Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee

The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee
Published August 2016 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: my copy through the library for book club

Publisher's Summary:
Ten years after the Seventh Cavalry massacred more than two hundred Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, J.B. Bennett, a white rancher, and Star, a young Native American woman, are murdered in a remote meadow on J.B.’s land. The deaths bring together the scattered members of the Bennett family: J.B.’s cunning and hard father, Drum; his estranged wife, Dulcinea; and his teenage sons, Cullen and Hayward. As the mystery of these twin deaths unfolds, the history of the dysfunctional Bennetts and their damning secrets is revealed, exposing the conflicted heart of a nation caught between past and future.

At the center of The Bones of Paradise are two remarkable women. Dulcinea, returned after bitter years of self-exile, yearns for redemption and the courage to mend her broken family and reclaim the land that is rightfully hers. Rose, scarred by the terrible slaughters that have decimated and dislocated her people, struggles to accept the death of her sister, Star, and refuses to rest until she is avenged.

A kaleidoscopic portrait of misfits, schemers, chancers, and dreamers, Jonis Agee’s bold novel is a panorama of America at the dawn of a new century. A beautiful evocation of this magnificent, blood-soaked land—its sweeping prairies, seas of golden grass, and sandy hills, all at the mercy of two unpredictable and terrifying forces, weather and lawlessness—and the durable men and women who dared to tame it.

My Thoughts:
When The Bones of Paradise was picked to be this year's Omaha Reads selection, one of my book club friends quickly suggested our book club read it and even grabbed one of the library's book club bags with books for us. It included an audiobook copy which I took with us on a recent trip. We got through one disc (which was no reflection on the book; just new terrain that involved more concentration for driving and navigating); my husband was already saying the book was "brutal." I wouldn't have thought that would scare him off but it did; he never asked to read or listen to it again. It did not, however, scare of the ladies of my book club. Not sure if that says more about my husband or my book club friends!

My husband was right; this book is often brutal. But life in the Sandhills of Nebraska in 1900 was brutal, from the weather to the people who inhabited it, and Agee's writing reflects all of the ways that life could be tough in 1900 western Nebraska, from ice storms to tornadoes to the American government to the men (and women) who lived there.

THIS is what the Lakota were
doing that so alarmed the Indian
agent who called in the military

As unforgiving as that land is, in Drum, J. B. and Ry Graver (who discovers the bodies of J. B. and Star) we see the lengths a person will go to to try to own their own piece of it. It makes some people harder, it breaks others, and it drives men to do things they wouldn't think themselves capable of to try to hold on to it.

As the story moves back and forth in time, in part to tell the background stories of many of the characters. But Agee says the real reason she told the story from multiple points of view was to "respect the events and Native Americans at Wounded Knee by making them as alive and as vivid as possible...I dramatized key events with my characters involved so that the impact of the massacre could be registered as horrific as it was." There are several characters who "were there" at Wounded Knee. (Drum, J. B., Ry, and Star). It's this day that is at the center of the book, pulling the story of what happened to the Indians in that area into the story of the Bennett family and the people surrounding them.

And THIS is what was done to the Lakota at Wounded Knee
I was glad to have read this book with a group. I had some questions when I finished and it helped to have people to bounce them off of, many of them having to do with the reason Cullen was sent to live with Drum and why Dulcinea left the ranch. I didn't entirely buy into Agee's reasoning but others in my book club found those reasons believable. All of the characters (with the possible exception of Rose) are deeply flawed and many of them are so hard that they are hard to care for. But Agee lets readers see the humanity in most of her characters and readers can understand what makes them the people they are.

About those murders...there is a murder mystery element to this book, after all...some in my book club figured out early on who killed J. B. and Star. Others were holding on to their own theories until the end. Either way, the slow reveal of what happened in that meadow was satisfying. The ending of the book, though, left some (including my mom) not as satisfied. My mom said she felt like Agee had gotten to the end of the book and didn't know how to finish it so rushed into the ending that we have here. Agee, herself, says she didn't know who killed J. B. and Star when she began writing the book but that she did rewrite the ending many times. One of our book club members said, "how would you have finished the book?" I'm not sure, to be honest. I just don't think it would have ended the way Agee ended it.

Still, it's a fascinating, complex novel, filled with interesting characters and dynamics, one in which the setting plays a very important role. Which, for this girl who was born in the Sandhills of Nebraska, is a very good thing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic

I spent much of a wet, chilly Saturday afternoon cleaning up my Facebook saves...again. I moved, literally, hundreds of recipes onto Pinterest, grew frustrated that so many recipes don't have links to other sites so that I could do that, found dozens of "saves" I have no idea where to store, and realized that I, once again, had a whole lot of bookish things to read and share. Maybe if I spent less time on Facebook, this would stop happening!

From Esquire magazine comes this list of the 40 Best Books of 2017 (So Far). This is where I both pat my back for the books I have already read AND wonder where the hell I've been when I find I haven't even heard of some of the books.

Signature also has a list of The Best Books of 2017. Again, I've read a couple of these, haven't heard of some; the biggest shocker on this list is Dan Brown's latest, Origin. Dan Brown on a list with Ron Chernow, Henning Mankell, and Amy Tan? Hmmmm.

Jane Austen
Also from Signature comes 10 Lessons Every 21st-Century Woman Can Learn From Jane Austen. It makes my heart happy to see that my beloved Jane Austen is still so relevant, all these years after her death!

Speaking of Austen, from The New York Times comes this article that posits that Austen's word choices explain why she endures. The article cites a number of studies and quotes Virginia Wolff as saying "Of all great writers, she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness." And yet, her work stands the test of time.

Some other female authors we should be mindful of are highlighted in this list of 12 Revolutionary Novels By Women That Will Motivate You To Keep Resisting from Bustle. It's not too surprising to find Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler on the list, but you might be surprised to also find J. K. Rowling. Of course, the Harry Potter books are largely about resistance.

And yet more women authors to pay attention to are found on PBS's list of 5 Books By Women Of Color You Need To Read Right Now. Haven't read a one of them but they are all, now at least, on my tbr list.

Bookbub Blog has put together a list of 10 Unforgettable Historical Books Based On True Stories. I love reading books that are based on true stories, especially historical ones. I've read a couple of these and will be looking for several others.

Speaking of books I haven't read, here's the list of the National Book Award finalists for 2017. I've got a couple of these lined up to read but had only even read one of the books on the long list. Have you read any of these? Your thoughts?

Finally, Penguin Random House has put together a list of The Best Books About Books. I've actually read more than half of these. Apparently I have a thing for books about books? Are there any other books about books that you would recommend?

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

The Telling Room: A Tale of Loe, Betrayal, Revenge And The World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti
Published December 2013 by Gale Group
Source: this one is mine

Publisher's Summary:  In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.

It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .

By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.

What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.

My Thoughts:
I know what the "experts" say about the food groups, but I have my own edition of what the food groups are and one of them is cheese. Yep, cheese gets it's own group. There are a whole lot of cheeses out there in the world and there are very few of them that I've tried and didn't like. So four years ago when I first heard about this book, I knew that I had to find out about the world's greatest piece of cheese.

I must admit that it seemed like it would be a stretch to write an entire book about one kind of cheese. Clearly I did not read the summary before I started reading because this book is so much more than a book about cheese. It is, at least a little bit, about the slow-food movement (it was that movement, after all, which caused Ambrosio Molinos' cheese to gain world-wide fame).
"Ambrosio saw himself as the needle and thread, stitching backward in time, unifying epochs. The awards had validated the idea that you could still make old food, the old way, and enthrall."
It's also about the Castilian way of life and the land. It's about family, friendship gone wrong, greed, and obsession. Not only Ambrosio's obsession with revenge but Paterniti's obsession with Ambrosio and the village of Guzman; Paterniti, a journalist who had traveled the world, became so obsessed with Ambrosio's story, eventually, he moved his entire family to Guzman. Which all makes it a book that's hard to put down, something you almost certainly wouldn't expect from a book you thought was just about cheese.

A word about Paterniti's writing: this book is chock-a-block full of footnotes; footnotes that have footnotes that have footnotes. Some of this is because of the way Ambrosio told his tale (and the tales of others). Much of it is simply Paterniti traveling down side roads, roads that were often humorous, often filled with Spanish history. Occasionally they were distracting but for the most part I enjoyed them. Just as I did Paterniti's writing. He brings the processes, the food, the land, and the people alive.
"The only constant was the bodega. It was nearly guaranteed that at some point along the way we'd end up in the telling room with Ambrosio holding forth, in great word gusts of appreciation for the joys of Castile. He slurped wine and let out wondrous sighs, saying, "Its taste reminds me of the old people who once sat here. It's a privilege to drink this wine." It was a privilege to eat the almonds and the chorizo and jamon, too. It was a privilege to sit on one's derriere in the telling room and get pleasantly soused while hearing stories. It was a privilege to walk this land, to live in this place, to watch the grain grow."
Years ago, my husband picked up a book called Driving Mr. Albert. He thoroughly enjoyed it but it didn't appeal to me (let's be honest, I wasn't really listening when the hubby was telling me about it). Turns out Paterniti wrote that book. I wonder if we still have it. Suddenly, it sounds very much like something I'd like to read!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Life: It Goes On - October 15

Happy Sunday! And by Sunday, I mean that the sun is finally shining today, hopefully all day. It's been so dreary and wet here for most of the past week. Doesn't do much to help the mood I'm put in first thing every morning when I turn on the news. It's also making it tough to start getting the yard ready for winter.

You'd think that would free up more reading time but, I've got to be honest, I'm not doing as much reading as I was for a while. Grant is brilliantly interesting but it's very slow going and I feel guilty if I pick up anything else for a break.

The Big Guy is watching The Coneheads today. It's all silly fun except when you hear Michael McKeon's character, who works for the INS, tell a boatload of refugees to "Go home. You have no skills and will only be a burden on our society." Then it starts to feel like you're watching the evening news.

This Week I'm:

Listening To: I finished The Bones of Paradise, have been making myself listen to the news more (although that always makes me an angry driver), and I'm back to podcasts (this week I listened to episodes of Stuff You Should Know and Classical Classroom). I actually added several new ones to my list (Crimetown; Terrible, Thanks for Asking; and Pod Save America) which were recommended by NPR; I haven't listened to any of them yet, though.

Watching: The baseball playoffs. I've got family happy about how the Cubs and Dodgers are doing (although someone is not going to be happy at the end of their series) and a girl very happy with how her Yankees have been playing.

Reading: An interesting article in Harper's Bazaar about emotional labor.  My work load, emotional labor-wise, is considerably less than when my kids were young and I was a stay-at-home mom. Still, I'd made supper last night for two of my kiddos and an hour later had to go in and clean up the kitchen when it became clear that neither of these grown adults thought that maybe they should do it. When I said something about it, they both said, "You didn't ask me to do it." And so it continues.

Making: Slow-cooked pork chops with apples, chicken enchiladas, turkey tater tot casserole, lasagna bake, chocolate chip cookies, shortbread cookies, and, last night, we tried cloud eggs. Got the bug last Sunday to meal prep for the week and I'm always so grateful to be able to walk in the door after work and just heat something up. Today will definitely include meal prepping again!

Planning: Our trip to Missouri this week. Cannot wait to get my hands on my great-niece who will turn one next week.

Thinking About: Making some changes to make myself happier. For starters, maybe get back to that Happiness Project I started at the beginning of the year and abandoned months ago.
Miss E

Enjoying: Last night a mildly amusing thing happened that, for some reason, struck Miss H and I as much funnier than it really was. Then the fact that we were laughing so hard made us laugh even harder. Tears streaming down our faces harder. Can't even breathe harder. This happens to us sometimes and BG just rolls his eyes and says, "I don't get it." That's ok, we do; and it's great!

Feeling:  Like I need to get out and enjoy the sunshine instead of doing the things I know I need to do.

Looking forward to: This face.

Question of the week: Last night I drove through a patch of water on the road and found myself already wondering if it was just wet or might be icy. I hate that I'm already focusing on winter! If you live in a part of the country with four distinct seasons, how do you help yourself enjoy this season without thinking too much about upcoming winter?

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Published October 2017 by Simon and Schuster
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Find your magic.

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.

My Thoughts:
So, I know I just said, in another review, that I don't like supernatural elements in books. Literally just said it. Even after I had started reading this book. As it turns out, I may be wrong, at least when the supernatural is done by someone who knows how to do it as well as Alice Hoffman. For some reason, even though the entire book is about witches, and curses, and mind reading, it never felt like the magic was the center of the book. Instead, this is really a book about family, love, redemption, and being true to yourself and I do love a book with those themes.

I've never read Hoffman's Practical Magic (this is actually a prequel to that earlier book), but I love the movie adaptation, starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole, Kidman, and Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest (the later two play Franny and Jet Owens, the sisters in this book). I adore that movie for the very reasons that I enjoyed this book. It's not a given that a movie adaptation of a book will fairly represent the book on which it was based (ok, it's often not even close); but, on the assumption that this one did, I had a feeling I would enjoy a book based on the aunts younger lives. Hoffman did not disappoint because, at it's heart, the magic in this book is the characters, who adored, each in their own way.

Even though the rules the Owens children grow up with are a little unusual, they are still rules made by parents and not understood by the children. Even though the Owens children have unique magical gifts and can often read each others minds, don't most siblings grow up each with their own unique gifts and an ability to read each other where others might not be able to do so? They don't appreciate their parents until they are gone, they long to be accepted, they long to be loved but are afraid of love - aren't these all things that are universal?

Hoffman charmed me with her blend of humor, sadness, grief, love, spirit, and family bond. Perhaps that was the greatest magic of the book. It's not perfect (it can drag on too long in some places and occasionally feel repetitive) but it was the perfect book for me at just the right time.