Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Baby's On Fire

Baby's on FireBaby's On Fire, by Liz Prato

I'm not really much of a short story person. I'd always prefer reading a novel. In fact, I didn't actually know this was fiction until I reached the beginning of the second story!! (Yes, I know it says "Stories" on the front!)

My first exposure to Liz Prato was when I heard her read at a book launch for Brave on the Page, an anthology of essays by and interviews with Oregon writers, in which my husband was also featured. Her autobiographical piece immediately drew me in....full of stark, gut-wrenching detail. I knew she was a writer to watch.

...So I was excited to read Baby's On Fire, the first book she's written (and I didn't know it was short stories). You know you've found a good short story, when you wish it were a novel...and that's how I felt about many of these stories.

One thread runs through these stories: the characters have been scarred by tough times. In the title story, for example, the unemployed, depressed main character arrives home in Portland to discover her family's house had been burned to the ground.

Two other sad stories in particular made me want more: "The Adventures of a Maya Queen" and Riding to the Shore," interestingly, both involving cancer. And one story, "Covered in Red Dirt," takes place in Hawaii, always an intriguing setting for me.

In each story, Prato paints a beautiful, if sometimes heart-breaking, picture of lives lived hard and people who have been through the wars. She too has survived more than one heart should bear, and it shows in her work. A person who hasn't experienced deep losses could not write like this and could not represent these characters' lives and thoughts so well.

Multnomah County Library named Baby's on Fire as one of its best books of 2015. I feel fortunate to know such a talented writer who creates touching stories that stick with you for days.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Maud's Line

Maud's LineMaud's Line, by Margaret Verble

I checked this historical novel out of the library because I actually knew a woman who grew up in Oklahoma with Native American roots. She, like Maud Nail, was a spirited spitfire! And she too often found herself dependent on men, much to her chagrin.

Maud lives with two incompetent men...her father is an alcoholic wanderer with a temper, and her brother is a troubled dreamer. Maud essentially keeps their homestead going.

When a peddler stops by, Maud's life changes...not only her own circumstances, but also that of her father and brother. She is a free-spirited heroine of the midwest. I didn't always agree with her decisions, but I enjoyed reading about her adventures.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Such a hard, beautiful, and important book! Highly acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his son, and last week it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates did not write this book for white readers (or as he says, "people who believe they are white," quoting James Baldwin). But that's exactly why we should read it. It's brutally honest, raw, and gut wrenching. He doesn't mince words, and he doesn't sugarcoat history or reality.
"I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner chocked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy ... The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible."
The book brought me to tears several times...when Coates arrives at Howard University and feels comfortable in his own skin for the first time...
"There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses."
...or when his friend, Prince Jones, is killed by police for the crime of driving while black...or when a white woman rudely pushes his son and he feels helpless to defend him...or when he takes his son to preschool for the first time and wants to warn him not to be so happy and carefree...
“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."
This idea, of parenting a child while knowing that you cannot fully protect him...of knowing that Prince Jones' mom gave him every privilege she could, yet all it took was one racist act to destroy everything...this realization of how many white male privileges my sons have that Coates' son does not and will never have...this brought me to tears several times while reading this book.
 “So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile."
Black children are told, either directly or indirectly, to be twice as good and accept half as much, while white children are told to, or allowed to, take more.

I've observed black friends parenting their children in a way that is much stricter than my own, and Coates articulated why that is:
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered...I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made...later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice—'Either I can beat him, or the police.'"
I attended a well-attended book discussion about Between the World and Me this week at my church. Although everyone liked the book a lot, one woman said she was troubled by the anger in this book...because she believes that anger doesn't get you anywhere (e.g., look at the Islamic State). I can understand her perspective, but I can see both sides. 

I am not by nature an angry person, but I understand the anger in Te-Nehisi Coates' soul. I think we need anger at injustice to move forward. We need the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jrs as much as we need the Malcolm Xs. We need the Sandra Blands, who was a Black Lives Matter activist before she was killed, as much as we need the Maya Angelous. And Oh My Gracious God, do black people ever have the right to be angry. 

This country was built on their backs, woven with their arteries, and yet we continue to have racists like Donald Trump claim that racism no longer exists...and fail to understand why Black Lives Matter. We have people use the word "thugs" or decry "black-on-black crime," which Coates says is like shooting a man and then shaming him for bleeding. 

And I cried when I read about Coates' son giving up his hope for the first time:
“That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, 'I’ve got to go,' and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you."
This knowledge that it was no use to comfort his son, because he couldn't give any comfort. Damn straight he's angry, and he has a right to be. No more sugarcoating. We all need to wake up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Masterminds and Wingmen

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy WorldMasterminds and Wingmen, by Roasalind Wiseman

A great book about boys, written by the author of Queenbees and Wannabes, who is actually the mom of boys (rather than girls).

Wiseman wrote this book after interviewing hundreds of boys and trying to figure out how they think. As a woman living in a house with four males (three sons and a husband), I can honestly tell you that their brains are wired differently, and they are also conditioned to behave in a different way. It's called Boy World, and I'm often out of my element!

I learned some helpful tricks from this book, such as not bombarding my sons with questions. I am a detailed person, and they, alas, are less so. When I pepper them with questions at the end of a school day, or when they come home from college, it is less than effective.

Boys are faced with entirely different challenges than girls are, and this book identifies those challenges and helps parents figure out a way to assist their sons in navigating those challenges.

God Is Disappointed in You

God Is Disappointed in YouGod Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

This is a funny retelling of each of the books of the Bible, in a highly accessible, irreverent, and humorous way. If you're willing to flex the way the Bible is interpreted, and you have a great sense of humor, you'll enjoy this book. It's sort of like a Cliff's Notes told via Tina Fey...written by humorist Mark Russell with cartoons by the New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

Tibetan Peach Pie

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative LifeTibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

If you've ever read Tom Robbins, you're well familiar with his gallivanting across the field of language and experience. This book, which he insists is not a memoir, is no different.

It's a series of hilarious essays on a variety of topics. Robbins' stories of his childhood growing up in Appalachia, through his growing-up years and colorful relationships, are highly entertaining. Drugs, of course, made things more colorful!

This book made me want to go back and re-read some of the novels that made such an impression on me in my 20s...Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Robbins is now in his 80s, but his voice and perspective (not to mention his author photo!) still seem to be in his 30s. Now he lives in quaint La Conner, Washington, a delightful spot. Wouldn't it be fun to go see him at a reading?

"A True Account of an Imaginative Life" of Tommy Rotten describes this book well.

Jacket photo

Robbins in 2014--he's aged pretty well, actually! 

Judgment Calls

Judgment Calls (Samantha Kincaid #1)Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke

Confession: I acquired this book somewhere solely because it was based in Portland. I love to read books set in my hometown.

It was a solid mystery/thriller, by the daughter of famous writer James Lee Burke. Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid is a solid character. Sometimes the book veered a little too far into legal wonkiness, which led me to think "I COULD NEVER BE A LAWYER"! Far too many obscure legal procedures and technicalities.

I might read more of her to see where she goes as a writer...and where Samantha Kincaid goes as a character.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant

Another book group selection, The Boston Girl came on the heels of A Gesture Life, our October book group pick. I found it much easier going than A Gesture Life.

It's the story of Addie Baum, whose Jewish immigrant parents arrived in Boston with her two sisters, and the hopes of a better life. Her mother is the classic Jewish critical mom, and the saddest thing about this book is that Addie never receives her approval.

I really enjoyed this easy was written in first person, as Addie is telling stories to her portrays the difficulties of life for a woman in the early 1900s. Addie was ahead-of-her time independent, smart, and feisty, which I loved. And that of course drove her mother crazy.

But as we concluded at book group, it doesn't go terribly deep. It would've been better if we had a better understanding of what was going on in Addie's head--and that of the other characters--and what her motivations were.

I also found the "stories for her granddaughter" format a bit far fetched. But all in all, it was a a fun read.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee

A Gesture Life is another book that was really hard to get into, but the patience paid off. If it hadn't been a book group selection, I might not have stuck with it.

Franklin Hata was a man who was difficult to admire or respect, because he seemed cold and heartless. His stilted relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny just made me sad. He had a chronic difficulty in relating to anyone on a deep, true level.

Presumably, this was because of his difficult experiences in the war and his obsession with K, a Korean "comfort woman." The storyline about the comfort women made me truly sick to my stomach. Apparently when Chang-Rae Lee began writing this novel, it was going to be all about comfort women, but he found that to be too heavy of a subject. His obsession with K reminded me of the foreign men I knew in Japan who were obsessed with Japanese women...many of them ended up marrying them and staying in Japan. They were drawn to them because they were less likely to challenge them than western women. They liked the way the Japanese women looked up to them. Often, these men would not have been classified as "catches" in the US or UK. These relationships were not very equal.

That is the relationship between Franklin and K. He thinks he loves her, but she only views him as one more man who is taking advantage of her. In his case, perhaps he can help her a little. But he means nothing to her.

I appreciated this book more after discussing it with my book group. Some of them liked it better than I did, and one of my friends observed that perhaps it was the way she had been raised, with more distant parenting. That could be.

It was beautifully written, but a little bit disappointing for me. I expected more, and I found it to be really sad.

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunI'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

I loved this book. Written for young adults, I'll Give You the Sun is about fraternal twins...Jude and her twin brother, Noah, beginning with age 13. Told in alternating perspectives, the story is about their efforts to cope with adolescence and change, friendship, the experience of being twins and siblings, deep-seated grief and longing, art, love, and how to be truly, authentically yourself.

The only thing I didn't like about it was the use of the term "surftards." I kept thinking about John Green's stated regret about using the "retard" word in Paper Towns. One could argue that it's what kids say...but I also think that authors have the opportunity to raise the bar and set a higher standard.

As an Internet author friend has said in her review, "The words and terms toilet-licking, asshat, and surftard are used in nauseating excess. Plus, don’t get me started on how the word surftard is simply another version of “retard”--a slur wearing a cloak of originality. First Amendment aside, I think it is irresponsible for a young adult author to coin a new hate term. I challenge her to replace the tard in surftard with a racial epithet and see how it plays out. This unnecessary hate language adds absolutely nothing to the voice and persona of the character who uses it."

Otherwise, I adored this novel. It made me cry. Totally rich, complicated characters.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Score one point for Ruth Ware for prompting me to think about this book in the middle of the night. In a Dark, Dark Wood is about Nora (formerly Lee), an antisocial, reserved writer in England, who is invited to a hen night (the UK version of a bachelorette party). The strange thing is she hasn't seen the bride for 10 years, since she was a teenager.

Bride Clare brings her "friends" from far and wide to a hidden-away, isolated glass house in the country where they drink heavily and have many an awkward conversation, especially since Nora and Claire fell out of friendship when they were teens.

And then someone is murdered, and Nora doesn't know whether she is the killer.

It's sinister, but not too grisly, and it's hard to care much about what happens to most of the characters. The characters, with the exception of Nina, were spoiled yuppies who thought the world revolved around them.

This was not bad for an airplane or beach read...but Nora annoyed the hell out of me. I don't have much sympathy for someone who cannot move on after a lost teenage love affair. Nora needed to get a life.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

I debated whether to read Go Set a Watchman for quite some time, but finally curiosity got the best of me! It's worth reading if only to explore this progression of a writer and a book, as it preceded To Kill a Mockingbird.

What I liked about it:
  • Scout, or Jean Louise, is a grown woman. And she is a crusty, opinionated, and stubborn one at that.
  • As one reviewer noted, Go Set a Watchman is not the book we wanted about race...but it was the book we need. Others have said Atticus was always a racist.
  • The writing, at times, was beautiful...when it was not meandering.
  • It showed a slice of history, and perhaps a more realistic one, in the South during that era.
What I didn't like about it:
  • Oh, the meandering! Lee often goes off on various flashbacks, and I found myself questioning when we would get back to the main story. Not a good sign, and it reflects the need for the novel to be polished...which it was by the time To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
  • Some characters are mere shadows (Jem and Dill) of their evolved selves. I'm not sure why she even included them in this draft, as they appear only as memory fragments.
  • Many reviews discuss Atticus' racism while ignoring Jean Louise's own racism. Perhaps she wasn't as flawed as Atticus, but she was no saint. As "the book we need," it is a better representation of the south during this era than To Kill a Mockingbird, because it showed the many layers of racism. Yes, Atticus and Jean Louise's love interest Hank were worse, but Scout too was racist. Although Jean Louise was horrified by the KKK and its ilk, she was just as horrified by school segregation and interracial marriage.  
I'm glad I read it if only because I'm a curious reader and wanted to form my own opinion (similar to why I read Twilight). But it's easy to see why Harper Lee's first editor advised her to take a different tack. 

Ultimately, this book disappoints because Jean Louise is an old-school Southerner through and through, in spite of the higher hopes the reader might have in the beginning and middle of the novel. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times, "The difference is that Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus."

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Here's one of the many values of book group for me: it makes me stick with novels that do not grab me immediately. Often, if I stick it out, they are worth it in the end. And so is the case with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

The main character, Rosemary Cooke, was hard for me to relate to, especially at first. She is reserved, private, and distanced from her family because of a tragedy in her childhood. As the book moves along, we eventually learn what that life-changing tragedy was.

Without giving too much away about the story, this book exposed a lot of disturbing facts about the animal testing industry, specifically about chimpanzees and other primates. I learned a great deal about what humans have done to our evolutionary predecessors, and it's not pretty. This book made for great, thought-provoking discussions at book group. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Blood

In the BloodIn the Blood, by Lisa Unger

This was my summer light read; I took it with me to Florida in August.

It was a psychological thriller about a troubled, hard-to-believe protagonist and psychopaths in her life. Perhaps too many coincidences and unlikely events, but if you can suspend belief, it's worth a read.

I would read more from this author.

Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast takes place shortly before the second world war ends, told from the perspective of Anna, a wealthy Prussian woman in love with Callum, a Scottish POW; Uri, a Jewish man on the run and in disguise; and a French Jewish woman in a concentration camp. Previously I knew very little about the Prussian people, and the story includes Anna's family's journey west to escape the invading Russians. Bohjalian always does such an excellent job portraying layers of complexity in his characters and situations, and this book is no different.

Some readers have balked at the violence and disturbing imagery in this book, but people, it was war. The Holocaust. A completely brutal time in our history. Based on a diary Bohjalian received from a friend whose grandmother grew up on a farm in East Prussia, the book addresses the dark side of Europe during the war...those who became Nazi party members and emulated Hitler while refusing to acknowledge what was really going on around them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rapture Practice

Rapture PracticeRapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler

Aaron Hartzler grew up in an extremely conservative, religious home, where just disagreeing with his parents was tantamount to being seduced by Satan. For example, one day the young, fashion-conscious Aaron wanted to go to church without wearing socks with his Sperry Topsiders (because that's what you do). His father commanded him to put socks on, and Aaron resisted...and thus ensued a huge power struggle, with his father pouring on the guilt and shame...over a lack of socks.

I had to laugh when I read that Aaron got in trouble at his conservative Christian school for singing a Sandi Patty song! She was popular back when I hung out with some evangelical Christians in college, but apparently she fell from grace after she got divorced and had an affair.

Aaron is gay, but as a child he didn't know that. He felt himself drawn to fashion, theater, and music...and he also felt himself desperately torn between wanting to please his parents and wanting to express himself, in spite of his strict evangelical upbringing.

I found myself getting really annoyed with his parents, who on one occasion told Aaron he couldn't be in his school play because he had pop music tapes in his car (or some such extreme infringement of their rules). The book ends before Aaron comes out to his parents, so we don't learn how they reacted to the news...but follow-up research indicates he's still in touch with them, so that's good.

My book group enjoyed this book, and many commented on how Aaron deeply loved his parents in spite of their deep religiosity and their strict demands on him.

I'm curious to read Part 2 of his memoir!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness

Still trying to catch up on my book reviews...this was my July book club selection.

Patrick Ness and Jim Kay collaborated on this illustrated novel based on an idea by novelist Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer. As Ness said in his author's note, "She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time."

A Monster Calls refers to the visits in young Conor's bedroom. Conor's mother is battling cancer, and as he and his family members struggle to adjust to her worsening condition, a huge yew tree outside of his bedroom comes to life and tells him a series of stories. "Stories are wild creatures," the monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

The monster is the only creature who's listening to Conor and speaking to him honestly. His father arrives from the U.S. for an incredibly brief visit and has created a new family where Conor doesn't have a place, and his parents skirt around the fact that his mother is dying. He's sent to stay with his grandmother, who is overly strict and controlling and doesn't seem to appreciate him. His classmates either bully him or pity him because of his sick mom. The monster's the only one who understands the fear and rage inside of his head.

My book group debated whether the monster was real or if it was all in Conor's head. I disagreed with a few others; I believe the monster was real. This is, after all, a young adult fantasy novel. The monster teaches Conor things no one else could. And helps him get in touch with feelings that he didn't know he had. We had an interesting conversation about the way our culture handles illness and dying, both in the U.S. and the UK, where the novel is based. People in the UK are much more likely to tamp down feelings and suppress them, and therapy is often not considered to be necessary. Stiff upper lip and all that!

A Monster Calls is a beautiful tale of loss and love. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo

I'd been wanting to read this book for awhile, but a friend suggested that my husband read it first...he bought it in Ashland on our 25th wedding anniversary trip, and it did seem to be a little bit life changing! Soon after we returned home, he went through his clothing and discarded several garbage bags full...including his rowing singlet (tank top) from the mid-1980s...which was in shreds. 

By the time I read the book and started my same process, I didn't discard as many items of clothing as he did, mostly because I'd stayed on top of the discarding process over the years...but I still ended up with two to three bags. It's hard to think about clothing items "sparking joy" when they don't fit you any more. In some cases, I found the experience to be depressing! Last week I went through my jewelry and got rid of 20 necklaces, 25 pairs of earrings, and 10 bracelets. 

Marie Kondo is a bit extreme in some of her methods, and she clearly does NOT have children...I expect our process to take a lot longer and be much more complicated than the expected six months. It's hard to imagine kitchen items, appliances, tools, household items, and books "sparking joy." But the process is a great guidelines...just needs to be taken with a LARGE dose of salt!

I'm looking forward to continuing the process...books next. And then tackling the huge mess that is our office. 

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault

Mary Magdalene was a prophet, a seer, a disciple to disciples. Great historical reclaiming of this amazing woman. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Paper Towns

Paper Towns, by John Green
My second John Green novel. I didn't enjoy it as much as The Fault in Our Stars, but it's a worthwhile read. I found it interesting to read a novel set in Orlando (unusual) since we made a trip there in August. I couldn't shake the image of Quentin and Margo sneaking into Sea World!

Orlando might not fit the definition of a real paper town (a fictitious place put on maps by map makers to prevent copyright infringement), but I think it's a fitting's a totally manufactured place, created for tourism and to make money. I was happy to get back to my beautiful hometown of Portland, Oregon!

Similar to Green's other novels, we have a smart, nerdy male character, Quentin, with a quirky male friend and a sort-of love interest, Margo Roth Spiegelman. Even the names are easily identifiable John Green choices! 

Margo was not incredibly likable, and I didn't really understand why she was drawn to her extremely poor choices in friends...she was clearly not shallow, but her friends are. Why didn't she hang out with Quentin instead?

This was an interesting journey she took them all on, and I'm glad to read that John Green has publicly expressed regret for using the word "retard" in this book. Even though it's used frequently in middle schools and high schools, as a huge mentor and hero to kids everywhere, he has the choice to take the higher road.

I look forward to reading more John oldest son particularly enjoyed Looking for Alaska.

The Secret of Shadow Ranch: My first Nancy Drew

The Secret of Shadow Ranch, by Carolyn Keene

Can you believe that I've never read a Nancy Drew book? This was my first! I read it because of this delightful little second grader--daughter of a close friend--who's obsessed with them at the moment.

I'm glad to be able to say I have read Nancy Drew--she was a plucky detective but she was awfully concerned with her looks and her friend's weight! But I understand that many of the original Nancy Drew books were rewritten in the 1950s to make her more feminine. I'd love to read the actual original story written in the 1930s. I understand that this book diverts from the usual Nancy Drew template because it's set in the desert, away from her home.

The other class "girl" novels I haven't read are Anne of Green Gables--maybe that's a goal for later in the year. I've been told by many that I would like them.

I gave my little friend Grace a copy of the first two "Boys Against Girls" books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, which I enjoyed with my boys. We'll see what she has to say about those!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Room, by Emma Donoghue

I'm desperately behind in my book reviews, so I'm having a hard time remembering the details of the forgive me for the brevity here.

I avoided this book for awhile, as I'd heard others talk about how difficult it was. I hadn't realized that Emma Donoghue had also written Slammerkin, one of my best books of 2005. Room is not as dark as many books I've read, so I'm not sure why I stayed away.

Room describes a mother's desperate love for her son and desire to protect him above all costs. "Ma" and Jack are in captivity for five years until she devises an escape plan. In the second half of the book, the two struggle to adapt to their new-found freedom. It illustrates power imbalance and violence against women.

Many readers dislike the simplified, child-like language Jack uses, and I agree that it is an odd choice. In my experience, only children tend to have more advanced vocabularies, not less advanced...and I would think this would be even more the case in this story, since Jack was Ma's only companion.

Being married to a Brit, I found a number of instances where British English snuck into a story supposedly set in the U.S.

But overall, I found this novel to be touching, thought provoking, and mesmerizing.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Queer and Pleasant Danger

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is TodayA Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today, by Kate Bornstein 

What a wild ride Kate Bornstein's life has been. Born and raised as a man, Bornstein's journey through scientology--including her marriage and fatherhood--seems stranger than fiction. As another reviewer wrote, "In the first six pages we learn that Kate is an anorexic Jewish sadomasochist lesbian transsexual woman with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and lots of tattoos and a bionic knee and borderline personality disorder, who writes porn and used to be in a cult and wants to be cremated when she dies and managed to dodge the Vietnam war through a psychiatric deferment, all of which is considerably more than I know about the majority of my friends."

Bornstein reveals more than we really want to know about her, and she does it in an endearing, disarming way...but I have to laugh when she says she's writing this book for her (estranged) granddaughter! What person would want to read about his or her grandparent's S&M adventures? I thought the scientology bits were interesting and eye-opening, and I have to admire Kate's gutsy spirit. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Did you know that 75 percent of us will not be able to make decision for ourselves when we reach the end of our lives?

This is such an important book! Physician Atul Gawande tackles the difficult questions of approaching death and how to maintain a life worth living at the end.

Combining medical information, anecdotes, and personal stories of his patients and his own family, Gawande prompts the reader to think about what is important in the end. It's the softer side--nursing home residents caring for animals and small children, or people on hospice clearly expressing to their family members what their quality of life means--that resonated the most with me.

The other day a new study came out, concluding that chemotherapy at end-stage cancer does not extend patients' lives and certainly not their quality of life. That's what this book is about.

This book made me want to have these discussions with my own parents, siblings, spouse, and children. I want to live my life fully all the way to the end.                  

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Residue Years

The Residue YearsThe Residue Years, by Mitchell S. Jackson

I always enjoy reading stories about my hometown or seeing it on film (e.g., Grimm), so that's what drew me to The Residue Years. Our local library system featured it for its "Everybody Reads" program.

But this book represents a different part of Portland than where I grew up (in the predominantly white suburbs). What makes it most interesting is that it's an autobiographical novel, based on the author's own life experiences.

DSC00848 copyGrace is a drug addict, even though she loves her children. She just can't escape the appeal of losing herself (and her troubles) in a haze. And Champ ends up selling drugs, largely because he sees so many people dealing around's the easiest way to make money.

It took me a few chapters to get into this book, but Jackson's writing is beautiful: “She’s been through fire and got a soft spot for folks that seen the flame.”

The Residue Years raises questions of class and privilege. If I had been born and raised in another part of Portland, perhaps to black parents, would I have faced similar obstacles in my path? Probably.

Jackson opens up our city to bring in different perspectives...some of them not always easy to see.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsThe Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

If you'd told me I'd finish this book with tears in my eyes, I never would have believed you. I am not an athlete and I know little about rowing only brush with rowing was when I was a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University, and a member of the crew team approached me in the cafeteria and asked if I'd be interested in becoming a coxswain. (I am only 5' tall.) I wonder how my life would have been different now if I'd said yes. But I am no athlete, and I doubt I could've stuck it out, after reading about the hard training these rowers have to endure.

Daniel James Brown spins a great tale, starting with the heartbreaking childhood of Joe Rantz, the primary protagonist of this book. He delves into the interesting lives of most of the crew team, as well as head coach Al Ulbrickson and shell (boat) builder, George Pocock. The 1936 University of Washington team mostly came from blue collar workers, in contrast to the more educated teams from the East Coast and California.

The Boys in the Boat takes us from the Dust Bowl to the building of the Hoover Dam, from Eton College in England to eastern Washington, from Seattle and Poughkeepsie to the way Hitler pulled the wool over so many people's eyes, including Avery Brundage. president of the IOC, who refused to believe mounting evidence about the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

It's an inspiring story of a small group of nine men, trained by highly driven and skilled coaches, who beat all the odds and build a perfect team together. Like a skilled novelist, Brown uses the technique of building a perfect boat out of Northwest cedar as an analogy for building a finely tuned crew team out of young men like Joe Rantz, who was a man of true resiliency against the odds:
"The result was that the boat as a whole was under subtle but continual tension caused by the unreleased compression in the skin, something like a drawn bow waiting to be released. This gave it a kind of liveliness, a tendency to spring forward on the catch of the oars in a way that no other design or material could duplicate.
To Pocock, this unflagging resilience--this readiness to bounce back, to keep coming, to persist in the face of resistance--was the magic in cedar, the unseen force that imparted life to the shell. And as far as he was concerned, a shell that did not have life in it was a shell that was unworthy of the young men who gave their hearts to the effort of moving it through the water."
I found this book to be moving and fascinating. The Gold Medal-winning Husky Clipper still survives--in fact, my alma mater appears in the book as it was lent to PLU in Tacoma in the 1960s. Now it's in Washington's Conibear Shellhouse.

A few weeks ago when we attended a Seattle Mariners' game, I saw a street named after Royal Brougham, the legendary columnist in the Seattle Post Intelligencer who chronicled the rise of this team. What an exciting story this was!

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary, by Brian Doyle
I got the delicious opportunity to hear author Brian Doyle in Seattle earlier this year. He entertained the packed audience at Seattle University by sharing his colorful writing, telling jokes and laugh-out-loud anecdotes, choking back tears, and entreating us to sing and cry along with him with his sometimes gut-wrenching words. Many of these uncommon prayers drew me in, and I decided to purchase the book.

A few weeks later I decided to use the prayers as my focus for the April A to Z Blogging Challenge. I wrote to Brian and asked his permission to share his writing, and he consented. Each day in April I featured one of these prayers...from homages to doctors, nurses, the pope, the Girl Scouts, IT professionals, proofreaders, and angry prayers at Osama Bin Laden and texting drivers...he celebrates the miracle and muddle of ordinary life in a most beautiful way.

Click the link above to read the uncommon prayers I chose to feature. Or if you'd like to learn more about Brian Doyle, check out this video of his appearance at Boston University a few years ago (where he addresses 9/11), and you'll get a flavor of why I liked him so much. The Daily Beast calls him "a writer to be ignored at your own peril."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pope Francis

Pope Francis: Untying the KnotsPope Francis: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely

As I wrote recently on my main blog, I recently heard journalist Paul Vallely at the Search for Meaning Book Festival in Seattle; he gave the keynote address. Pope Francis: Untying the Knots is the first in-depth book on Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Vallely wrote it after traveling to Argentina to interview those who knew him well and investigate the claims that the Pope did nothing to prevent the kidnapping and torture of two priests during the Dirty War.
I'm fascinated with Pope Francis' transformation as a young man: he began as an arrogant, dictatorial leader who was also extremely conservative.

Vallely gives great background and insights into the politics of Argentina and the Vatican. In his younger days, he spurned liberation theology (the attempt to interpret Scripture through the plight of the poor) and did indeed prevent the eventually kidnapped priests (who were working in the ghetto) from delivering communion. His detractors say this opened the door for the military junta to kidnap the priests. Vallely discovered that Francis worked valiantly to get them freed after they were kidnapped, and it seems that Francis now has regrets about what he did or did not do. And now not only has he embraced and celebrated liberation theology, but he has also made a huge step toward transparency: he's asked the Vatican to open up its archives on the Dirty War.

The key reason that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to become Pope is that Jesuits are called to be servants, not leaders. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyala, didn't even want them to be bishops. So that explains why Pope Francis is tackling the job in such an unusual, servant-like way. Being the Pope is like being royalty! He has spurned most of the trappings of Pope royalty, as we've heard since the Council of Cardinals elected him. From paying his own hotel, thinking that his Vatican apartments were way too big, and refusing to wear the fancy robes or read shoes, to washing the feet of the poor, female, and underprivileged, he prefers to be a servant rather than a Catholic king.

Francis views God in a clearly different way than previous popes and many priests...that God is grounded in mercy:
"Mercy, this word changes everything. It is the best word we can hear: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just... The Lord never gets tired of forgiving; it is we that get tired of asking forgiveness." 
Vallely explores why Bergoglio chose the papal name of Francis.
"Francis is more than a name--it's a plan," said Leonardo Boff, founding father of liberation theology. "It's a plan for a poor Church, one that is close to the people, gospel-centred, loving and protective towards nature which is being devastated today. Saint Francis is the archetype of that type of Church." 
In recent days, Pope Francis continues to promote justice, make waves, and anger conservatives by declaring the gender age gap "a scandal" and preparing to release an encyclical on climate change. Although today Frank Bruni wrote about the absurdity of the Pope's statement in the New York Times that the Vatican's "own kitchen is much too messy for them to call out the ketchup smudges in anybody else’s."
Bruni went on, "He left out the part about women in the Roman Catholic Church not even getting a shot at equal work. Pay isn’t the primary issue when you’re barred from certain positions and profoundly underrepresented in others...For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality."
But still, it's progress given the glacial pace of the Catholic church, and it's angering conservatives who would vastly prefer the church to remain frozen to any kind of progression.

Human rights lawyer Alicia Oliveira, Pope Francis' close friend for 40 years (who died in 2014), said about the Pope:
"He tells me he's having a great time. Every time I speak to him I tell him, 'Be careful Jorge, because the Borgias are still there in the Vatican.' He laughs and says he knows. But he's very, very, very happy. He's having fun with all the people in the Vatican telling him he can't do things--and then doing them."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Circle

The Circle, by Dave Eggers
The CircleAn excellent choice for a book group discussion, The Circle is like a 1984, updated to the Internet age.

Young Mae Holland is thrilled to land a job at The Circle, which is like a combination Facebook/Google...a company for the cool kids. As a main character, she falls a little flat. She's unlikable and no reader could affirm the choices she makes in her life, especially as the story progresses. She is completely desperate for attention and selfish.

But this book is not so much about character development as it is biting satire and a parable for our like-and-tweet-obsessed, voyeuristic culture. As each of The Circle's projects are unveiled, what initially sounds like a good, democratic, society-improving idea turns out to be creepy and sinister, reducing any shred of privacy we have left. Life = work, and work = life. And nothing is secret any more, anywhere.

This book made me question the time I spend on the Internet and how I too have gotten sucked into wanting "likes" or shares. It's about our need for instant gratification, coupled with our desire to know everything about everyone. Sinister and thought-provoking. I recommend it.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire (Code Name Verity, #2)Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

By the author of my #1 favorite last year Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is another novel set in World War II illustrating soul-deep friendships among women. One of the main characters in Code Name Verity appears in Rose Under Fire, but as more of a minor character.

Rose is an American ATA pilot and poet who gets captured by the Nazis and deposited in Ravensbruck, where she befriends Russian, French, and Polish women. She is especially drawn to the "Rabbits," the Polish women who were the subjects of the Nazis' horrific medical experiments.

It's the kind of book that makes you wonder what you would do if you were in similar, horrifying circumstances.

This book focuses more on the Christians and political prisoners in the concentration camps and not as much on the genocide of the Jews...a story that is not as likely to be told.

I didn't love it as much as Code Name Verity, but that book set a high bar...and like that other book, I stayed up into the wee hours to finish it. That is truly the sign of an excellent book!

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

The Lost Memoirs of Jane AustenThe Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, by Syrie James

Jane Austen imitators abound, especially in recent years, and I am a bit of a snob about them. I found Death Comes to Pemberley by the great P.D. James to be disappointing, for example. So I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.

I've always enjoyed epistolary novels, so that helps. This book purports to be Austen's lost memoirs and tells about her unrequited great romance. I enjoyed the way she described her close relationship with her sister Cassandra and also her independence.

Based on what actually happened, Syrie James fills in the gaps and takes literary license to create a suitor for the intelligent and lively Jane. I recommend it for Jane Austen lovers!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Believing Cassandra

Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World, by Alan AtKisson

As a sustainability communicator, I'm glad I read this book at last. It came highly recommended from my friend and our company's sustainability director. Even though I read the first edition (published several years ago), the concepts are ever fresh.

Alan AtKisson is a true optimist at heart. He reminds us about the Greek myth about Cassandra, who was blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed because no one would believe the truth she had to share. Can you imagine how that would feel?

And that is the essence of how we need to communicate about the perils facing our planet. When we preach doom and gloom, it's easy for people to turn us off and believe that nothing they can do can possibly help (I often find myself feeling the same way!).

AtKisson has been working in sustainability since 1988 and in 2013 he was inducted into the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Believing Cassandra was his first book, in which he shares how he got into the field along with personal stories of his life's journey, interspersed with data and anecdotes about what people are doing around the world to combat climate change.

His aim is to give hope, and for all of us to find a way to be optimistic about the challenges facing our world. He urges us to break Cassandra's curse by giving people a reason to hope instead of letting the doomsayers take over the messaging. Because if that happens, no one will listen.

This book has already helped me transform my thinking about how to communicate about sustainability, especially to those people who are unconvinced of the need to turn the tide.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Glass Castle

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I first read The Glass Castle soon after it was published in 2006, but as I wrote in my review for another of Walls' books, Half Broke Horses, my book group chose it for March. I loved Half Broke Horses so much that I decided to read The Glass Castle once again!

The story opens with Walls, aged 3, starting a kitchen fire and getting third-degree burns because she was cooking hot dogs and her dress caught fire. At age 3. Hospitalized for several weeks, her parents take her out of the hospital before she has fully healed and has been discharged. And she's right back to cooking hot dogs at the stove, because that's what her parents tell her to do.

Rose Mary Walls (Jeannette's mother) had been raised to be independent, but she took that to an entirely different level. Probably bipolar, Rose Mary wanted to spend all her time making art, not raising children. So the children had to raise themselves. They didn't get groceries for weeks at a time...because Jeannette's dad Rex drank away any money they had, and Rose Mary couldn't be bothered to find a way to feed the kids.

Nomads and rebels, Jeannette's parents took their kids all around the country, and they would flee towns in the middle of the night when her parents were unable to pay their debts. They slept in cardboard boxes and peed and pooped in a hole in the ground until it overflowed.

This book has so many shocking's unfathomable that her parents would think how they raised their children was okay...but alcoholism and mental illness will do that. All three of the Walls children got out as soon as they could.

Now Walls' mother lives on her property in Virginia (you can get a glimpse of her mom in this youtube video). She is a hoarder, to no one's surprise. Even though her parents provided very little stability in her life, it's clear that Jeannette had a deep, complicated love for both of them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Half Broke Horses

Half Broke HorsesHalf Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

My book group selected The Glass Castle for March, and since I had read that book many years ago, I decided to read Half Broke Horses instead.

I loved this true-life novel/biography of Walls' spitfire grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, born in 1903, who was a "mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino County, and it wasn't half bad to be in place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that.”

The book opens with a flash flood, and Lily helps save her younger brother and sister by having them all climb into a tree and clinging to the branches overnight, for dear life, while everything around them is awash in water.

When they wade home through the water the next day, her mom sinks to her knees, thanking their guardian angel for saving them. The way Lily saw it, she was the one who'd saved them:
"There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them. Dad squeezed my shoulder. "Well, darling," he said, "maybe the angel was you."
As an oldest child, this story resonated with me immediately. In crisis as a child, I too rose to the occasion.

Lily was not your typical girl child. She worked side by side with her ranch-running dad, breaking and training the horses. When she was 15, she took off on her horse, solo, for a 30-day journey to Arizona, where she'd landed a job as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, even though she'd hardly had any formal schooling herself. (She spent a wonderful semester in a Catholic school, where she thrived, until her dad spent the tuition money to buy some dogs imported from Europe, which were soon shot by a neighbor.)
“Since Mom wasn't exactly the most useful person in the world, one lesson I learned at an early age was how to get things done, and this was a source of both amazement and concern for Mom, who considered my behavior unladylike but also counted on me. 'I never knew a girl to have such gumption,' she'd say. 'But I'm not too sure it's a good thing.'”  
Lily drove cars and flew planes, and she worked her fingers to the bone, carrying two jobs when she needed to, running a ranch and teaching in her spare time.
“Teaching is a calling too. And I've always thought that teachers in their way are holy - angels leading their flocks out of the darkness.” 
The irony of reading about her hard work was not lost on me one day, when all I wanted to do was lie in bed reading this book!
“It was good work, the kind of work that let you sleep soundly at night and, when you awoke, look forward to the day.” 
During the depression she sold moonshine out their back door (keeping it hidden under the baby's crib) to save their ranch.
“You can't prepare for everything life's going to throw at you. And you can't avoid danger. It's there. The world is a dangerous place, and if you sit around wringing your hands about it, you'll out on all the adventure.” 
She taught in a polygamist community and taught them about Amelia Earhart and women's suffrage. Soon she received a visit from the polygamist elder, who directed her to stop teaching these things to the children. She refused, and the next time he paid a visit, she prepared for it with her rifle. Of course, her contract wasn't renewed the next year, but it was the children's loss. She stuck to her principles and stood up for justice everywhere, always characteristics I admire!

She raised two children, one of whom was Rosemary Smith Walls, Jeanette Walls' memorable mother.
“God deals us all different hands. How we play 'em is up to us.”
Lily was not a fan of Rex Walls, Jeanette's ne'er-do-well, alcoholic husband, but she knew she couldn't stand in her daughter's way. Lily believed in encouraging independence, resilience, and spit and vinegar in her children, a tradition Rosemary carried to an entirely new (crazy) level in her own child rearing.

I loved this book and I would have loved to meet Lily Casey Smith. What a great American hero. This book has been described as Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, so true for me! Of course, after I finished it, I had to re-read The Glass Castle.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Evil at Heart (Gretchen Lowell Series)

Evil at HeartEvil at Heart, by Chelsea Cain

I read these books because they're set in Portland and I got the privilege of hearing Chelsea Cain speak in 2010. I read Evil at Heart when I flew to Denver for a business trip--it was a great airplane read!

Gretchen Lowell is an evil serial killer on the loose, and Oregonians are apparently obsessed with her. Now of course I agree about the insidious influence of sensational media on citizens, but this seemed a bit over the top to me. I have to hope that if Gretchen Lowell were really a true character, she wouldn't have hundreds of admirers and fan clubs.

If you can suspend reality, it's a thrilling read. I will wait a few years before reading the next one's a bit too light--and violent--for my regular tastes!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Animal DreamsAnimal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver

I first read Animal Dreams soon after it was published in the early 1990s, but I reread it in February for my book group. Kingsolver masterfully writes colorful characters; the plot in Animal Dreams is secondary to characters and setting.

It's a story packed with community, redemption, ecological justice, family, and sisterhood...strong women and deep female relationships.

When I read this book initially, I did not have three boys...and now I do. I could relate so much to Emilina, Codi's friend who has multiple boys. And the storyline with Codi's sister Hallie recalled that horrible separation scene in The Color Purple between Celie and her beloved sister Nettie.

It takes a little while to get drawn in, but it's a beautiful novel, well worth the effort!

Prime Time

Prime Time: Love, Health, Sex, Fitness, Friendship, Spirit: Making the Most of All of Your LifePrime Time, by Jane Fonda

The ageless Jane Fonda breaks our lives into three acts, and she focuses most of this book on Act III. Weaving her personal life stories with strong research and tips on aging, food, fitness, friendship, love, and sex, Fonda recommends that we each perform a life review--especially while our elders are still alive so we can interview them--to better understand where we've come from and where we're going.

I must confess that I finished this book several weeks ago and forget much about it, but I made a few notes. Here are some highlights that stood out for me:

  • The importance of education, no matter your age. For every added year of education, you'll add one year to your life expectancy, according to the Stanford Center on Longevity.
  • "Girls' voices go underground at adolescence, whereas boys' hearts go underground when they are around five or six years old." (Lest you are of the opinion that Jane Fonda is a man-hater, she addresses the very real challenges men face, as well as women.)
  • The importance of resilience, which can be even more important than what happens to you.
  • The concept of a fertile void: For women in midlife, the void is fertile because we are becoming midwives to our new selves.
  • An aging brain just works differently, not less effectively. As we age and lose our crystal-clear memory, it's actually "judicious pruning." Dr. George Vailliant, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, likens the aging memory to "an attic that has filled up carelessly over the decades but now, with age, we clean it out and select only the most cherished, meaningful items to keep."
  • Fonda's experience among the early feminists, making her realize the power and beauty of female friendship, while burning "away my individualistic dross and allowing the pure gold of friendships to enrich and cushion me...I often think how different, how frightening, aging would be for me had this not happened...I know that I can lose everything but that my friendships with women, together with my family, will always be there, no matter what." (Fonda talks at length about the value of her friendships, which resonated me.)
  • Women over 85 are the fastest growing age group in the world!
Fonda has two chapters focused on sex during aging, with some particularly interesting information! She also discusses spirituality and shares her experience of going on a meditation retreat, trying to quiet her mind.

In the end, a well-worth-it read on aging for women!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Keeping the House

Keeping the House
Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker

Each chapter in Ellen Baker's novel begins with an excerpt from a 1950s homemaking guide...about how women can keep their husbands happy. The central theme of Keeping the House is the pressure to be perfect that women faced in the early to mid-1900s.

Told through the lens of Dolly Magnuson, a homemaker who moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin in 1950 without any friends in the area, the book goes back to the late 1800s when Dolly begins visiting an abandoned mansion and uncovers the secrets of the family who inhabited it.

Dolly's unhappy in her marriage, just as Wilma Mickelson, the matriarch of the great house, was unhappy in hers. They also both feel stifled by the provincial attitudes of the people in the town. This sweeping novel illustrates the pressures women faced, trying to create a perfect house while sacrificing their own needs. It's homemaking before feminism.

I enjoyed the frequent references to Lutherans in Wisconsin. It was worth the read!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best books of 2014

Here are the best books I read in 2014. Click the title to read my review. They are listed in approximate order of how much I liked them (#1 being the best). I'd love to hear what you thought of any of these books. If you've read any, please leave me a comment.

You can also refer to my best books lists back to 2001 here. Enjoy! This is cross-posted in Every Day Is a Miracle.


1. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
2. My Notorious Life, Kate Manning
3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
4. The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie
6. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
7. Word Nerd, Susin Nielsen
8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
9. The Ayah’s Tale, Sujata Massey
10. The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
11. The Weight of Silence, Heather Gudenkauf
12. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
13. The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
14. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
15. After Eli, Rebecca Rupp
16. Lean On Pete, Willy Vlautin
17. What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty
18. We Are Water, Wally Lamb
19. Body Work, Sara Paretsky
20. My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, Paula J. Freedman
21. The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
22. The Hundred-Foot Journey, Richard Morais


2. I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai 
4. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
5. My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor
8. God Is Disapointed in You, Mark Russell (still reading)
9. Believing Cassandra: Getting Beyond the End of the World, Alan AtKisson (still reading)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Kizuna Coast

The Kizuna Coast (Rei Shimura Mystery, #11)The Kizuna Coast, by Sujata Massey

Hooray! Rei Shimura is back!

I've been reading Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura detective series since the late 1990s, captivated by these books because the main protagonist is a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective, living and working in Japan. I still remember my joy in first discovering this series! Sujata Massey is part Indian, part German, like a friend of mine, and lived in Japan for several years.

A fascinating character who I've always felt I could relate to more than most detectives, Rei Shimura led me through ten adventures, mostly set in Japan, before she retired in 2008 to live with her new husband Michael in Hawaii (Shimura Trouble). You can find the other Rei Shimura titles in chronological order on Sujata Massey's Web site, in case you want to start at the beginning (which I always prefer to do). It was a little odd, reading this one, because Rei had aged only a few years even though the series spans over 17 years, but I understand why Massey chose to keep her young.

Since Rei Shimura retired (and I sadly accepted there would be no more books in the series), I've begun following Sujata Massey online and became Facebook friends with her. She is delightful, and we have much in common (including the fact that we both turned 50 in 2014). I hope to meet her in person one day.

Fortunately, she's continued to stay busy, last year publishing The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel set in India, which was my second-top pick for fiction in 2013. (My parents' book group recently read The Sleeping Dictionary on my recommendation, and it was a popular pick!) She also published a beautiful little novella, The Ayah's Tale, about the relationship between an Indian ayah and the English children under her care.

My first week in Japan, befriending the neighbor kids, Fall 1986
But back to The Kizuna Coast! I was supremely lucky to be able to read an Advanced Reader Copy of this soon-to-be-published novel, which will be out in February.

I could relate so well to Rei Shimura's great angst when she saw news coverage of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even though I don't have relatives in Japan, it's where I met my husband and spent three of the most adventurous years of my life, and I have so many fond memories of the kindness of so many Japanese people. During those first few harrowing days, I was glued to the Internet and couldn't keep myself from watching that devastating wave destroy whole heart ached for Japan.

Soon after the tsunami hit, Rei's mentor Mr. Ishida calls her, asking for help. She gets to Japan as soon as she can and gets embroiled in a find out what happened to Mr. Ishida's young apprentice, Mayumi, who has disappeared. She goes to Tohoku as part of a relief effort and is touched by people who have lost their loved ones and livelihoods. She experiences  絆 (kizuna, or bonds of love), which the Japanese show for each other during this difficult period. The Japanese public chose as the kanji of 2011 after they witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of assistance after the earthquake and tsunami. 

While not as literary as her last book (The Sleeping Dictionary), The Kizuna Coast was a quicker read and compelling just the same. Rei Shimura remains cemented as my favorite detective series, and I hope the series continues.

I'm so glad Rei is back! I read this book over the Christmas holidays while I had family visiting from England and Australia, and it was hard to put down. The only other book I've read about the Japanese tsunami was Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, which was my top fiction pick last year. I would love to read more, and I hope one day to return to Japan myself. In the meantime, I'm grateful that my favorite authors are making the trips, doing the research, and telling the stories themselves.