to return the heart to Tafiti.  Sometimes we can enlist Dorothy to be the lava monster, Taka, by keeping a stick just out of her reach.

I must say that I would be happy to never hear the word “butt” again.  I never remember finding butt humor very funny, even when I was young, yet now I hear nothing but butt this and butt that.  “Stupid” is another word I’m tired of hearing.  I told Owen the other day that we were going to start teaching him other insults and words for “butt” so that at least he could be bratty in a rather Shakespearian way.  We’ve started with “tuchis”.  Perhaps next will be “’swounds!”

I have a new perfume I got for Christmas called “Pale Gray Mountain, Small Black Lake.”  I was putting it on the other day and had Owen give it a sniff and told him of the landscape it was supposed to evoke.  The next day he asked me why I never wore another perfume on my shelf, and I said I didn’t really like it.  He smelled it and said, “But it smells like a bulldogge walking up a mountain!”  Hard logic to beat.


Owen:  Is Granny going to get me some more t-shirts?
Me:  You have enough t-shirts!  But she is going to buy you some shorts.
Owen:  Make sure they are shiny.
Me thinking:  I most definitely will not pass on that request!

Owen got into my bed the other night and then wouldn’t fall back to sleep.  After we chatted for a while I began to get annoyed and told him he had to go to sleep!  He said, “No, I’m not tired.  I’ll just lie here and look at the stars” and he pointed toward the light on the ceiling that is our smoke alarm.

Around St. Patrick’s day, Owen was talking about how they made leprechaun traps in school – I forget how.  A bowl of lucky charms, perhaps?!  Anyway, I asked rather absentmindedly if once you catch a leprechaun you steal its gold?  And Owen replied, horrified:  “You don’t steal gold from a leprechaun, mom!  You ask him nicely!”  I felt duly reprimanded.

I was down in the basement doing laundry on a Sunday, and Owen was sitting on the stairs chatting to me as I worked.
Owen:  Can you tell me that story about the time a tomato chased you down the basement?
Me:  I never told you a story about being chased by a tomato!
Owen:  Yes you did!  You told me there was a tomato, and you had to go down the basement!
Me:  Ohhh!  I told you that if we ever had a tornado, you should go down the basement!  Tornado with an “N”!


Owen at 8 a.m. on a Sunday:  Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Me:  I don’t know!  What are you thinking?!
Owen, rubbing hands together:  That we could make a chocolate pie!
Me:

When we are playing outside, Owen will chant, “Miss me, miss me, now you’ve got to kiss me!”  And then he will stop and wait for a kiss.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Reviews March 2017


A Separation by Katie Kitamura.  This is a strange yet very good novel whose tone is at odds with the events described.  The narrator is a woman who has been separated from her husband for six months when she gets a call from her mother-in-law who can’t reach her son, Christopher.  The narrator and Christopher had agreed not to announce their separation yet, so rather than explain the situation to her mother-in-law, she goes to Greece, where Christopher had been doing research, to find him.  She’s met there by a bit of a mystery, which in any other novel would proceed accordingly, with the narrator putting together the pieces to figure out what happened to her husband.  And she does do that, but she is so cerebral that everything gets processed – not dispassionately, but almost scientifically in her head.  It works well and I found it to be a very interesting read, although Kitamura will have to do something different in her next novel, as it is the kind of angle that I think only works once.  The narrator meets a young Greek woman Christopher was having an affair with, and then has to decide how much to disclose to her in-laws, who know things she doesn’t, but do not know about the separation.  It reminded me very much of a novel version of a short story by Lydia Davis.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker.  This is a children’s lit novel that made my friend Elisabeth’s top ten of 2016 list.  I’m wary of reading books about animals in general, but she assured in her review that the ending you fear might happen doesn’t.  And I don’t think I could have made it through the book without that assurance!  It’s an excellent novel, and I’d like to read it to Owen when he is old enough.  It is about a boy, Peter, who has raised a fox, Pax, since he was a kit.  A war is coming and Peter has to go live with his grandfather, and his father makes him release Pax into the wild.  This happens in the first few pages of the book.  However, Peter soon realizes he has made a terrible mistake and sets out to find Pax on his own.  Every other chapter is from the viewpoint of Pax, who also sets out to find his boy.  Pax has to learn to fend for himself, as, of course, does Peter.  Pax meets two other foxes who he hopes will show him the ropes, and Peter himself meets a woman who helps teach him what he needs to know.  It is well written and a great story.  My one criticism is that the end, when it comes, comes quickly.  The book builds and builds and then all of a sudden it is done.  I suppose it speaks to the power of the writing that I wanted more.

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson.  This was the first mystery in a trilogy about which I have read good things.  I figured that at any rate, until Asa Larsson writes her next novel, I could get my freezing cold mystery fix.  And it is a good read (although not Asa Larsson good).  My criticism is that the writing is a little simple and thin – the characters aren’t as richly developed as I would like them to be.  The book mainly is concerned with Ari Thor, a young man of 24 or so who upon completing his stint in the police academy in Reykjavik gets a job in a small town in northern Iceland.  Like in any small town, everyone knows each other and knows each other’s histories.  This makes it more difficult for Ari Thor to solve the crimes he is presented with – especially since he has a rather annoying boss who assumes he knows what happened without investigating anything.  Ari Thor has also left a fiancĂ©e in Reykjavik, and communication is not good between the two of them.  Anyway, a famous author dies of natural or unnatural causes – it isn’t quite clear.  But then there is another attempted murder and that changes the chief’s complacency.  Ari Thor slowly figures things out, and of course there is a snowstorm raging throughout the whole book.  It’s not a brilliant read, but he has potential.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble.  I enjoyed this novel, as I do all of Margaret Drabble’s books.  I love her pacing, the ordinariness of what happens, the authorial interruptions here and there, and the meandering pace.  I also like how her main characters have aged along with Drabble: it’s refreshing to have the focus be on women of all ages, and the problems that accompany age.  This book in particular is about the ending of lives – some surprisingly, but some expected.  The main character, Fran Stubbs, also works as a kind of inspector for senior care homes.  Very fit in her old age herself, she drives around her part of England and checks out senior living, while philosophizing on the ends of lives she sees and is experiencing.  The focus is on others too – Fran’s longtime friend, Jo, her ex-husband, a childhood friend she has gotten back into touch with, her son who is lingering on a Canary Island, and her daughter who lives a retired life at a young age.  Global warming has caused extra rain and floods to occur, so Fran deals with literal dark flood arising, as well as metaphorical.  It’s a surprisingly friendly novel, for a novel about death.  I recommend it.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  This book is phenomenal.  I loved every minute of it and was sad when it ended.  It’s considered “fantasy”, which is a genre I don’t read that often, but after this book, I’m thinking I need to explore more.  Like with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I am jealous that I did not write this.  First, it is a really good and gripping story.  But it also has the best story development or exposition that I’ve ever seen.  You get pulled in slowly and figure out what is happening while Agnieszka does and before you know it you are in a whole different complex world.  The situation is complex, but the writing is simple in a good way and the story fascinating.  The narrator is Agnieszka, a girl who lives in a rural village and discovers that she has magic powers.  She learns how to work them with the help of the Dragon, a local wizard who is in charge of keeping the towns in the valley safe from the evil power of the Wood.  The Wood is a literal woods, but it has been taken over by malevolence and is slowly moving forward to encroach upon the surrounding towns.  When the Wood attacks, it encases a person in the bark of a tree.  As is always the case, the people fighting the wood have their own agendas, and Agnieszka as she learns her powers also has to negotiate the politics of the world she is living in.  The outline that I’m giving does not do the power of the story justice.  It was truly a wonderful book and a wonderful read.  Thanks to my friend, Elisabeth, for recommending it!!


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.
Me: 
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?
Me:  


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.
Me: 

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!