Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon
Published June 2017 by Penguin Publishing
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:

Both Cassie Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw dutifully followed their soldier husbands to the U.S. embassy in Jordan, but that’s about all the women have in common. After two years, Cassie’s become an expert on the rules, but newly arrived Margaret sees only her chance to explore. So when a fender-bender sends Margaret to the local police station, Cassie reluctantly agrees to watch Margaret’s toddler son. But as the hours pass, Cassie’s boredom and frustration turn to fear: Why isn’t Margaret answering her phone, and why is it taking so long to sort out a routine accident? Snooping around Margaret’s apartment, Cassie begins to question not only her friend’s whereabouts but also her own role in Margaret’s disappearance.

My Thoughts:
Fallon's You Know When The Men Are Gone, a collection of short stories about the people of Fort Hood (my review), was one of my favorite books of 2014. In her first novel, Fallon returns to what she knows, the people who live on the periphery of the action. In The Confusion of Languages, she draws on her own experiences as an Army wife in Jordan to craft her tale of friendship, marriage, and communication.

Fallon has managed to combine the intimate details of a friendship and two marriages with the tension of a mystery that builds throughout the book. This is a book about the little things we do and say but it's also about the things that are left unsaid and how those things can tear life apart.

Back and forth we go, between the minutes ticking off as Cassie waits for Margaret to return and the pages of Margaret's journal which Cassie begins reading while she impatiently waits. Back and forth we go, too, between the way we feel about these two women.

Cassie has longed to be a mother for so long that when she gets the opportunity to mentor Margaret, she treats her much more as a child than a friend. But is she right to insist that Margaret follow the rules just as she has, to stay in the safe places? Or, by following the U. S. Embassy's guidelines, are Americans living in Jordan missing out on the opportunity to connect with the people of Jordan, to create a greater bond? There is no easy answer, as it turns out.

The Confusion of Languages is not just about the confusion when people of two different languages try to communicate. It's the confusion caused by two cultures meeting and the confusion between people of very different backgrounds trying to build a relationship.



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Narrated by Amy Poehler
Published October 2014 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: bought the audio version

Publisher's Summary:

In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend," "Plain Girl Versus the Demon" and "The Robots Will Kill Us All."

My Thoughts:
Confession: I'm not necessarily Poehler's biggest fan and had never seen Park and Rec until Miss H made me watch on episode on Netflix recently. Amend that - I wasn't necessarily Poehler's biggest fan. After listening to this book, narrated by Poehler, I may not be her biggest fan, but I'm definitely a big fan.

Poehler is one funny lady, who has certainly paid her dues. She's done improv on the street, she's done improv in nearly empty studios. Making the cast of Saturday Night Life might seem like the greatest job on earth but Poehler is quick to remind listeners that finding your place there and living through the long hours and quick turnaround times is no glamour job. But it was that job that made Poehler a household name and gave her the opportunity to move onto film and Parks and Rec, And those jobs have given Poehler the opportunity to give back to other comedians as a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade which operates the only improv and sketch comedy training center in the country.

Poehler talks a lot about her career, but she is equally forthcoming with her personal life. She talks about her upbringing (her parents even both read portions), her marriage to actor Will Arnett and her divorce from him, her friendships, the famous people she has known, her pregnancies and her boys and her own self-image.

That last chapter, "Plain Girl Versus The Demon," really made me sit up and pay attention. "That voice that talks badly to you is a demon voice," made me want to put this book in every young girl's hands. Unfortunately you can't do that because this is a grown up book with cursing and sex and drugs. But, if you listen to it and also have a young daughter, you should absolutely take notes because Poehler things to say I wish I had said to my daughter as she was growing up. "The scary part is that the demon is your own voice," "You may even have days or years when you think the demon is gone but it is not." Be vigilant, in other words. But also this: "if you're lucky, there's a moment in your life where you have some say as to what your currency is going to be" and this "decide early on what your currency is going to be and let go of the rest."

Time travel comes up a lot in the book and it's not until nearly the end when Poehler really talks about what she means when she says she believes in time travel and it kind of makes sense when you think of it that way. I'd tell you the secret but you really need to discover it for yourself.

There's an entire chapter about Parks and Rec which includes run downs on all of the key actors in the series and convinced me that when this actor says the cast was like a family she really means it. The chapter about how robots are going to take over the world is hilarious. The chapter about books she would write about divorce is both hilarious and extremely sad.

Yes Please is probably perfectly funny in print. But in print you don't get narration by Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, and an entire chapter written and read by Seth Meyers. You wouldn't get the cadence and intonation of Poehler's voice. Yes Please is not all hilarity and it's not perfect. But I highly recommend this book.

Also, there's a very high probability that I will soon start binge watching "Parks and Rec."


Monday, June 19, 2017

Life: It Goes On - June 18

Bottom: as the 80+ mph winds blew through and branches came
down and as the storm moved out
It's been a week. I'm glad to have over, capped by giant storms that moved through our area Friday night that resulted in tornadoes and a lot of damage from straight-line winds.

We were fortunate in only losing a couple of good-sized branches from one of our big trees and a lot of leaves and small twigs all over the yard, but it has meant The Big Guy has had to take time to chop the branches down and get everything cleared up and hauled off to the drop site.

We did enjoy spending yesterday at the College World Series. Miss H picked up four tickets for BG for Father's Day so she, he, Mini-him and myself soaked up the sun, the fun and the atmosphere. We don't have a dog in the fight but it's always a great place to mingle with new people from all over the country who have come to cheer on their teams. It's billed as the Greatest Show on Dirt and the atmosphere around the stadium is pretty great, too.


This Week I'm:

Listening To: Podcasts, podcasts, and more podcasts. I've listened to episodes of Reading Women, Happier, You Must Remember This, and Get Booked.

Watching: Still Grace and Frankie, The Mindy Project, This is Us plus we started Veep. And, of course, CWS games.

Reading: I finally finished The Confusion of Languages and tried to get back into The H Spot but it's just too heavy for me right now. Not sure what I will pick up after I finish The Engagements for book club.

Making: Chicken, lots of chicken. Miss H is doing a kind of diet and chicken is on the menu for her a lot. Consequently, it's on the menu for BG and me as well.

Planning: We're almost there, folks, and the actual planning is basically done. Now the planning is all about making sure it all goes off without a hitch.

Thinking About: How much cleaning I'd still like to get done around my house that may, or may not, actually get done. Let's face it, I'm probably the only person that will notice if all of the door frames haven't been wiped down.

1st tomato of 2017!
Enjoying: An evening with friends from Arizona who used to live a couple of blocks away. We met at another friend's house and talked into the wee hours. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Feeling: Happy - harvested my first tomato of the season.

Looking forward to: My kids getting here on Saturday!

Question of the week: I'm headed off to book club this week. I'm still tweaking the schedule for the rest of the year. What book is the book you always recommend to book clubs?












Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Published June 2017 by Random House Publishing
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
When Apollo Kagwa’s father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word IMPROBABILIA. Now Apollo is a father himself—and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo’s old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd. Irritable and disconnected from their new baby boy, at first Emma seems to be exhibiting signs of postpartum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go even deeper. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air.

Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood, to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest, which begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts, takes him to a forgotten island, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever.

My Thoughts:
Book two, this week, of the books I judged by their covers. Book two, this week, of the books I judged by their covers whose covers turned out to be right. Well, this one was also pitched to me as a dark fairy tale and I've been feeling like it was time to get back into fairy tales.

That reading rut I've been in for months? This might just be the book that pulls me out. It's not my usual read, very deep into the fantasy realm, but it's also the first book that I've literally been unable to put down in months. Maybe because I needed something that completely took me away from reality. Maybe because sometimes going outside of your comfort zone is exactly what it takes to remind you how great reading can be.

The Changeling is gruesome, and scary, and twisty. It builds slowly, feeling like a perfect ordinary, if somewhat sad story. Then suddenly, the book takes off and LaValle takes readers on a macabre adventure that sucked me in and made me forget where I was and how long I'd been reading.

LaValle included copious references to fairy tales and literature that, of course, appealed to me, including making his lead characters a librarian and a buyer/seller of books. The man clearly knows his way around the book world and the history of stories.

Paul Beatty (author of The Sellout) compared The Changeling to the work of the Coen brothers. The Fargo kind of Coen brothers movie seems more than an apt comparison with an ordinary setting, a lot of unexpected twists and tension, and a whole lot of blood. That gory factor generally turns me off in a book or a movie. But the Coen brothers have a way to do it that I can handle. Victor LaValle seems to have that same touch. Maybe because it feels appropriate where it's used, but also because the stories have so much more to recommend them.

I've never heard of LaValle before. A review on Vulture.com called LaValle a "prolific horror master." Now, I'm not a big fan of horror, not in my movies and not in my books. I don't want to read a book that makes me even more afraid of the bad things that really could happen to me. But if his particular brand of horror combines characters I care about in great story lines and I can don't feel like I won't be able to walk into my own house alone after dark, I might just have to give his work another try.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
Published May 2017 by Grove Atlantic
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Miss Burma tells the story of modern-day Burma through the eyes of Benny and Khin, husband and wife, and their daughter Louisa.

After attending school in Calcutta, Benny settles in Rangoon, then part of the British Empire, and falls in love with Khin, a woman who is part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. World War II comes to Southeast Asia, and Benny and Khin must go into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation, beginning a journey that will lead them to change the country’s history.

After the war, the British authorities make a deal with the Burman nationalists, led by Aung San, whose party gains control of the country. When Aung San is assassinated, his successor ignores the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and in doing so sets off what will become the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, has a danger-filled, tempestuous childhood and reaches prominence as Burma’s first beauty queen soon before the country falls to dictatorship. As Louisa navigates her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the West’s ongoing covert dealings in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.


My Thoughts:
I know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let's be honest, covers are important. When you're browsing the book store or web page or Netgalley, it's the book cover that will make you pull a book off the shelf (either literally or figuratively). It's the cover of Miss Burma that grabbed my attention first. But it was the book's description, and its reference to the Karen people, that made me request the book.

In Mini-me's final year of college, he took a volunteer position at the Intercultural Senior Center where he met Karen refugees (among a number of other cultural refugees). It was the first time I had heard about this minority people who been persecuted in their homeland for centuries. When I read the summary of this book and saw that it was about these people and their struggles, I couldn't wait to read it.

The book spans decades, from young Benny becoming an orphan to an adult Louisa making a final appeal to try to save the Karen people. As the spotlight moved from Benny and Khin to Louisa, I sometimes had a hard time figuring out who the focus was meant to be on and I had a tough time shifting my own interest from Benny and Khin to Louisa. Which is not to say that Louisa was not as interesting a character as her parents. In fact, Craig's characters are all fascinating and complicated, as are the relationships between the characters.

This is a tough read. Terrible things have been done to the minorities in Burma, not just by the majority but also by the British, the Japanese and the Americans. Terrible things are done to the people in this book and Craig does not shy away from details. She clearly wants readers to understand the horrors that humans are capable to committing. The atrocities are not drawn out, though, because this is a story about one family's part in the Karen's struggle and in their own struggle to understand and live with each other. The fact that Benny is Jewish is also an underlying storyline that impacts the family throughout their lives.

It's always a good thing to read venture afield in your reading, to learn about other lands and other peoples. It's especially valuable exercise when a book is as well done as Miss Burma. It is an emotional work that was at once hard to read and hard to put down.

The real Louisa and her father, Saw Benson (which was the name Benny became known as in the book)

Only after finishing the book did I discover that this is more than just a novel based on historical fact; it is a novel very closely based on Craig's own grandparents and mother. I almost certainly would have read the book differently had I known that going in so I'm glad I didn't. But it absolutely makes me think differently of the book knowing how much of the book was real.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Life: It Goes On - June 11

Well, we've had quite the week at our house this week - Miss H got a new car, my sister moved in one of those you-can't-make-this-stuff-up scenarios, and wedding prep is in full on mode. I

've hardly read a page and even forgot to finish up the two reviews I have in draft that are well on their way to being finished. That may well be how the next three weeks go reading- and blog-wise as we work to get final things done around the house and put the finishing touches on wedding "stuff." I'm trying to skim over blog posts but I'm unlikely to have time to comment until July.

As much fun as the wedding planning has been, and as excited as I am for "wedding week," I'm also kind of looking forward to life returning to normal.

This Week I'm:

Listening To: I finished Amy Poehler's Yes Please, which I really enjoyed. With only two weeks weeks of driving to work before I have the week off for the wedding, I'm not planning on starting a new audio book right now. I've been listening to the news and plan, for the next couple of weeks, to listen to podcasts during drive time. I'm WAY behind on those!

Top, left to right: There's something you don't see every day, Miss H's new car, the girls and I prepping guest gifts, my sis' dogs arriving in their new home
Bottom: the guest room is nearly finished! Need a new lamp shade, some decorative pillows and, time permitting, a couple of headboards brought up

Watching: Grace and Frankie (into Season 3 now and I'm going to be so sad when I'm all caught up and there are no more binge sessions to be had!), The Mindy Project (laugh out loud funny), hockey and basketball finals (the only time of the year I care about either one of these professional sports), and the first episode of the new season of Orange Is The New Black.

Reading: See above.

Making: Salads and dinners on the grill. Does having my great-niece bake brownies count for actually making something?

Planning: You already know this answer.

Thinking About: My sister and brother-in-law as they settle into their new house. They arrived yesterday and were greeted by their daughter, her SO, and her SO's parents who brought lots of food, gifts, and laughter - just what the doctor ordered after an extremely stressful week. Wish I could be there to help her!

Enjoying: Spending time with our great-nieces who came and helped me work on some projects for the wedding, including filling 102 cans with dirt and planting flower seeds.

Feeling: Depends on the hour of the day.

Looking forward to: Seeing my kids in just 13 days!

Question of the week: What's your best "how to stay calm" tip?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Life: It Goes On - June 4

It's sunny, it's sunny! We're finally able to eat dinner on the patio most nights. The cats are happy that they can finally lounge in the warm  sunshine and the flora and fauna are flourishing. Makes me a happy girl.

The Big Guy and Mini-him returned from a long weekend in Milwaukee  exhausted and full of stories of the fun they'd had. Makes me eager to get back up that way myself before the summer is over. I'm going to need a beach fix after I get through the wedding!

I'm reading! It took a book that was out of my usual wheelhouse to do it but I'm happy to say that I finally found a book that made me stay up past my bedtime reading. It got me to rethinking what I'm otherwise reading at this time. While I absolutely loved Ruby, I decided to skip moving onto another literary fiction audiobook for now and I've lightened up my nightstand reading as well. It's going to be hard for me to focus on books through the rest of this month and I've just got to acknowledge that and work around it.

This Week I'm:

Listening To: Yes Please by Amy Poehler which I downloaded through Audible and can listen to while I'm painting this weekend. I may look for something similar when I finish it rather than launch into my last book on CD, Middlesex, which is quite long and sure to require more thought.

Watching: Game of Thrones (we have GOT to get through season 6 before season 7 starts!), more Grace and Frankie (I'm seriously loving this show) and, this morning, on one of those weird channels I'll never find again, a show called Brain Games which we all three really enjoyed and which makes me want to work on word puzzles.

Reading: See above and in the sidebar. Siobhan Fallon, Confusion of Languages, is the author of You Know When The Men Are Gone which I was so impressed with so I have high hopes for this one.

Making: Not much creativity in the kitchen this week. Mostly salads and some grilling.

Planning: I'm not even going to bore you with the same response I've had every week for the past umpteen weeks! Let's just say that the corner of my dining room is fast filling up with things for the wedding and that doesn't include the boxes in the basement or the things on my dining room table.

Thinking About: The people of London. We are living in scary times.

Enjoying: Knocking a big project off my to-do list this weekend - I am finally getting the guest room painted. Can't wait to get it all put back together and different curtains hung.

Feeling: A little bit sad. I've know for weeks that my sister was moving and I'm very excited for them as they set off on their new adventure. I've even seen packed boxes piling up and lots of empty shelves. But it wasn't until I went into the bathroom there the other night and there was nothing left in there except soap and a hand towel that it really hit me that she won't be just two minutes away from me by this time next weekend.

Looking forward to: A virtual bridal shower for Miss S in just a couple of hours. It just occurred to me that in just 26 days she won't even be "Miss" S any more. Then what to call her? Mrs. S?

Question of the week: What's your go-to meal for summer dinners?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Read by Cynthia Bond
Published April 2014 by Crown Archetype
Source: purchased my audiobook copy at my local library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby Bell, “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at,” has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. Ruby quickly winds her way into the ripe center of the city—the darkened piano bars and hidden alleyways of the Village—all the while hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother.

When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, thirty-year-old Ruby finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood. With the terrifying realization that she might not be strong enough to fight her way back out again, Ruby struggles to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.


My Thoughts:
Some book reviews need to percolate in your brain awhile after you finish a book, allowing you time to gather your thoughts and process what you've just read. Some book reviews need to be written immediately so the feelings the book has generated shine through.

I'm not really sure which is the better approach for Ruby. I know that I will be thinking about this book for a very long time; perhaps I'd be more articulate if I gave myself more time to absorb Bond's story.

On the other hand, I've just finished it and I need to talk about it; I only wish I could do it justice. Because this is a book that needs to be read; we need to force ourselves to face the things in our world that are horrific and unimaginable. Ruby is filled with those things. It is a punch to the gut over and over again. I wanted to keep thinking to myself "it's only a book, it's only a book." But, the thing is, that it's not. The things that happen in this book happen in real life and, like the citizens of Liberty Township, we are too quick to turn a blind eye, to allow people to hide behind screens like religion and to believe that things cannot change.

The publisher's summary only hints at the kind of person Ruby has become when the book begins. After a lifetime of being the victim of monstrous men and women, Ruby has turned inward to try to hold onto the only thing she has left in the world. She is, both literally and figuratively, a mess. Through flashbacks readers discover the evil that has been done to Ruby. But it is not Ruby alone who has suffered and Bond helps readers to understand the domino effect that abuse causes. She makes us see that as much harm can be caused by those who turn away as from those who perpetrate abuse. As much harm is caused by those who turn a blind eye to racism as by those who practice it.

Bond's writing is both beautiful and graphically violent. You know the old trope "show me, don't tell me?" Bond is brilliant at showing readers what she wants them to see. The land around Liberty Township, the way Ruby's hair cascades down her back after Ephram washes it, the men who cluster harmlessly on the porch of the P & K grocery only to become entirely different people when they leave that place, the uptight and self-righteous way Ephram's sister Celia lives her life. It was like watching a movie play out in my head, which made the terrible things that happened that much more difficult to hear.
"She wore gray like rain clouds and wandered the red roads in bared feet. Calluses thick as boot leather. Hair caked with mud. Blackened nails as if she had scratched the slate of night. Her acres of legs carrying her, arms swaying like a loose screen. Her eyes the ink of sky, just before the storm."
"He sat alongside the crowd of men parked on their stools outside P & K. Who read their papers, played dominoes and chewed tobacco. Toothpicks dangling. Pipes smoking. Soda pops sweating. Just as they had the day Ruby arrived back in Liberty. When she'd stepped from the red bus, the porch had crowded her with their eyes. Hair pressed and gleaming like polished black walnut. Lipstick red and thick, her cornflower blue sundress darted and stitched tight to her waist. Ephram had watched her light a cigarette and glare down at the crowd on the market porch in such a way that made folks feel embarrassed for breathing."

Bond reads the audiobook and it is one of the cases where there could not have been a better person for the job. She knows exactly how to sooth the listener, how to build the tension, when to let things settle in slowly. I highly recommend the audio version of the book. I also can't recommend highly enough Andi's review of this book on Estella's Revenge. It is what convinced me to read this book even though it scared me enough to put it off for a while.

Be warned, the book is filled with sexual and racial violence. It is not for the faint of heart. But it is also a story about love. About the ways that the lack of love in a life can hurt but also about the ways that love can save, the love of a man for a woman and the love of a mother for her children. You will cry, you will be awakened to things you might prefer be left unknown, but you will also be left with hope.