Friday, May 8, 2020

What I read in April 2020

Life continues as normal. Well, the new normal. Well, not necessarily normal, because I'm eating more junk food and actually craving fresh air for about the first time in my life. I'm hearing that I'll be working from home this summer, too--that is, if we're not furloughed. But I don't feel unsettled by the uncertainty. Working from home was always one of my dearest wishes, and it's come true. And I know that God supplies what we need.

Reading has been good this month. I hit the 50 books read mark this month, so I'm on track with my goal of 150 books this year. When I looked over the books I read this month, although ten of the fourteen received four or five stars, there's only one I would add to my favorites list.

A couple of years ago I watched the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and absolutely loved it. When the ebook came up on a sale a few months ago, I bought it right away. First, I have to say that the movie and book are nothing at all alike; I think they only share character names and not much else. But they do share a feeling that is hard to describe. But regardless of the dissimilarities, I love them both so much. The book is a rather contemplative character study of Mrs. Miniver, an upper-middle class wife and mother in England at the cusp of World War II. Each chapter is a short look into some part of Mrs. Miniver's daily life. What makes the book so stunning is the insight with which it's written. You'll see a part of yourself in Mrs. Miniver and her predilection for introspection. The tone of the novel, too, was perfect. Her world, as the current world situation, is uncertain and sometimes frightening, but her quiet strength and focus on home and family is what we're all experiencing now. She's also unfailingly optimistic. Give Mrs. Miniver a chance. You will be charmed by her. (And don't miss the movie!) My rating: 5 stars.

After reading the fourth Maisie Dobbs book in February (read my review here), I was eager to read the fifth, An Incomplete Revenge. In this book, Maisie is asked to look into the strange acts of vandalism and small home fires in an English village before her client buys property there. What she finds is a web of secrecy to unwind. Who's been causing the problems in the area--Roma gypsies, the nasty estate owner, the outsiders who flock to the village at this time of year, ghosts? Her investigation coincides with the hops harvest, which is interesting in and of itself. (On a side note, Mrs. Miniver, too, had a hops harvest scene.) While this wasn't one of my favorite Maisie stories, owing to the nature of the "crime" and the gypsy subplot, it was, as always, well written. And in this one Maisie must say a final goodbye to someone dear to her and repair another relationship before it's too late. I always end up loving the Maisie's life bits more than the main plot. My rating: 4 stars.

One of the books I brought home from the library before we closed indefinitely was the new children's nonfiction book Everest about the first pair to summit Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. This one is perfect for your little explorers, as it's full of facts and interesting illustrations to bring you along on the adventure. My favorite piece of information? Both Hillary's son and Norgay's son eventually summitted the mountain themselves! My rating: 4 stars.

Tembi Locke's From Scratch has been on my TBR since it came out a year ago. I was able to buy a cheap audio CD copy, so that's how I finally read it. Going in, I only knew that it was about an African American woman (she's a successful actress, though I don't know her work) who marries a Sicilian man. What isn't made terribly clear is that it's a widow's memoir, a woman going over her twenty-year marriage to a man she adored. When they married, his traditional Sicilian family was opposed to the match, and it took many years to reconcile. Along the way, the couple builds a life, raises an adopted daughter, and goes through the ordeal of his cancer diagnosis. When the husband, Saro, dies, Tembi and her daughter return to Sicily several times to feel the connection of his past and their extended family. Had I known so much of the book was about dying and death, I would have forgone reading it. I'm also not really one for sentimental love stories, and while this wasn't terribly syrupy, it was personal in a way that wasn't particularly interesting to me. She refers to their fantastic sex a lot, and I have to say that a couple's sex life is the least interesting part of a couple's marriage to me. Overall, though, if you like romance books, this would be a good real (though sad) romance. The audio is good, and it's narrated by the author (although I do wish she's look up how to pronounce the word "salve"). My rating: 3 stars.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's My Beloved World is a re-read for me. It was every bit as good as my first reading. This time I listened to the audio version, read by Rita Moreno, and it was very good. Instead of writing a full review, I'll refer you to my previous review. My rating: 4 stars.

I was feeling the need for a little poetry lately, so I picked up a copy of Billy Collins's Nine Horses, one of his older books that I haven't read yet. It was old enough that I was familiar with many of the poems in it, which I love in a poetry book. This is one of my favorites of Collins's work, and I highly recommend it. My rating: 5 stars.

Other than eliminating my access to audiobooks, the public library's closure (no curb-side pick-up for us) has meant no access to my nightly reads, usually decorating books, poetry, children's books, and cookbooks, things I often try from the library, and if I like them, I buy for myself. But this is also a blessing, because I have the perfect opportunity to re-read some old favorites. So I picked up Pioneer Woman's first cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl (2009). It was such a fun trip back in time. Mostly, I was reconnected with recipes I've wanted to try for several years now: Iny's Prune Cake, Penne alla Betsy, and Chocolate Sheet Cake. This re-read made me want to immediately begin another PW cookbook, especially since Amazon does not think that mailing the latest Joanna Gaines cookbook, which I purchased April 8, should have any kind of priority. (Tell me why liquor stores are considered essential business but online books are not. It's not like they have any Lysol spray to mail out anyway!) Innywho. Suffice it to say, I love this cookbook as much as her others and as much on the second reading as the first. My rating: 5 stars.

I was an Ann Patchett holdout for a long time. I kept hearing how good her books were, but when I tired her nonfiction book on marriage and was so disappointed I'd written her off. But I'm here to say her fiction is better than I found her nonfiction. The Dutch House was fabulous. And State of Wonder was quite good, too. I listened to this on audio, and that was a good way to go for me (especially since I can only find paperback copies of this book, and the print is so tiny). Patchett's gift is in writing fascinating stories with characters that are always a bit aloof from the reader but still knowable. In this book, a pharmaceutical research scientist is sent to the Brazilian rainforest to check on the progress of another scientist, as well as investigate the death of the last person the company sent to check on the scientist's progress. In the process,  many wonderous things are revealed to her. In a less gifted author's hands, this plot would have been woefully bungled, but Patchett was able to weave all the threads into something wonderful. While the plot summary may not interest you, I'd advise against writing it off, as the journey of this one, the unfolding of the plot, is what makes it good. My rating: 4 stars.

Okay, I just have to say it. I'm always skeptical when the famous (and the children of the famous) decide to start giving the country reading recommendations. Oprah has been doing it for years, and she kind of has a knack for it (though I don't always enjoy her selections). Reese Witherspoon is doing it, and although I think Reese is adorable, she's rather hit or miss with recommendation, in my opinion (my favorites are Daisy Jones and the Six, The Library Book, The Giver of Stars, and Little Fires Everywhere), but so many others left me cold or uninterested). But Jenna Bush Hager consistently surprises me by selecting things that aren't necessarily mainstream fiction and nonfiction. I'm intrigued by so many of her titles that her book club pics are close to becoming an automatic buy; they are at least an "automatic consider." The Dearly Beloved has some of my favorite elements, a slow plot, well-fleshed characters, and a deep, introspective quality. Anne Bogel says this is not a book about faith, but it most certainly is. The trouble is, I'm not sure the author knows that it is. It almost felt like the book wanted to explore faith in a deeper and more complete way, but the author kept wanting to make it about social advocacy. This is the story of two couples in the 1950s-1960s. The husbands are both clergymen asked to co-pastor at the same church. One is more traditional and experiences a crisis of faith. The other isn't sure if he believes or not, but he uses the pulpit to address social injustice. There isn't a lot more plot than that, but that doesn't matter because it's enough. The trouble is, as deep as the book goes, it could have gone so much deeper. If you like contemplative historical fiction and themes of faith and tradition vs. progressivism, this is a good one for you. My rating: 4 stars.

When Charles Krauthammer passed in the summer of 2018, conservatism in America lost a guiding light. While I wasn't smart enough to understand more than a quarter of what he said, and while I sometimes disagreed with him (he didn't seem to appreciate President Trump's foreign policy, for instance), he was a lion among men. I read his first book, Things That Matter, when it came out (read my review here), and when his second, The Point of It All, came out posthumously, I kind of assumed I would not even try it. I prefer nonfiction with a little more personal connection and seldom settle in for a book about straight politics (or theology or science). I enjoy intellectually rigorous books, but I do like it packaged in a certain way, and his first book wasn't quite that. But something, and I can't remember what, made me re-think that recently and buy a copy of the second book. I got the feeling that it was more personal than his previous book, and since it was edited by his son, Daniel, I knew it would still be true to Charles's vision of his work and life. I did find this book a little more palatable, though, true to form, my favorite parts were the personal essays and the wonderful and touching introduction and eulogy by Daniel, who is very much his father's (beloved) son. There were a number of essays on medical ethics (stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia), liberty, and domestic and foreign policy. The essays, generally just a few pages long, are previously published newspaper columns, ranging from about 1985 to 2018. The man's intellect was astonishing, and yet his thoughts were always exceedingly clear and articulate, and even when I wasn't interested in the topic of a particular essay, I was always fascinated to see the argument coming together, to see what he included and what he didn't and how the two made the scales even. It's a remarkable thing to know you're in the hands of a genius, and these books put you there. My rating: 4 stars.

I had heard such wonderful things about Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. It has fantastic ratings on Amazon, and Anne Bogel is always extoling the virtues of it. I had enjoyed her Once upon a River (read my review here) so much that I just knew I'd love her earlier book. But I really, really didn't. I have a low tolerance for fantasy in books, and this one was just too fantastical for me. I also didn't care for the main character, and I hated the "crusty older woman telling her story at last to a young journalist" structure. So many folks love this one, so I won't go on about why I didn't. And to tell you the truth, my desire to will myself to forget it is so successful, I've almost forgotten what it's about. I will give it this: it's a story well told. So if you like fantasy and dark elements, and you don't need lovable characters (or find the non-loveable loveable), you'll probably love this one. It's not bad, it's just not for me. My rating: 3 stars.

I listened to the ninth book in Jan Karon's Mitford series, Light from Heaven, and it was wonderful. The books, even upon completion, all blend together, so I'm having trouble even remembering what happened in this one, but it doesn't matter. Best read in order, they just flow into each other, and I wish I'd never get to the end of them. My rating: 4 stars.

I was really looking forward to reading Anne Glenconner's memoir about her days as lady in waiting to Princess Margaret (the Queen's sister), called, appropriately, Lady in Waiting. I was expecting a story of dignity, punctuated with by little bit of Princess Margaret's naughtiness, as well as a good dose of royal drama, pomp, and pompousness. But that isn't what this is at all. This is less about the royals and more about Lady Glenconner's tumultuous life. Married to a philandering weirdo (sorry, there's no other word for the oddness of this man's behavior), with children who elevated family drama to a new tier, this was very much a story of the degradation of the English aristocracy. It kind of turned my stomach. It you're looking for stories about the royal family, you won't find much (other than a wonderful description of the Queen's coronation--Lady Glenconner was an attendant in the procession). This is more a story of family drama, and if you like stories of family dysfunction, this one's for you. My rating: 3 stars.

I was so looking forward to Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, ever since I read about it in 1,000 Books to Read.... This is the first-hand account of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. Because the book is 600 pages long, I bought the audio version of this to listen to. I was sorely disappointed. I think this would have been a better experience for me had I read the book--but only marginally. I had a very hard time following the action, and I constantly wondered do I have these CDs out of order? The book doesn't seem to be told chronologically, and I had a really hard time following it at all. At one point a man's death was described and then a few hours later he was alive again participating in the story. I was so confused by the telling. I can't give you one concrete fact about his adventure nor the people involved. It was never disclosed in the beginning of the book why they had even set out on the journey! I feel really stupid writing this review, because I can't believe all things that seemed to be wrong with the book really were wrong--at least part of it must be me, but I was absolutely flummoxed by the whole experience. Still, it was something to listen to, and the book was written in such an overwhelmingly positive way though the journey was tragic. That was remarkable. My rating: 3 stars (because it must be my fault...).


Monday, April 13, 2020

What I read in March 2020

Forgive the long silence, folks. I can't explain it. Although the last few weeks have been exceptional, I don't think that's really why I haven't posted. I think I'm feeling blog burnout and review fatigue. But I have read some wonderful books this month that I wanted to share.

But first, a few words about what life looks like these days. Wisconsin is under a "safer at home" order (basically, shelter in place), and my household is taking it seriously. We leave the house once every two weeks to stock up on groceries for us and for our son's family, but otherwise, we don't leave the house. We're both blessed with jobs that we can do from home, and not a day goes by we don't thank God for that. But frankly, other than working from home and not eating out at all, our lives haven't changed much. We never go too far from home and we are careful budgeters of our time. And to tell the truth, we're not very social people; we're happiest at home, together. So while the whole world is going crazy over the woes of social distancing, I'm having a wonderful Introvert's Holiday. Not only do I not want to go out, I'm not allowed to. It's wonderful. Anyone else out there who feels the same?

My main issue with all the closures has been the lack of audiobooks. I stopped by the public library on March 17 to pick up my audio holds, as I had a hunch they'd be closing indefinitely (they announced the decision after they'd closed, presumably to limit contact), so I stocked up. Or at least I thought I did. I finished my last audiobook on April 1. I have not been able to get Overdrive to work, and their website is sort of useless for troubleshooting, and Audible isn't a feasible option for someone who listens to as many audiobooks each month as I do, so I resorted to buying audiobooks on CD (my preferred method of listening) from Amazon. I figured we're saving a lot of money these days, why not stroke the economy a bit with an online purchase. What can I say, desperate times call for desperate measures.


So, just like the last couple of months, I'll write full reviews for my favorite books read this month and shorter reviews for the others.

I'm a big fan of Rick Bragg. One of the biggest books of the 1990s was his All Over But the Shoutin', a beautiful, tough memoir about growing up poor in the South with an alcoholic father who frequently abandoned his family leaving his wife to take care of their three boys by picking cotton. Bragg is a natural storyteller and beautiful writer, and he's frequently funny as heck. His newest book, The Best Cook in the World, continues the wonderful stories he told about his mother and family in his first book. Although poor, this family, going back several generations, were serious about cooking. Their food was southern and simple, and his mother insists that it be done right. She has opinions and rules for all things culinary, and if you disagree or do it differently, you're a philistines. Or worse. This book, clocking in at just under 500 pages, is part memoir, part biography of his mother, and part cookbook, and it was all my favorite things. Bragg tells his family history with stories and recipes (recipes are stories, he posits), and the instructional portion of the recipes are peppered with his mother's explanations, or, in most cases, lack of explanations. When asked how long to bake something, she might say, "Until it's done!" Bragg will prod a bit, "Yes, but can you give an approximate time?" "Well how would I know how their oven works?! Bake it til it's done!" This is a wonderful, wonderful book, and I enjoyed every minute of reading it. What struck me most about the recipes were the short, simple ingredient lists. All told, the recipes in the book used only the following ingredients: pork, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, bologna, bacon fat, mayo, flour, salt, pepper, and the occasional brick of government cheese. It's amazing the things you can whip up with only those ingredients. If you enjoy food memoirs, you'll want to read this one. It's wonderful. My rating: 5 stars.

Sometimes you find books at just the right time. Chalk The Great Halifax Explosion up as one of those. This was one of the audio books I picked up before the public library closed, and I enjoyed it immeasurably. The telling of the true World War I-era tragedy of the explosion of a ship carrying 3,000 tons of explosive material exploding in the Halifax harbor, vaporizing the ship in less than a second and killing 11,000. It was the largest explosion the world had ever seen, surpassed only by the atom bombs of World War II. This is a fascinating story well-told. I enjoyed it more than Erik Larson's Dead Wake, which is similar in subject matter. The audio was very good, too. What struck me about this book, especially at this point in human history, was how everyone came together after this terrible tragedy. It's what we're seeing play out this month all around the world, people coming together to lend aid and uplift spirits. If you're looking for a true story of tragedy with a lot of heart, I don't think you'll be disappointed. My rating: 4 stars.

I was lucky to have my audio hold on The Splendid and the Vile come up just before the library closed down. Like The Great Halifax Explosion, it was a great book to be reading while the world seems to be reeling. This is the story of Winston Churchill and Londoners' weathering of the aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. It too, felt familiar, as waves of bombs fell on London in the book, waves of panic and infection fell over the world in real time. A couple of things struck me about this book. First, and this strikes me about every book about the Homefront, whether American or English, during World War II, was how naturally and seamlessly people came together. There are a few times in recent human history where folks have united like this: the World Wars, 9/11 in America, and, I think, this pandemic belief we are currently in the grips of. Second, I was struck by how much "wooing" Churchill did of President Roosevelt. England needed America to turn the tide of the war or the world might very well be lost to the ideals of Nazism. It was a desperate time, but Americans weren't terribly interested in entering another world war. They very much wanted to sit this one out. In general, I enjoy Erik Larson's books, though I do enjoy some more than others (he-hem), but this one is near the top of the list. It told about one small slice of English history, and it did it well. I recommend it highly. My rating: 4 stars.

I was a little surprised, and dare I say, disappointed, in the latest (fifth) installment in the Kopp Sisters series. In Kopp Sisters on the March, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, are off to a National Service School, a military-style training school for women in the days leading up World War I. The school was meant to train young women for nursing, seamstress work, typing, and other female-oriented tasks associated with war. My disappointment with the book lies in the fact that the Kopp sisters were secondary to a new character, Beulah Binford, a young woman (based on the real Beulah Binford) trying to work her way out of a disgraced life. I could have done with less Beulah and more Constance. Still, I enjoyed the book, and I look forward to the sixth book, coming out this fall. My rating: 4 stars.

I finally read the seventh and last book in the Clementine series, Completely Clementine. It was a wonderful as the others, but it sure was sad to see the series end. In this one, Clementine has to say good-bye to third grade, but she has trouble saying good-bye. Also, she's giving her father the silent treatment because he ate meat, and the two must navigate issues of convictions and free will. And lastly, Clementine's mother is ready to (finally) give birth to Clementine's little brother or sister. Will if be a dud? A good ending to a great series. Now, to begin again. My rating: 4 stars.  

I found A Bookshop in Berlin almost entirely forgettable. It's the true story of a Jewish Polish woman who owns a bookshop in Berlin and must escape the Nazis. The story just didn't seem unique, and perhaps it was too humbly written to be very interesting to me. I feel crass saying so, but it just didn't grab me. My rating: 3 stars. 

National Parks of the U.S.A. is a very pretty children's guide to the National Parks. There are 58 National Parks in America, in all regions of the country, and containing all manner of wildlife, fauna, and geographical features. The book does a good job showcasing as much of this diversity as it can. Unfortunately, I didn't realize it would show only 21 of the parks in detail, and I was kind of hoping for the whole ball of wax. The parks chosen for inclusion weren't necessarily the ones I was most interested in learning about. Still, a lovely, informative book that your little traveler or scientist would enjoy. My rating: 4 stars.
Years ago I read Myron Uhlberg's Hands of My Father, Uhlberg's memoir of growing up hearing with two deaf parents. It was wonderful. The Sound of Silence is the children's version of that book. It, too, was wonderful. He talks about the difficulties of being the young interpreter for his father between the hearing and deaf worlds. My rating: 4 stars.
I've never watched Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs, but I know him from his appearances on news programs. I've always enjoyed his outlook on life and his voice (remember the Ford commercials?)--plus I think he's kind of cute. So I decided to try his new book The Way I Heard It on audio, since he narrates it. If you are familiar with Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story from radio, you'll have a good idea of what these stories are like. I enjoyed this book a great deal. Between the stories (which are available in podcast form on his website), he gives short personal stories which I enjoyed even more. This was very good on audio. My rating: 4 stars.

I love books about food and I love books about the United States, and The United Tastes of America combines the two beautifully. This is a children's cookbook that gives relevant food facts for each of the 50 states and U.S. territories plus one representative recipe and a full-page photo of the finished dish. The recipes were not terribly simple--no easier than what I might make for supper (no peanut butter smeared on celery in this book), and there were a number of things that I would like to try. Nothing was terribly weird nor absurdly easy, and turning the page to discover which recipe was chosen for each state was fun. It was often something unexpected. I learned a lot with this one, and I enjoyed every page. This was one of the best children's books I've read this year. My rating: 4 stars.
I've been wanting to read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind for quite awhile now, and since my library has the audio edition of the young reader's version, I decided to give that a try. I was sort of disappointed with the book, and I'm not sure why. I can't remember now what it was that bothered me. It's a great story, and he talks frankly about the everyday poverty of his Malawian village, Kamkwamba's substandard education (since the family often could not afford it), and the near-starvation the area suffered due to drought. Through it all, Kamkwamba taught himself advanced scientific principles so that he could build a windmill to produce water and create electricity for his village. It seems such a basic thing--something most countries moved beyond decades ago--could we not get this information to countries like Malawi instead of waiting for one 12-year-old boy to teach himself how to do it from a discarded textbook? It seems appalling, doesn't it? My rating: 4 stars.

The Mitford Scandal, the third in the Mitford Murders series, was much like the two that came before it. This one, though, covers more years (it seemed like too many, perhaps the author is trying to fast-forward a little to get to World War II quicker?) I don't find these books great literature, and I could stop reading the series at any time, but they are kind of fun. The Mitford sisters were quite the set, and I think we're getting to where their more outrageous antics will become more prominent in the books. A fun jaunt, but nothing great. My rating: 3 stars.

The Miracle at Speedy Motors, the ninth in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, was as satisfying as all the others. It's hard to write reviews of books that are far into a series, so I'm not going to give a plot summary. They always sound a little uninteresting anyway. If you read these, you'll want to read them in order, and the plots are sort of secondary to the overall feel of the series anyway. But as long as Alexander McCall Smith keeps writing them, I'll keep reading them. My rating: 4 stars.

I made a decision to stop reading Donald Trump Jr.'s Triggered when I was quite far in. One of my goals this year was to "turn off the news when it devolved into something other than news," and this book did. I was disappointed in how snarky and button-pushing it was. I don't have a problem with political books that pander a bit to their base, but this was just a little too much pandering. And, as a part of Don Jr.'s base who isn't fond of the snark, I was turned off. I started it to blow off some political steam, but my steam was blown off by the second chapter. I prefer a fairer approach.


Well, it only took me a month and a half to finish these reviews! And I'm already reading some wonderful books in April. Hopefully I can get a post up about them soon

Monday, March 2, 2020

What I read in February

Well, another month and no weekly posts. I have every intention of getting back to that format, but it just didn't happen this month. I am, however, enjoying reading more than I have for the last few months, so maybe the unintended hiatus has worked for me. I feel like I'm reading more books that deeply satisfy me. It's wonderful.

I finished 13 books in February, and I'll give full reviews to the four that I enjoyed most. I'll review the others with shorter reviews. If I don't do this, I just won't catch up.

I was interested in reading American Dirt when I read about it on Christmas break back in December--long before all the controversy erupted. I have to say I don't really understand the controversy other than that it's identity politics at work, and that almost never makes sense. To weigh in, I don't believe the publishing industry is deliberately trying to squash brown voices by not publishing their books. The publishing industry exists at least as much to make money as it does to produce quality literature (and the cynic in me would say "more so"). It's a business, and if folks are clambering for something, they'll publish it. I also don't think Oprah, the author, nor anyone who reads the book is a racist. For goodness sake, let's spread love and make the positive argument for our fellow human beings. I believe what the author writes in the back of her book, that she spent five years researching and writing this book, and although she did not make the journey to America via the Beast, she is compassionate toward those who do. Also, there is the obvious statement that must be made: if we only published and read books by people who experienced everything in them firsthand, we'd have no Steinbeck, Hemingway, or even Austen. That's a ridiculous criteria. All of that said, I liked the book. It was a gripping depiction of a mother and her young son's journey to America, outrunning a drug lord who has murdered 16 members of their family and wants to murder them too. There was not much brutality, if that was a concern of yours. The author did a pretty good job of hiding her pro-illegal immigration bias, at least giving passing acknowledgement to the fact that what they were about to do was illegal. I found the characters very believable. I finished the book with a more compassionate view of those who have to make this difficult journey and the difficult choice to live a life of subterfuge in a country not their own. It did not change my firmly held beliefs about illegal immigration, however. This one is well worth your time. It was written in a tone I can only call "immediate" which nailed the frantic mood of the mother and son as they make their way to "El Norte." My rating: 4 stars.

While making my way through 1,000 Books to Read before You Die (I'm up to the Ms now), I came upon an entry for Shirley Jackson's Life among the Savages, which will likely be one of my favorites of the year. Jackson is best known for her dark stories, but this is a fictionalized memoir of her life with her husband and four young children (two are born in the course of the book) in a full, rambling house in the 1940s or so. It's very, very funny and full of charm. The children really come to life on the page, and Jackson has a way of writing about seemingly insignificant domesticities in a smart and engaging way. I enjoyed this book so much. I have a feeling 1,000 Books to Read... is just full of these gems--books you've never heard of that are just wonderful. I highly recommend this one. Also, when I went back to re-read the entry for the book in 1,000 Books to Read..., I discovered that Jackson penned a sequel. I ask you, is there anything more satisfying than finding out a book you love has a sequel? My rating: 5 stars.

Messenger of Truth is the fourth in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mystery series. In the series, which begins in post-Great War Britain, Maisie Dobbs runs a private investigation agency and solves murder cases. But Maisie is no ordinary British detective. She is trained in psychology and uses what she learned to get closer to the truth than the blokes at Scotland Yard can with their traditional methods. These books are smart, and they read more like literature with a mystery thrown in than a plain mystery story. I love how they're written and I love how we get to know the main characters (Maisie; her assistant, Billy; and her father, especially) throughout the series but also really get to know and understand the principal characters in the mystery plot as well. These are slowly plotted, and the attention and time paid to details and setup is thorough. And...this was my favorite in the series yet. I loved this book so much. In it, Maisie is asked to determine whether the artist Nick Bassington-Hope's fall to his death from scaffolding he was using to hang his latest, and secret, exhibit was an accident, or whether he was pushed to his death. Nick's work is a brazen, searing look at the brutality of World War I, and it upsets as well as compels people. Secondary plots include a smuggling ring, the heartrending sickness of Billy's young daughter, as well as frank discussion of the haves and the have nots during Great Britain's Depression, contemporaneous with America's. Also, Maisie is living on her own for the first time, and we see her curled up in her chilly apartment, eating tinned soup and reading novels in the evenings. I found this one so satisfying. It was cozy and exciting and had a depth of feeling for large topics that was very meaningful to me. It also feels as though Maisie is at a personal crossroads of sorts, and I can't wait for the next book in the series. My rating: 5 stars.

Three years ago, I read Bret Baier's Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission (my review here), and I was disappointed by it. It didn't grab me, and I found it dry and uninteresting. Because of that, I skipped the second book in the series, Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, though I'm a big fan of President Reagan and this point in history. But something made me try the third in the series, Three Days at the Brink, FDR's Daring Gamble to Win World War II. In this one, we learn about the three days in November 1943 in which allies Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin secretly met for the first time to discuss a strategy for winning World War II. Called the Tehran Conference, it's where Operation Overlord was discussed, including the storming of the beaches of Normandy. This was a fantastic book. I listened to it on audio, narrated by the author, whose voice I've long enjoyed on television. I knew much of the facts of the book by heart from the numerous other history books I've read about FDR and World War II, and there wasn't a lot here that was new to me, but there is something to be said for the comforting feeling of an old story you know well being retold. FDR and World War II stories are as familiar to me as scripture, and it often felt that way listening to the story unfold. My mind could automatically fill in the next part. It was oddly comforting. Not everyone, I know, will have this personal reaction to the book, but I don't think it will catch many as staid or boring. Baier paints good portraits of the three principal players: FDR's charm and charisma, Churchill's gruffness and warmth, and Salin's distrustful, circumspect demeanor. He examines how Roosevelt often sides with Stalin to garner good faith, alienating Churchill in the process; Stalin's landgrab at the end of the war and the Cold War that followed; and Roosevelt's death. It's all here in a very readable and sometimes colorful retelling. I really liked this one, and if you're looking for a good, concise explanation of this time in history, I can't recommend it enough. My rating: 5 stars.

This month I also read:

During CYBILs judging last fall, I discovered Rachel Poliquin's Moles (my review here) which I just loved. That made me want to read all of Poliquin's Superpower Field Guides, which led me to Beavers. This was just as wonderful as Moles, and I learned a lot about the little chainsaws of the forest. Specifically, I learned that beavers' front teeth are orange. How could I have never learned this wonderful fact? I wondered it they were maybe orange-ish until I was making my way through our local antique shop which is home to lots of taxidermy pieces, and I found myself face-to-face with a stuffed beaver's incisors. Their color? A definite orange. My rating: 4 stars.

I love memoirs by people who are masters at what they do. Trailblazers, geniuses, experts, prodigies, I love learning about what makes them tick. I've always thought Elton John was a musical master. He wrote and recorded a slew of wonderful songs, and I'd always respected him. After reading (listening, actually) his memoir, Me, however, I have less respect for the man. Like a lot of artists of his era, there was a lot of drug use going on, and we learn every nasty detail of it. We also learn every nasty detail of his homosexual sex life and his drama queen (he'd call himself that; it's not my term) hysteria. He seems a man who took a long time to grow up, if indeed, he has, but the book was very honest, which I respect. It was also well written as far as celebrity memoirs go. But, if you don't want all the details, it might be best to skip it. If you do decide to tackle it, though, do it on audio. The audio performance, and there's no other word for it, was magnificent. It should win an award. My rating: 3 stars.

I'm not sure how Beneath the Tamarind Tree came to my attention, but I admit the cover really caught my eye. This is the story of the 276 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria in 2014. I'm sure you remember the story from that time, and the #BringBackOurGirls movement it ignited, but like me perhaps you wondered whatever became of the girls. This is the rest of the story, or what can be told of it. Some of the girls, I believe, never came home. The author, Isha Sesay, is a CNN reporter who followed this story, and when some of the girls came home, she was there to tell the world their story. But by that point no one was interested anymore. I had trouble with this book. First, it was not at all clear to me why the girls were stolen. We heard reports of them being sold into sex slavery, but that doesn't seem to be the case overall. Also, I'm not clear on the fact that any abuse took place. Of course, stealing a young woman away from her home is criminal, it would seem the darker crimes we all assumed happened (rape, torture, death) perhaps didn't. It seemed the worst that happened were they were moved a lot, pressured to become Muslims, and were malnourished. So what was the point of taking them then? My main issue with the book was the judgmental attitude of the author about the world's response. Assertions were made over and over that if these girls were white the world would care and they'd be rescued. It there were rich..., if they were American.... Yes, had they been American, they would have been rescued, because America has the might and priorities to do so. But to assert that it's America's or Britain's or France's responsibility to rescue Nigerian girls when their own government repeatedly lied about the situation and did almost nothing to find the girls, and then castigate those countries because they didn't, is grossly unfair. So, what you have here is another good story made political by the journalist reporting it. It's a pity, because we were all wondering what became of the girls. My rating: 3 stars.

I remember enjoying the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House staring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. The book had an entry in 1,000 Books to Read before You Die so I thought I'd give it a try. (First of all, a shout out to my university library that is slow to weed its collection. Because of that, many of these old gems are readily available--and no wait lists.) This one, however entertaining, didn't do it for me. This is the story of Mr. Blandings and his wife who decide to buy a country home, but end up tearing down the home they buy to build a new one. It details the ups and downs (mostly downs) of every facet of the building process including procuring financing, digging a well, having plans drawn, and choosing paint colors. It's farcical, and yet, very true to life from what we see on HGTV these days. What didn't work for me about this one is the negative tone. I have a good sense of humor, and I like dry humor, but this was just too adverse and discouraging for my taste. Mr. and Mrs. Blandings don't get along well, and they go after each other, and Mr. Blandings picks fights with everyone, though we're meant to think of his as the downtrodden victim. All in all, had Mr. Blandings been a more pitiable character, this would have worked much better. My rating: 3 stars.

The Postal Confessions is Max Garland's first book of poetry and one of my favorites to return to. As Max was my college poetry workshop professor, and was the poet laurate of Wisconsin, I'm biased. This book is full of charming, approachable, nostalgic poems with a little humor thrown in. A true treasure. My rating: 4 stars.

I did not know when I bought The Guest Book nor when I committed to listening to it months later that I was about to read a story of white privilege. Had I known, I would not had started it per my 2020 reading goal to avoid books about outrage. It's a shame, too, because it is beautifully written and the characters are fleshed. It took a long time to get preachy, but when it did, I felt duped and betrayed. With a subtler hand, it could have been great. A note on the audio: it's pretty terrible, likely the muddiest audiobook I've ever listened to, so you might want to read this in paper. My rating: 3 stars.
I was looking forward to reading Africa, Amazing Africa ridiculously much. To learn a little bit about each African country sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, this one didn't work for me for exactly that reason: there wasn't room enough to write more than a little about each country, just one page each, and most of that was artwork. Also, there was something that bothered me that's hard to put into words, so I'll try to illustrate it. When I say Rwanda what do you think of? What about Somalia? What about Sudan? Genocide, pirates, war. But the book talked about things such as how much people in this country like soccer. Fine, I guess, for kids, but it seemed, and I struggle for the word...disingenuous? whitewashed? It made me uncomfortable. I know there would be a general reluctance to discuss genocide in a children's book, but I know plenty that do discuss such topics, and don't we need to? Those do forget the past are doomed to repeat it. I don't know, but I was dissatisfied. My rating: 2 stars. 

I just don't know what to say about A Passage to India at all. It's something I'd been meaning to read for a long time, so finally picked up the audio version, which was good. But what did I think of it? I really don't know. What was it about? I don't really know that either. I think it's meant to be a portrait of India in the 1920s, several decades before they gain their independence from England. It's also meant to be, I think, an exploration of the Indian and British cultures and people and where they clash and the misunderstandings that come about. Beyond this, I don't really know what to tell you. I'd like to discuss this one with others who have read it to determine if it really is a meandering story of confused cultures or something deeper. Perhaps, being 100 years old, it's lost a bit of its potency. I really don't know. I think I could come to really like the book, though, if I knew. My rating: 3 stars.  

Erick Larson's work is a bit hit or miss with me. I loved The Devil in the White City (my review here), but Dead Wake, which everyone seems to love, left me cold. Thunderstuck has been waiting for me on my bookshelf for a long time, and this month when I was looking for some good nonfiction on audio, I decided to try it. It was quite wonderful, definitely more on a par with The Devil in the White City than Dead Wake, in fact, very similar in tone, writing, and plot. This is the simultaneous stories of Marconi developing his radio telegraph system and the death of opera hopeful Charlotte Bell. It was fast-paced and interesting, but I didn't feel the two stories came together in a perfectly satisfying way. Still, if you liked The Devil..., do give this one a read. My rating: 4 stars.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Catching up - What I read in January 2020

Let's try something a little different. I'm over a month behind in my reviewing, and in order to catch up, I'm going to post full reviews for the books I can't stop thinking about, and teeny-tiny reviews for the rest.

January sort of took a bite out of me. I wasn't feeling well for much of it, and my reading was still suffering from malaise. I hope things pick up soon. I don't like feeling like I don't know what to read.

Last month I finished 12 books, seven of them on audio. There were a few stellar books, and a lot of very average fare. I think this will improve, though, as I allow myself to chip away at that wonderous TBR I built over the first part of the winter.

My favorite books of January

I wish I would have written this review while The Dutch House was still fresh in my mind, because it deserves better than a review written after the magnificence of the book has faded and plot has become hazy. If you haven't read this one yet, one-click it or get on your library hold list (I can assure you there's still a hold list for this one) right now. It's hard to distill the plot of this book, because the plot isn't nearly as important as the characters you'll meet and the experience you'll have reading it. I found the book so beautifully and smartly written. A skinny plot summary: the Conroy family owns the grand and gaudy Dutch house, so named because the family that built the house, whose portraits still hang in it, were Dutch. Mrs. Conroy never had any good feelings toward the house, and she left it, her husband, and her children Maeve and Danny, while the children are quite young. Mr. Conroy remarries, and events end up so that Maeve and Danny find themselves, quite literally, on the outside looking in, for the next several decades. That plot doesn't sound very exciting, does it? But trust me, the novel really carries you along in such a satisfying way. Before this I'd looked into several of Ann Patchett's novels, but the plots never interested me enough to try. After reading The Dutch House, though, I plan to pick up another of her books to see if the writing is as wonderful as it is here. Don't miss this wonderful read. My rating: 5 stars.

For years I've circled Watership Down, wanting to read it but never actually picking it up. Anthropomorphized animal stories (and movies, especially) do me in. And if one of the animals dies? Oh heavens. But, I read James Mustich's wonderful summary of the book in his 1,000 Books to Read before You Die, and I knew I had to take the plunge, tears be darned. Mustich indicated that the audio book was exceptional, so that's the route I went, and I have to say he was 100% correct. Though I can't place the narrator, if you're an avid listener of audiobooks, I'm sure you'll recognize the voice, too. My two great concerns about this book were violence toward the rabbits and that it was a thinly guised treatise on manmade environmental peril. Mustich sort of hinted at the latter, but in the author's introduction, Richard Adams assured his readers that the book was not an allegory, and I was comforted. Sometimes you just want a story of rabbits to be a story about rabbits. If you're unfamiliar with this tale, the plot is this: Timid little Fiver feels in his bones that the warren he lives in is in peril. He tells his brother that they must leave. They take the premonition to the chief elder, but he dismisses it. Regardless, the brothers and a handful of others set out to found their own warren to escape what is surely coming. They have many harrowing adventures along the way, get into some bloody scrapes (ha, no pun!), and learn a lot about the world around them. I found this book equally charming and deep, and superbly well-written. It is a tale well told. The author started telling the story to his daughters on a long car trip, and he continued telling it after their return. One of his daughters encouraged him to put it on paper and publish it. It was rejected again and again in England. Editors thought it was too adult for the juvenile audience and too juvenile for the adult audience. He finally found a small publisher and had modest success. Then it was imported to America, where readers fell all over it, and it wasn't until its import back into the UK that it became a hit. You're welcome, Mr. Adams. Glad we Yanks could help. Seriously, if you've been circling this book for years like I have, please consider it. It's one of the best written books I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. I think you'll love it. My rating: 5 stars.

You know by now I love a good presidential memoir, and I especially love the Bush family, so shortly after President George H. W. Bush's passing, I committed to reading his book of letters and other writings, All the Best, George Bush. And then I kind of put it off, because it's a monster of a book, clock in at 700 pages (without back matter). But I was in the mood for something long and slow and life-affirming last month, and this one fit the bill. This is a collection of President Bush's correspondence, journal entries, and other notes penned over his 70-plus years serving his country. The first letters were written when we was a young (the youngest, I've read) Navy fighter pilot, and the letters take you through his distinguished career including his time in Congress, his U.N. ambassadorship, his work as envoy to China, his time as CIA director and Republican National Committee chair (while Watergate was exploding around him), and his three terms as vice president and president of the United States. Also covered are his years pre-Washington as a Texan oilman and his years post-presidency. I loved this reading experience. It was dry in a few places, but being letters, I never felt tied to one place or idea for long. I never knew what was coming next: a dry letter regarding international diplomacy might be followed by a heartfelt letter to one of his children or grandchildren, or a hilarious letter to the chairman of the Roach Bowl, in which roaches were entered on the president's behalf. Some of my favorite stories are included, like when he had Dana Carvey address his staff as the president on his way out of office, the emotional tug-of-war he felt when sons George won his Texas governorship and Jeb lost his on the same night, the story of his plane jumping as an elderly man, as well as the story of his plane being shot down in World War II, killing his crewmates, an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life. Also, I was glad to read again the letter he wrote to his mother about his home's need for a little girl to balance out the four rowdy boys he and Barbara had, written, of course, in reference to losing his three-year-old daughter to leukemia. (They did have a daughter, Doro, after those four boys.) The entries I found the best were the charming ones he penned after leaving office, about babysitting his grandchildren and the like. I just loved the experience of reading through a great man's life in his own words, but not with the intention of ever being read by anyone but the recipient. It gives a full picture of a wonderful man, kind, tough, traditional, emotional, heroic, and funny. I highly recommend it. My rating: 5 stars.

In January I also read:

The third in the Vanderbeekers series, The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, was as good as the first two. In this installment, the five Vanderbeeker kids and their friends had to find a way to save their mother's baking business while also solving the mystery of who keeps dropping orphaned animals on their front stoop. My rating: 3 stars.

This book of poetry truly exhausted me. I picked up Arias with apprehension because Sharon Old's last book of poems was so nasty I wasn't sure I'd ever pick up another book by her. This one wasn't bad, but it really felt repetitive. So many of the poems were about her mother beating her with a hairbrush years ago. She's obviously trying to work through some things, but it was emotionally exhausting. My rating: 2 stars.

I finally got around to Eric Metaxas's Bonhoeffer this year. I listened to it on CD, and I'm glad I did. I would have abandoned it in print form. It is a very thorough biography of German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his death at the hands of the Nazis. It's obvious that Metaxas idolizes the man, but I just don't have a lot of time for theology. Theology is man studying God, and it always ends up being completely material, not spiritual. I didn't care much for the book, though it was well-written. My rating: 3 stars.

I picked up Richard Russo's memoir, Elsewhere, on audio in December and abandoned it. But when my January audio holds didn't come in, I was forced to finish it. This is Russo's (he wrote Empire Falls) memoir about growing up with his mother, who seems to have mental health issues. I didn't care for this book very much for the sole reason that it seemed Russo was capitalizing on his mother's mental problems for his gain. It felt exploitative and unloving. My rating: 3 stars.

Oh my goodness, would someone please stop me from buying any more Rachel Hollis books? Please? I read her Girl, Wash Your Face last year, and I didn't care much for it. (Can't explain why my rating was so high.) I even put it on my Stinkers list. But then I went right back out and bought her next book, Girl, Stop Apologizing. Hollis and I have nothing in common, and regardless of what she thinks, I do not want to be her. One thing pretty much sums up Hollis and her priorities: she has a tattoo of the word "mogul" on her person. While she has some good advice, I just cannot deal with her. My rating: 3 stars.

Jacqueline Woodson's Red at the Bone, was a short, good read. I listened on audio, which was a fabulous performance. Someday I might like to read the book, though, because I feel that I missed something hearing it so fast. It's the story of three generations of black family and explores teenage pregnancy, motherhood, what it means to be a woman/man/family. I didn't care much for the lesbian plot plunked in; it seemed careless and out of place, pandering. This is a book I could see being discussed in literature classes. Woodson is very good at what she does. My rating: 4 stars.

I finished listening to The Night Diary for the same reason I finished Elsewhere, I didn't have any other audiobooks at home. This is a children's book about the years when India breaks from British rule and splits into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Twelve-year-old Nisha is half-Muslim, half-Hindu, and the adults won't tell her why she must move to Pakistan. There seems to be a lot of danger, but I couldn't figure out why. Perhaps I missed something. The book is written as Nisha's letters to her deceased mother, and it's well written. It's the kind of book honor committees love (it won the 2019 Newbery Honor), but I'm not sure it would have a whole lot of appeal to most children. My rating: 3 stars.

I've always liked Nikki Haley. She came on the scene as the tough and sometimes outspoken governor of South Carolina and went on to become US ambassador to the United Nations for the Trump administration. Her book about those years in office, With All Due Respect, takes its title from a statement she made to FNC's Dana Perino when someone in the Trump administration threw her under the political bus calling her confused. She told Perino that all she had to say on that matter was: With all due respect, I don't get confused. I enjoyed this book, but it wasn't quite as good as I was hoping. She sounded too much like a politician when she talked about the issues she faced such as removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. I did find the look at how the UN works (or doesn't work, as the case may be) fascinating. My rating: 3 stars.


If you've read Sally Bedell Smith's wonderful biography of the Queen, Elizabeth the Queen, there may be no need to read Kate William's Young Elizabeth, as there isn't much here that wasn't covered in detail in the Smith book, but I still have to recommend this one. It's a very enjoyable read. It might be a tough fawning, but I really didn't mind. It was just a good, readable biography that I enjoyed very much. My rating: 4 stars.

I didn't finish Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here. In fact, I jumped ship pretty quickly after starting it. This just isn't a book for me, too much drama, and way too much swearing covering up for lazy character development.

Whew! I did it. And I kind of liked this format. Who knows, maybe I'll continue with it. Less time reviewing means more time reading!