Monday, September 28, 2020

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory
by Richard Powers 
Source: checked out from my local library…twice 

Publisher’s Summary: The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’ twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

My Thoughts: The New York Times called this book “magisterial.” Ron Charles, of The Washington Post, called it “fascinating.” The notoriously cranky (at least in my mind) Kirkus Reviews called it a “magnificent achievement.” It won the Pulitzer Prize, for heaven’s sake. So, while I had no idea what the book was about when I picked it up, I knew it was supposed to be great and I had high expectations. But this was one of those books that made me wonder what I was missing that made everyone else love this book so much. Thank heavens for The Guardian, whose reviewer seemed to feel much the same way I did: “Richard Powers’ novel has its heart in a fine place, but it works by browbeating the reader with lectures and daft melodrama.” 

There are nine, count ‘em nine, main characters in the story. Powers introduces readers to them in what seem to be short stories, each having, at least peripherally, something to do with trees. Eventually their story lines will intersect, some much more than others. It was impressive that Powers was able to create nine characters that I found interesting and unique and that I came to care about. But some of these characters interact in such a small way with the other characters that they might well have been in their own books (and those would have been interesting books to read). But, as the reviewer from The Guardian says, “There’s nothing…Power doesn’t spell out for us. If there’s a moral dilemma, the characters will pick it over. If there’s something to spot, it’s always clearly signposted.” I kept thinking about that old adage about writing, “show, don’t tell.” 

In fairness to this book, my feelings about it are colored by the fact that I read half of the book before it had to be returned to the library and then it was weeks before I got it back again. It’s hard to pick back up where you left off – details have been lost, it takes a bit to remember who is who, and feelings about the book have faded. I can’t be sure what my final thoughts would have been about this book had I read it straight through. Well, that’s not entirely true. 

Guys, there is a lot of information about trees in this book. How they grow, how they communicate, what they give back to the universe, and lists and lists of the different kinds of trees. I learned a lot about trees, no doubt about it; but, golly, it often felt repetitive and I reached the point where I was skimming over a great deal of it. Powers have felt that he needed readers to understand all of that in order for us to understand his characters’ environmental activism but I didn’t feel like I needed to get hit over the head with it. Which was another area where I felt like things got repetitive and, to be honest, preachy. Although the reviewer in The Atlantic does point out “Most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change – or of deforestation, clear-cutting, habitat loss.” I can’t really argue with that; maybe Powers is right to believe that people need to be schooled on what the loss of trees is doing to the environment. Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that the people who most need to learn those lessons aren’t the kind of people who will read this book. 

One of Powers’ characters says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” The reviewer for the Atlantic says of that, “There is a term for stories written with the purpose of converting minds to support a cause. And it is the opposite of literature.” Powers is clearly trying to convert minds with this book. If that is the opposite of literature, I’m back to wondering how this book won the Pulitzer.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Life: It Goes On - September 27

Happy Sunday! It's grey and rainy here - good thing we knocked out most of the outdoor projects yesterday when it was warm and sunny. Heading out the door shortly to have lunch with my parents and pick up some landscaping stones they are getting rid of - part of my next project! Because, apparently, I've got to have a project going at all times. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm listening to Robin Diangelo's White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. This one picks up on some things the other books I've been reading lately brought up - the things that white people do and say - and explains why we are the way we are. Hint: we were raised that way. Which is not to say anything bad about our parents - very often they were teaching us things they thought felt were not racist. Heck, I did some of these things with my kids. Like saying "I don't see color" or hushing my kids when they were little and pointed out that a person was black, as though that were something to be embarrassed about. 

Watched: Lots of cooking shows, baseball, basketball, and, football.

Read: I'm working on Joyce Carol Oates' Night, Sleep, Death and Stars. I'm really enjoying it but, guys, it's really long and I'm feeling like I'm in desperate need of something light and quick when I finish this. 

Made: Homemade tomato soup for dinner tonight which will be finished with fried cheese curds instead of grilled cheese sandwiches. I also pulled out the bread machine for the first time in months. I think I'm the only person in the country that didn't take up bread making during the pandemic. 

Enjoyed: Perhaps just a little too much wine on the patio last night when we did our weekly get together with friends. But it was so much fun and just the kind of therapy that works best for me. 

This Week I’m:  

On finishing up my latest project (my brother-in-law gave me some old, old kitchen drawers that I'm turning into wall hangings for one of the guest rooms which I'll change out seasonally) and continuing my work on sorting the things I've saved over the years for the scrapbooks that never happened. The goal is to get all of the mementos paperwork into that cabinet and out of the dozen or so boxes that it's currently in. It's a lovely trip down memory lane as I go!

Thinking About: Soups and breads. Now that I've busted the seal on fall cooking, I'm ready to get back in the kitchen and create.

Feeling: Even though the kitchen is giving me the fall feels, watching all of my beautiful potted plants slowly dying has been feeling blue. I'm off to get some mums to replace some of them to try to perk myself back up again. We'll see if I can keep them alive this year!

Looking forward to: Well, I was looking forward to a trip north next weekend but my sister had some very good news this week and it won't work for her any  longer and CoVid has gotten more active in Rochester, which makes visiting Mini-me and Ms. S more risky. So that trip's getting pushed back. I'm hoping that means that I can talk The Big Guy into cleaning out the garage. How sad is that that I'm looking forward to that. Can you say "middle-aged?"

Question of the week: Is it feeling like fall there yet? Are you breaking out the soups or pumpkin spice yet? 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult 

Published September 2020 by Random House Publishing Group

Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:

Everything changes in a single moment for Dawn Edelstein. She's on a plane when the flight attendant makes an announcement: prepare for a crash landing. She braces herself as thoughts flash through her mind. The shocking thing is, the thoughts are not of her husband, but a man she last saw fifteen years ago: Wyatt Armstrong.

Dawn, miraculously, survives the crash, but so do all the doubts that have suddenly been raised. She has led a good life. Back in Boston, there is her husband, Brian, her beloved daughter, and her work as a death doula, where she helps ease the transition between life and death for patients in hospice.

But somewhere in Egypt is Wyatt Armstrong, who works as an archaeologist unearthing ancient burial sites, a job she once studied for, but was forced to abandon when life suddenly intervened. And now, when it seems that fate is offering her second chances, she is not as sure of the choice she once made.

After the crash landing, the airline ensures the survivors are seen by a doctor, then offers transportation wherever they want to go. The obvious option for Dawn is to continue down the path she is on and go home to her family. The other is to return to the archaeological site she left years before, reconnect with Wyatt and their unresolved history, and maybe even complete her research on The Book of Two Ways--the first known map of the afterlife.

As the story unfolds, Dawn's two possible futures unspool side by side, as do the secrets and doubts long buried beside them. Dawn must confront the questions she's never truly asked: What does a life well-lived look like? When we leave this earth, what do we leave behind? Do we make choices...or do our choices make us? And who would you be, if you hadn't turned out to be the person you are right now?

My Thoughts:

You might recall that not long ago I finally read my first Jodi Picoult book. Two things had put me off before that: the snobbish idea that good books cannot be written as fast as Picoult writes books and the idea that her books seem to always be about the latest "big" controversy. I still don't know that you could write the great American novel in a year but Picoult proved to me that you can write a book that will engross and entertain readers that quickly. And that if you can write well about whatever the latest big topic is, then it's good to write about those things in a way that will make people think about them. So we come to this book, which I was eager to read when it was offered to me. It is most decidedly not about the latest talking point. In fact, it is about two of the oldest subjects: love and death. 

Having not long ago read God, Graves, and Scholars, it was interesting for me to find myself back in Egypt, uncovering the mysteries of ancient burials. According to Wikipedia, "The Book of Two Ways is a precursor to the New Kingdom books of the underworld as well as the Book of the Dead, in which descriptions of the routes through the afterlife are a persistent theme. The two ways depicted are the land and water routes, separated by a lake of fire, that lead to Rostau and the abode of Osiris." Taking that as her starting point, Picoult has tied ancient superstitions with physic's theory of a multiverse. As explained by Brian, in the book, the idea is that every action has multiple outcomes and that each of them exists in a different universe. 

Picoult has structured her book so that I was never quite sure where in time I was or if I were reading two possible different outcomes which, instead of finding confusing, I found really intriguing. In her current life, Water/Boston, Dawn is a death doula, wife, and mother; in her past, Land/Egypt, she is a graduate student on the cusp of a major archaeological discovery and passionately in love with a fellow student. In both locations, Picoult spends a lot of time sharing with readers what she has learned about hospice work, quantum physics, and Egyptology. A lot. It was certainly interesting, and Picoult has done an incredible amount of research, but it often distracted from Dawn's story. 

Speaking of Dawn's story: you know the old trope where our two leads hate each other in the beginning and then end up falling in love? Yeah, that's Dawn and Wyatt. Unfortunately, that story's grown old for me and I have a hard time buying the idea that the guy that was a jerk in the beginning turns out to be Mr. Wonderful. Which is a problem here - we have to believe that Wyatt was so incredible that Dawn never fell out of love with him and I never entirely bought that. 

And yet...despite that fact that I felt like Picoult took a couple of story lines too far and that some of the plotting was predictable...I liked this book, to a large extent, I think, because I liked the structure and the idea of wondering what might have happened if. I appreciated that Picoult doesn't make either of the men in Dawn's life less than the other; both have their flaws but plenty of reasons for Dawn to be love them. Which makes the ending of the book unknown to readers and I really liked the way that Picoult left things open in the end. For fans of Picoult, I think you'll enjoy this one. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall

Hood Feminism: Notes From The Women That A Movement Forgot
by Mikki Kendall 
Read by Mikki Kendall
Published February 2020 by Penguin Publishing Group 
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library 

Publisher’s Summary: Today's feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women. Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue, argues Mikki Kendall, but food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues. All too often, however, the focus is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few. That feminists refuse to prioritize these issues has only exacerbated the age-old problem of both internecine discord, and women who rebuff at carrying the title. Moreover, prominent white feminists broadly suffer from their own myopia with regard to how things like race, class, sexual orientation, and ability intersect with gender. How can we stand in solidarity as a movement, Kendall asks, when there is the distinct likelihood that some women are oppressing others? 

In her searing collection of essays, Mikki Kendall takes aim at the legitimacy of the modern feminist movement arguing that it has chronically failed to address the needs of all but a few women. Drawing on her own experiences with hunger, violence, and hypersexualization, along with incisive commentary on politics, pop culture, the stigma of mental health, and more, Hood Feminismdelivers an irrefutable indictment of a movement in flux. An unforgettable debut, Kendall has written a ferocious clarion call to all would-be feminists to live out the true mandate of the movement in thought and in deed. 

My Thoughts: Almost four years ago, I marched in the first Women’s March. Almost immediately, there was an outcry that the movement didn’t represent women of color. “What are they talking about,” I wondered. “Aren’t all of the things feminism has been fighting for thing all women want?” The answer, as it turns out, is yes…and no. Yes, all women should be fighting against sexual harassment and assault; but white women need to recognize that women of color suffer from this issue in far greater numbers. Sure, all women may want to see the glass ceiling broken; but white women need to acknowledge that they are in a far better position to benefit from that than women of color. And do you remember when being a feminist meant you didn’t shave your legs? It seems silly now (and, honestly, it was probably a silly gesture 40+ years ago), especially when you consider that women of color are far more concerned about basic survival than whether or not they can stop shaving their armpits. 

Some years ago, I decided to try to read more diversely. I picked up books by Asian authors, books set in Africa, books about minorities here. But it really wasn’t until this year that I’ve really started waking up to the fact that reading diversely sometimes means reading books that make me uncomfortable, that challenge what I have believed or wake me up to things that I had no idea were happening in this country. This is one of those books. I tend to get defensive when I start reading (I’m working on that), so it can take a bit before I stop defending and start listening. But it’s hard to argue with the idea that white women have been so myopic in their fight for equal rights that they’ve ignored the fact that millions of women don’t know how they are going to feed their families, receive subpar educations, don’t earn a living wage because of our minimum wage, live with violence daily, and watch their men being criminalized in disproportionate numbers. 

Kendall is, understandably, angry about what she feels like is a betrayal. And, let’s be honest, it’s not the first time that white women have left women of color behind to further themselves. White women wouldn’t have earned the right to vote when they did had it not been for the work of black women; but when push came to shove, white women saved themselves. Perhaps they promised to circle back and bring up their sisters; they never did. It’s easy to imagine that women of color feel like the same thing has happened to them again. Not only have white women not worked to pull up their sisters, a majority of middle-aged white women voted for a man who has done everything in his power to keep people of color down. 

Perhaps the best way to make change is to be in positions of leadership where doing that is possible but Kendall wants us to remember that too many women continue to suffer while white women try to climb their way up to those positions. Almost four years ago, millions of women captured the world’s attention by rising up and demanding change. We weren’t waiting then for our chance to be on top (although we were angry that we had just lost that) and we need to stop waiting now.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Life: It Goes On - September 23

Happy Sunday! It's been a good week at Casa Shep. Lots of things to report enjoying and today will be more of the same. It's been cool here this week but the 80's are coming back this week and, while I know a lot of you are thrilled that fall is here, this girl is going to enjoy the warmer temps again. I did finally finish  swapping out the summer decor for fall and I may make a trip to the pumpkin patch this week. All of which kind of sums up both Nebraska's and my mindset in September!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I did a double-time re-read of Furious Hours to prep for book club. It had been so long since I read it that I couldn't remember enough details to set up the game I wanted us to play so a re-read was in order. Then I started the Omaha Reads book for this year, After The Flood, which my book club will be discussing in October. 

 Lots of sports, several episodes of Grace and Frankie, and last night The Big Guy, Miss H, and I watched Wine Country, starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. None of us was expecting all that much out of it but we were all in the mood for something light that none of us had ever seen before. Turns out this one had all three of us laughing...a lot. The 20 minutes or so fell a little flat and was predictable; but, overall, we all enjoyed it. 

Read: I finally finished The Overstory. I have very mixed feelings about this one. As so often happens, I don't get why it won the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, it's unique and makes readers think about our place in the universe, but...Well, the rest is for my review. 

Made: It's been a busy week and not much cooking has been going on. I made a chicken pesto bake which was a do-again meal. BG was on a roll in the kitchen; he made an apple pie with homemade crust (very good for his first solo effort at crust) and a loaf of what I will generously call sourdough "bread." Not sure what went wrong with that; knowing BG, he'll be trying it again sooner rather than later. 

Enjoyed: So much people time (now there's something you won't hear me say very often!). Tuesday was book club, Wednesday was happy hour with two of my besties, Thursday I went into work (I love, love working from home but it is nice to work with people once in a while), then Friday Miss H arrived for the weekend. 

This Week I’m:  

On moving this beauty to its new home. My father-in-law built this library table when he was in high school, eighty years ago. Some of their family friends actually had it for a long time until BG talked them into giving it back to the family. Some years ago, when there really wasn't a good place for it upstairs any more, it got relegated to the basement where the kids used it as a desk. Sadly, the top took a beating and at one point, the back brace even got broken. It was a sad looking piece of furniture. A couple of years ago, my dad repaired it and last week I finally brought it out of the basement to get it cleaned up. The plan was just to clean up and restore the top. But, as all of my plans do, I decided to do more than I had planned, completely sanding it down to bare wood then bringing it back to life with just oil. Now it will serve as a vanity space in one of the guest rooms. I like to think that Jack would be pleased with what it looks like now!

Thinking About: Fall deep cleaning. Heck, I might even finally get the windows cleaned outside!

Feeling: Devastated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was such an inspiration for so many, the first Jewish female on the Supreme Court, a champion of the common person and women's rights. 

Looking forward to: Lunch with Mini-him and Miss H then we're headed to BG's hometown for dinner with dear friends we haven't seen since March. 

Question of the week: I can't believe it took us six months to jump on the sourdough bread bandwagon. Have you one of the many who have tried their hand at making sourdough bread through this pandemic?