Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
Published January 2014 by Ballantine Books
Source: downloaded from the publisher via Netgalley for a TLC Book Tour in exchange for a fair review

Publisher's Summary: 
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium—with her three children and nanny in tow—to study art. It is a chance for this adventurous woman to start over, to make a better life for all of them, and to pursue her own desires. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her children repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. Emerging from a deep sorrow, she meets a lively Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who falls instantly in love with the earthy, independent, and opinionated “belle Americaine.” Fanny does not immediately take to the slender young lawyer who longs to devote his life to writing—and who would eventually pen such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair—marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness—that spans the decades and the globe. The shared life of these two strong-willed individuals unfolds into an adventure as impassioned and unpredictable as any of Stevenson’s own unforgettable tales.

My Thoughts:
I read Horan's Loving Frank with the Omaha Bookworms several years ago and was impressed with her ability to craft a work of fiction so faithfully accurate to the historical truths of the characters' lives she explored. In Under The Wide And Starry Sky, Horan again tells the story of a man consumed by his creative passion and the woman he can't live without. Surprisingly, Horan has once again found an historical figure who falls in love with a married woman, although here Fanny van de Grift Osbourne's marriage had already fallen apart.
"She no longer had any illusions that her connection to Sam was love. It was something stronger, like tangled veins and shared blood and unholy patterns that couldn't be escaped."
Like Mamah Cheney, of Loving Frank, Fanny was ahead of her time in her desire to become an independent woman living life on her own terms. And, like Mameh, Fanny is leaving her marriage to make and escape but finding the way out is difficult.
"If I seek to make a mark of my own, am I not a woman, then?"
Fanny may or may not have had real talent of her own, but her greatest skill seems to have been in helping Louis (as he preferred to be called) get his dreams onto paper and published. That and keeping him alive. Stevenson was forever battling live-threatening illness and Fanny and he lived like gypsies for much of their lives as the moved from place to place for his health.

Both Louis and Fanny were deeply flawed - he was blind to the flaws and bad behavior of his friends and never held a job despite extreme poverty, she was prone to fits of anger that caused her to act first and question her behavior later.

While the relationship between the two, the relationships they have with their families and other literary figures of the time is interesting, the story can get bogged down with too much detail, detail that takes the book to nearly 500 pages. Yet much of the detail also adds immeasurably to the book, including, for me, a stop by Fanny in Omaha and the Stevensons' first impressions of the islands of the South Pacific. Part of the pleasure for me with this book, too, was the way it tied into books that I've recently read, The Painted Ladies by Cathy Marie Buchanan and I Am Madame X which dealt with a painting by John Singer Sargent who also painted the Stevensons.

Robert Louis Stevenson died in those islands at the age of 44. Fanny worked tirelessly after his death to keep his name known.
"Maybe he knew that life is not an even fight," Louis mused. "Given the odds, it's the stand on takes that matters."
In an age when other writers were turning to the gritty reality, Robert Louis Stevenson believed in writing about adventures and dreams. Sadly, his own life was as much about pain as it was adventure.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For other opinions about the book, please check out the full tour.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Published December 2012 by Viking Penguin
Source: downloaded to my Nook to read with the Omaha Bookworms

Publisher's Summary: 
They had nothing in common until love gave them everything to lose . . .

Louisa Clark is an ordinary girl living an exceedingly ordinary life—steady boyfriend, close family—who has barely been farther afield than their tiny village. She takes a badly needed job working for ex–Master of the Universe Will Traynor, who is wheelchair bound after an accident. Will has always lived a huge life—big deals, extreme sports, worldwide travel—and now he’s pretty sure he cannot live the way he is.

Will is acerbic, moody, bossy—but Lou refuses to treat him with kid gloves, and soon his happiness means more to her than she expected. When she learns that Will has shocking plans of his own, she sets out to show him that life is still worth living.

My Thoughts:
I have a confession to make - this book arrived in my mailbox one day, unsolicited, more than a year ago. It sat on my desk in limbo for some time before I decided it sounded it wasn't for me and gave it away. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Read it, they said. It will make you cry, they said. Still, I was a bit nervous about recommending it to the Bookworms. I wasn't even sure, when I did, that it would be a book that was discussion worthy. Is a tear-jerker really a worthy book club choice? Yes, yes it is. Not only did everyone enjoy the book, we had one of our best discussions.

The book gets off to a bit of a shaky start; the prologue is a little melodramatic. But from there Moyes delivers a story that completely sucked me in and won me over. There is nothing fussy about Moyes' writing but it's her straight-forward style that helps readers connect to her characters and their problems. And they are characters that are so easy to relate to. You know people like Lou and her parents; you have had relationships like the one between Lou and her sister; you've met people like pre-accident Will and his family.
"It's just that the thing you never understand about being a mother, until you are one, is that it is not the grown man - the galumphing, unshaven, stinking, opinionated offspring - you see before you, with his parking tickets and unpolished shoes and complicated love life. You see all the people he has ever been all rolled into one."
Lou and Will are going to stay with me a long time. I loved the way their relationship developed, their repartee, and their honesty.
"Nobody wants to hear that stuff. Nobody wants you to talk about being afraid, or in pain, or being scared of dying through some stupid, random infection. Nobody wants to know how it feels to know you will never have sex again, never eat food you've made with your own hands again, never hold your own child. Nobody wants to know that sometimes I feel so claustrophobic, being in this chair, I just want to scream like a madman at the thought of another day in it. " 
I'll leave you with some of my favorite gems from the book. Oh, and about that crying? Yep, I absolutely did cry...quite a lot. I defy you not to.
"I just want to be a man who has been to a concert with a girl in a red dress."
"You only get one life. It's actually your duty to live it as fully as possible."
"Her face, when she turned to me, told me I should do the same. It could contain a million message, my mother's face..."
"Some mistakes...just have greater consequences than others. But you don't have to let that night be the thing that defines you."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Life: It Goes On - February 23

Good morning all! Do you remember a few weeks ago when I said I was  ready for spring to be here? Now the weather is catching up with me. Thursday morning it started raining which turned into wet, heavy snow that came down for a few hours and then melted so that it was completely off the roads by the time everyone left work. Perfect! It's time to put away the snowman collection for another year. This usually means we'll have a blizzard within the week but I'm willing to risk it.

The Olympics will end tonight. While, I'll miss them, I'm so tired of watching the same commercials over and over again. After two weeks, I still don't get the catch phrase "Hot. Cool. Yours."

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: I didn't quite finish Shirley yet, one more day of that. I'm thinking I'll download Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from Librivox to start next. Thursday, it's time to get back to the library book sale for more books on audio.

Watching: Untold hours of curling, ice skating and various methods of flinging oneself down the side of a mountain. This week I'm looking forward to the new season of The Voice.

Reading: I'm racing to finish Nancy Horan's Under A Wide And Starry Sky for a TLC review on Tuesday. It's my first read on the iPad and I have mixed feelings about it. On my Nook, I've started Diana Gabaldon's Outlander as part of a readalong.

Making: I have a crockpot of chicken breasts cooking right now and when they're finished, I'll start pork chops. I missed having meat ready for meals last week!

Planning: Continuing to work on lightening things up for spring and adding color to every room.

Grateful for: Ibuprofen and naps.

Loving: How much stronger I'm feeling after almost four months of hitting the gym. I refuse to get on a scale since my goal is to get healthier, not to lose weight; but I'm definitely losing weight and inches.

Feeling: Frustrated by this headache I've battled all weekend. I hate wasting weekends!

Thinking: It's probably a good thing the Olympics are ending - I'm watching entirely too much television the past couple of weeks to the detriment of everything else that needs to be done.

Looking forward to: Gardening. It's about time to start seeds!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Tinkers by Paul Harding
Published January 2009 by Bellevue Literary Press
Source: bought this one off the clearance shelf at Half Price Books

An old man lies dying. Propped up in his living room and surrounded by his children and grandchildren, George Washington Crosby drifts in and out of consciousness, back to the wonder and pain of his impoverished childhood in Maine. As the clock repairer’s time winds down, his memories intertwine with those of his father, an epileptic, itinerant peddler and his grandfather, a Methodist preacher beset by madness. At once heartbreaking and life affirming, Tinkers is an elegiac meditation on love, loss, illness, faith, and the fierce beauty of nature.

My Thoughts:
Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for literature. I understand why - it has the ingredients prize committees love. I'm not sure, however,  I understand the book. The writing was often incredibly beautiful, the symbolism within reach (which is to say, I was not left scratching my head), the stories of the various characters moving. But...

There is so, so, so much detail about the workings of clocks. To be fair, a dying clock repairman's brain might be filled with the details of his craft as his mind begins to turn in on itself. But I began to feel like Harding was trying to hit me over the head with his point. I felt the same way about descriptions of nature (although it was easier to get lost in the beauty of the imagery).

Perhaps some of the difficulty I had with the book were in my expectations. I believed that I would be reading about a man's dying thoughts. I was not expecting to be reading so much of his father's and grandfather's stories. I understand that what came before forms a person but the details of George's ancestors surely wouldn't have been known to him to the extent that they were firing in his brain in his final hours.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking, missing the bigger picture. Tinkers is a Pulitzer prize winner I wanted to love as I have so many others. But...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Fives

Trish of Love, Laughter and A Touch of Insanity posted a meme the other day that she'd found at Silly Little Mischief some time ago. It looked like so much fun, I thought I'd play along. Trish encouraged readers to play along and I do, too!

Five Books I've Recently Added To My TBR List: 
*The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
*We Live In Water by Jess Walter
*The Ugly Sister by Jane Fallon
*Goodnight June by Sarah Jio
*Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

Five Books I'm Planning To Read In The Near Future:

*Moon Sisters by Theresa Walsh
*The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
*Pagini's Ghost by Paul Adam
*Casebook: A Novel by Mona Simpson
*The Kings and Queens of Roam by Daniel Wallace

Five Books I Own But Still Haven't Read:
*The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
*Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
*Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
*We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
*The Women by T. C. Boyle

Five Books From Series I Need To Continue: 
*The Girl Who Played With Fire from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series
*In The Woods from the Murder Squad series (I actually started with book 4)
*Pardonable Lies from the Maisie Dobbs series (I've read several of the books but out of order)
*Hot Six from the Stephanie Plum series
*The Strangers On Montague Street from the Tradd Street series

Five Soon To Be Released Books That I'm Looking Forward To Reading: 
*Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
*Wonderland by Stacey D'Erasmo
*Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
*The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
*Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Happened To Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

What Happened To Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
Published 2011 by Viking
Source: bought this one for my Nook

Publisher's Summary: 
Since her parents' bitter divorce, Mclean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move - four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother's new family, Mclean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, Mclean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself - whoever that is. Perhaps her neighbor Dave, an academic superstar trying to be just a regular guy, can help her find out.

My Thoughts:
Mclean blames her mom for her parents' divorce. After all, it's her mom who has fallen in love with another man, a man that means not only can her parents no longer remain married but Mclean and her dad can't even enjoy one of their favorite things, college basketball. Blaming her mom means that Mclean has to overlook the part her dad played in the break up. Mclean is like most teenagers, trying to find her place in life and the nomadic life she and her dad live allow her to explore different personas in every place they land. But it also means that she doesn't have time for deep friendships or goodbyes. It's not until she finally allows people to get to know the real Mclean that she realizes how much she has lost.
"What happened to goodbye, Michael in Westcott had written on my Ume.com page. I was pretty sure I knew, ow. It had been packed away in a box of its own, trying to be forgotten, until I really needed it. Until now. "
I've been on a roll with books from the young adult genre lately, a genre I've had mixed feelings about in the past. After loving Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park, I was ready to see what else there was to love about young adult books.

Dessen is hugely popular and it's easy to understand her appeal. Not only does she populate this book with characters young people can relate to and cover topics they have to deal with, she does it all in a way that parents will not have a problem with. There is some drinking here but no drugs, no sex, and no cursing. This takes the edge off the story and makes it feel less like real life.

A project that Mclean and her new friends become involved in seemed like a distraction to me early on and I was never sure I liked it as a device. In the end, though, it plays a big role in the story so I'm left just wishing it had played a smaller role. Dessen also skirted the issue of acknowledging the role Mclean's dad played in the divorce, avoiding dealing with the problems that might cause in their relationship.

Dessen makes it clear early on that, despite all of the roadblocks she throws up, things will somehow work out for Mclean. Sometimes that's just what a reader, especially a young reader, needs.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Life: It Goes On - February 16

Dobroe utro (доброе утро) - good morning in Russian because you know I'm spending a good part of every day living there vicariously right now!

I took off work on Friday, partly as a built in mental health day, which I'm sorely in need of about this time of year, and party to spend the day watching the Olympics. I had a two-hour lunch with an old friend, did my Valentine's shopping and spent over an hour getting ready to have dinner with friends. I never spend that much time primping myself! It was so relaxing to have a day where I really did only what I felt like doing. Do you ever take a day to yourself?

We had such a lovely Valentine's potluck dinner hosted by friends at their home. All five of the couple have been married at least 25 years - well past the point of needing a big fuss one day a year to prove our love. Instead we had a relaxing evening filled with great food and lots of laughs.

One of the couples knew another couple who lived in a Lustron home. Have you ever heard of these? Built after World War II as inexpensive starter homes for soldiers coming home from war, they are entirely built of prefabricated baked enamel steel inside and out. You could move the furniture out and just hose down your house to clean it but you have to hang everything on the walls with magnets because you can't use nails. Have you ever seen one of these? I can't imagine living in one but I'm fascinated by them.

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Still Shirley but I'm happy to say that I'm enjoying it more now that things are finally starting to happen. I'm hoping to be done with it this week. I may well take a break from listening to books before I start a new one.

Watching: Lots and lots of curling. I'm really enjoying some of the additions to the Olympics line up.

Reading: I finished two books this week and I'm about half way through Me Before You for book club on Tuesday.

Making: The Big Guy was out of town most of the week and the kids weren't home for most meals so I didn't spend much time in the kitchen this week. Made a baked chicken dinner for a family battling cancer one night and caramelized carrots for our Valentine's dinner.

Planning: On enjoying the much warmer temperatures that are forecast for this week. Walking outside is definitely going to be an option which will be a nice break from the treadmill.

Grateful for: The time I've gotten to spend with Mini-me this past week. Since he lives on the other side of town and is busy with school and working, we don't always get to see a lot of him. Love when he needs some Mom and Dad time!

Feeling: Relaxed - amazing what a nice long weekend can do for a girl.

Thinking: I'm already wanting to put away the snowman collection for the year. It goes along with a feeling I'm having of a need to clean off surfaces and lighten things up. Every time I put the snowmen  away early, though, we get hit with a blizzard so they'll stay up until at least the end of this month.

Looking Forward To: Book club this week - you know how much I love my ladies!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Fairy Tale Fridays: Russian Fairy Tales

Because of my utter focus on the Olympics, in honor of them being held in Sochi Russia, today I bring you a Russian fairy tale, The Fool Of The World And The Flying Ship. I got the edition pictured (retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz) for my children when they were young and it was one of their favorite stories.

Russian fairy tales vary greatly because of the size of the country - from tales with a very European feel, to those, like this one, with a Slavic sensibility, to much more Asian tales. Baba Yaga and Firebird tales are probably the best known. But this is one of my favorites - perhaps because the fool is not such a fool after all. He's a kind person who surrounds himself with the right people who bring him up in the world.

There were once upon a time an old peasant and his wife, and they had three sons. Two of them were clever young men who could borrow money without being cheated, but the third was the Fool of the World. He was as simple as a child, simpler than some children, and he never did any one a harm in his life.

Well, it always happens like that. The father and mother thought a lot of the two smart young men; but the Fool of the World was lucky if he got enough to eat, because they always forgot him unless they happened to be looking at him, and sometimes even then.

But however it was with his father and mother, this is a story that shows that God loves simple folk, and turns things to their advantage in the end.

For it happened that the Tzar of that country sent out messengers along the highroads and the rivers, even to huts in the forest like ours, to say that he would give his daughter, the Princess, in marriage to any one who could bring him a flying ship--ay, a ship with wings, that should sail this way and that through the blue sky, like a ship sailing on the sea.

"This is a chance for us," said the two clever brothers; and that same day they set off together, to see if one of them could not build the flying ship and marry the Tzar's daughter, and so be a great man indeed.

And their father blessed them, and gave them finer clothes than ever he wore himself. And their mother made them up hampers of food for the road, soft white rolls, and several kinds of cooked meats, and bottles of corn brandy. She went with them as far as the highroad, and waved her hand to them till they were out of sight. And so the two clever brothers set merrily off on their adventure, to see what could be done with their cleverness. And what happened to them I do not know, for they were never heard of again.

The Fool of the World saw them set off, with their fine parcels of food, and their fine clothes, and their bottles of corn brandy.

"I'd like to go too," says he, "and eat good meat, with soft white rolls, and drink corn brandy, and marry the Tzar's daughter."

"Stupid fellow," says his mother, "what's the good of your going? Why, if you were to stir from the house you would walk into the arms of a bear; and if not that, then the wolves would eat you before you had finished staring at them."

But the Fool of the World would not be held back by words.

"I am going," says he. "I am going. I am going. I am going."

He went on saying this over and over again, till the old woman his mother saw there was nothing to be done, and was glad to get him out of the house so as to be quit of the sound of his voice. So she put some food in a bag for him to eat by the way. She put in the bag some crusts of dry black bread and a flask of water. She did not even bother to go as far as the footpath to see him on his way. She saw the last of him at the door of the hut, and he had not taken two steps before she had gone back into the hut to see to more important business.

No matter. The Fool of the World set off with his bag over his shoulder, singing as he went, for he was off to seek his fortune and marry the Tzar's daughter. He was sorry his mother had not given him any corn brandy; but he sang merrily for all that. He would have liked white rolls instead of the dry black crusts; but, after all, the main thing on a journey is to have something to eat. So he trudged merrily along the road, and sang because the trees were green and there was a blue sky overhead.

He had not gone very far when he met an ancient old man with a bent back, and a long beard, and eyes hidden under his bushy eyebrows.

"Good-day, young fellow," says the ancient old man.

"Good-day, grandfather," says the Fool of the World.

"And where are you off to?" says the ancient old man.

"What!" says the Fool; "haven't you heard? The Tzar is going to give his daughter to any one who can bring him a flying ship."

"And you can really make a flying ship?" says the ancient old man.

"No, I do not know how."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"God knows," says the Fool of the World.

"Well," says the ancient, "if things are like that, sit you down here. We will rest together and have a bite of food. Bring out what you have in your bag."

"I am ashamed to offer you what I have here. It is good enough for me, but it is not the sort of meal to which one can ask guests."

"Never mind that. Out with it. Let us eat what God has given."

The Fool of the World opened his bag, and could hardly believe his eyes. Instead of black crusts he saw fresh white rolls and cooked meats. He handed them out to the ancient, who said, "You see how God loves simple folk. Although your own mother does not love you, you have not been done out of your share of the good things. Let's have a sip at the corn brandy...."

The Fool of the World opened his flask, and instead of water there came out corn brandy, and that of the best. So the Fool and the ancient made merry, eating and drinking; and when they had done, and sung a song or two together, the ancient says to the Fool,--

"Listen to me. Off with you into the forest. Go up to the first big tree you see. Make the sacred sign of the cross three times before it. Strike it a blow with your little hatchet. Fall backwards on the ground, and lie there, full length on your back, until somebody wakes you up. Then you will find the ship made, all ready to fly. Sit you down in it, and fly off whither you want to go. But be sure on the way to give a lift to everyone you meet."

The Fool of the World thanked the ancient old man, said good-bye to him, and went off to the forest. He walked up to a tree, the first big tree he saw, made the sign of the cross three times before it, swung his hatchet round his head, struck a mighty blow on the trunk of the tree, instantly fell backwards flat on the ground, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.

A little time went by, and it seemed to the Fool as he slept that somebody was jogging his elbow. He woke up and opened his eyes. His hatchet, worn out, lay beside him. The big tree was gone, and in its place there stood a little ship, ready and finished. The Fool did not stop to think. He jumped into the ship, seized the tiller, and sat down. Instantly the ship leapt up into the air, and sailed away over the tops of the trees.

The little ship answered the tiller as readily as if she were sailing in water, and the Fool steered for the highroad, and sailed along above it, for he was afraid of losing his way if he tried to steer a course across the open country. He flew on and on, and looked down, and saw a man lying in the road below him with his ear on the damp ground.

"Good-day to you, uncle," cried the Fool.

"Good-day to you, Sky-fellow," cried the man.

"What are you doing down there?" says the Fool.

"I am listening to all that is being done in the world."

"Take your place in the ship with me."

The man was willing enough, and sat down in the ship with the Fool, and they flew on together singing songs. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man on one leg, with the other tied up to his head.

"Good-day, uncle," says the Fool, bringing the ship to the ground. "Why are you hopping along on one foot?"

"If I were to untie the other I should move too fast. I should be stepping across the world in a single stride."

"Sit down with us," says the Fool.

The man sat down with them in the ship, and they flew on together singing songs. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man with a gun, and he was taking aim, but what he was aiming at they could not see.

"Good health to you, uncle," says the Fool. "But what are you shooting at? There isn't a bird to be seen."

"What!" says the man. "If there were a bird that you could see, I should not shoot at it. A bird or a beast a thousand versts away, that's the sort of mark for me."

"Take your seat with us," says the Fool.

The man sat down with them in the ship, and they flew on together. Louder and louder rose their songs. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man carrying a sack full of bread on his back.

"Good health to you, uncle," says the Fool, sailing down. "And where are you off to?"

"I am going to get bread for my dinner."

"But you've got a full sack on your back."

"That--that little scrap! Why, that's not enough for a single mouthful."

"Take your seat with us," says the Fool.

The Eater sat down with them in the ship, and they flew on together, singing louder than ever. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man walking round and round a lake.

"Good health to you, uncle," says the Fool. "What are you looking for?"

"I want a drink, and I can't find any water."

"But there's a whole lake in front of your eyes. Why can't you take a drink from that?"

"That little drop!" says the man. "Why, there's not enough water there to wet the back of my throat if I were to drink it at one gulp."

"Take your seat with us," says the Fool.

The Drinker sat down with them, and again they flew on, singing in chorus. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man walking towards the forest, with a fagot of wood on his shoulders.

"Good-day to you, uncle," says the Fool. "Why are you taking wood to the forest?"

"This isn't simple wood," says the man.

"What is it, then?" says the Fool.

"If it is scattered about, a whole army of soldiers leaps up out of the ground."

"There's a place for you with us," says the Fool.

The man sat down with them, and the ship rose up into the air, and flew on, carrying its singing crew. They flew on and on, and looked down, and there was a man carrying a sack of straw.

"Good health to you, uncle," says the Fool; "and where are you taking your straw?"

"To the village."

"Why, are they short of straw in your village?"

"No; but this is such straw that if you scatter it abroad in the very hottest of the summer, instantly the weather turns cold, and there is snow and frost."

"There's a place here for you too," says the Fool.

"Very kind of you," says the man, and steps in and sits down, and away they all sail together, singing like to burst their lungs.

They did not meet any one else, and presently came flying up to the palace of the Tzar. They flew down and cast anchor in the courtyard.

Just then the Tzar was eating his dinner. He heard their loud singing, and looked out of the window and saw the ship come sailing down into his courtyard. He sent his servant out to ask who was the great prince who had brought him the flying ship, and had come sailing down with such a merry noise of singing.

The servant came up to the ship, and saw the Fool of the World and his companions sitting there cracking jokes. He saw they were all moujiks, simple peasants, sitting in the ship; so he did not stop to ask questions, but came back quietly and told the Tzar that there were no gentlemen in the ship at all, but only a lot of dirty peasants.

Now the Tzar was not at all pleased with the idea of giving his only daughter in marriage to a simple peasant, and he began to think how he could get out of his bargain. Thinks he to himself, "I'll set them such tasks that they will not be able to perform, and they'll be glad to get off with their lives, and I shall get the ship for nothing."

So he told his servant to go to the Fool and tell him that before the Tzar had finished his dinner the Fool was to bring him some of the magical water of life.

Now, while the Tzar was giving this order to his servant, the Listener, the first of the Fool's companions, was listening, and heard the words of the Tzar and repeated them to the Fool.

"What am I to do now?" says the Fool, stopping short in his jokes. "In a year, in a whole century, I never could find that water. And he wants it before he has finished his dinner."

"Don't you worry about that," says the Swift-goer, "I'll deal with that for you."

The servant came and announced the Tzar's command.

"Tell him he shall have it," says the Fool.

His companion, the Swift-goer, untied his foot from beside his head, put it to the ground, wriggled it a little to get the stiffness out of it, ran off, and was out of sight almost before he had stepped from the ship. Quicker than I can tell it you in words he had come to the water of life, and put some of it in a bottle.

"I shall have plenty of time to get back," thinks he, and down he sits under a windmill and goes off to sleep.

The royal dinner was coming to an end, and there wasn't a sign of him. There were no songs and no jokes in the flying ship. Everybody was watching for the Swift-goer, and thinking he would not be in time.

The Listener jumped out and laid his right ear to the damp ground, listened a moment, and said, "What a fellow! He has gone to sleep under the windmill. I can hear him snoring. And there is a fly buzzing with its wings, perched on the windmill close above his head."

"This is my affair," says the Far-shooter, and he picked up his gun from between his knees, aimed at the fly on the windmill, and woke the Swift-goer with the thud of the bullet on the wood of the mill close by his head. The Swift-goer leapt up and ran, and in less than a second had brought the magic water of life and given it to the Fool. The Fool gave it to the servant, who took it to the Tzar. The Tzar had not yet left the table, so that his command had been fulfilled as exactly as ever could be.

"What fellows these peasants are," thought the Tzar. "There is nothing for it but to set them another task." So the Tzar said to his servant, "Go to the captain of the flying ship and give him this message: 'If you are such a cunning fellow, you must have a good appetite. Let you and your companions eat at a single meal twelve oxen roasted whole, and as much bread as can be baked in forty ovens!'"

The Listener heard the message, and told the Fool what was coming. The Fool was terrified, and said, "I can't get through even a single loaf at a sitting."

"Don't worry about that," said the Eater. "It won't be more than a mouthful for me, and I shall be glad to have a little snack in place of my dinner."

The servant came, and announced the Tzar's command.

"Good," says the Fool. "Send the food along, and we'll know what to do with it."

So they brought twelve oxen roasted whole, and as much bread as could be baked in forty ovens, and the companions had scarcely sat down to the meal before the Eater had finished the lot.

"Why," said the Eater, "what a little! They might have given us a decent meal while they were about it."

The Tzar told his servant to tell the Fool that he and his companions were to drink forty barrels of wine, with forty bucketfuls in every barrel.

The Listener told the Fool what message was coming.

"Why," says the Fool, "I never in my life drank more than one bucket at a time."

"Don't worry," says the Drinker. "You forget that I am thirsty. It'll be nothing of a drink for me."

They brought the forty barrels of wine, and tapped them, and the Drinker tossed them down one after another, one gulp for each barrel. "Little enough," says he, "Why, I am thirsty still."

"Very good," says the Tzar to his servant, when he heard that they had eaten all the food and drunk all the wine. "Tell the fellow to get ready for the wedding, and let him go and bathe himself in the bath-house. But let the bathhouse be made so hot that the man will stifle and frizzle as soon as he sets foot inside. It is an iron bath-house. Let it be made red hot."

The Listener heard all this and told the Fool, who stopped short with his mouth open in the middle of a joke.

"Don't you worry," says the moujik with the straw.

Well, they made the bath-house red hot, and called the Fool, and the Fool went along to the bath-house to wash himself, and with him went the moujik with the straw.

They shut them both into the bath-house, and thought that that was the end of them. But the moujik scattered his straw before them as they went in, and it became so cold in there that the Fool of the World had scarcely time to wash himself before the water in the cauldrons froze to solid ice. They lay down on the very stove itself, and spent the night there, shivering.

In the morning the servants opened the bathhouse, and there were the Fool of the World and the moujik, alive and well, lying on the stove and singing songs.

They told the Tzar, and the Tzar raged with anger. "There is no getting rid of this fellow," says he. "But go and tell him that I send him this message: 'If you are to marry my daughter, you must show that you are able to defend her. Let me see that you have at least a regiment of soldiers,'" Thinks he to himself, "How can a simple peasant raise a troop? He will find it hard enough to raise a single soldier."

The Listener told the Fool of the World, and the Fool began to lament. "This time," says he, "I am done indeed. You, my brothers, have saved me from misfortune more than once, but this time, alas, there is nothing to be done."

"Oh, what a fellow you are!" says the peasant with the fagot of wood. "I suppose you've forgotten about me. Remember that I am the man for this little affair, and don't you worry about it at all."

The Tzar's servant came along and gave his message.

"Very good," says the Fool; "but tell the Tzar that if after this he puts me off again, I'll make war on his country, and take the Princess by force."

And then, as the servant went back with the message, the whole crew on the flying ship set to their singing again, and sang and laughed and made jokes as if they had not a care in the world.

During the night, while the others slept, the peasant with the fagot of wood went hither and thither, scattering his sticks. Instantly where they fell there appeared a gigantic army. Nobody could count the number of soldiers in it--cavalry, foot soldiers, yes, and guns, and all the guns new and bright, and the men in the finest uniforms that ever were seen.

In the morning, as the Tzar woke and looked from the windows of the palace, he found himself surrounded by troops upon troops of soldiers, and generals in cocked hats bowing in the courtyard and taking orders from the Fool of the World, who sat there joking with his companions in the flying ship. Now it was the Tzar's turn to be afraid. As quickly as he could he sent his servants to the Fool with presents of rich jewels and fine clothes, invited him to come to the palace, and begged him to marry the Princess.

The Fool of the World put on the fine clothes, and stood there as handsome a young man as a princess could wish for a husband. He presented himself before the Tzar, fell in love with the Princess and she with him, married her the same day, received with her a rich dowry, and became so clever that all the court repeated everything he said. The Tzar and the Tzaritza liked him very much, and as for the Princess, she loved him to distraction.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic - The Olympics Edition

You know I'm focused on the Olympics this week which got me to thinking about books related to all things Olympics. Considering my love of this event and my fondness for memoirs, I'm surprised by how few books about the events and the athletes I've read. Perhaps it's the idea that there are only so many ways to tell the story of amazing talent, astonishing perseverance, incredible hard work, and victory in the face of overwhelming odds. Still, there must be some that stand out.

Books I have read with an Olympics element:

*The Underwater Window by Dan Stephenson: a work of fiction about an Olympic swimmer (think Michael Phelps)

*Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: the story of Louis Zamperelli, an Olympic runner, who became a World War II prisoner of war after his plane was shot down

*The Other Side of the Mountain by Evans Valens: the story of skier Jill Kinmont who was in training for the Olympics when a tragic fall left her a quadriplegic

The long list of books with an Olympic theme includes these books that are getting added to the TBR list:

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

*Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World by David Maraniss

*Something In The Air: The Story of American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics by Richard Hoffer

*Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games by David Clay Large

*In The Water They Can't See You Cry by Amanda Beard

Have you read any books  about the Olympics or Olympic athletes that you would recommend?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Long Awaited Reads Month

Oops - just remembered that I never checked back in at the end of January to review how I did on choosing long-awaited reads.

Of the six books I finished in January, four were books I've been meaning to read for years (Life of Pi, Possession, The Secret Garden, and and I Am Madame X) and a fifth was a long-awaited reread (Daddy Long Legs). My second audio book in January was also a long-awaited read  but Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte, won't be finished for a couple more weeks yet.

I'd call that a successful month! If I could just keep up this pace of reading books I already own, I could make a real dent in my TBR mountain. Assuming, of course, that I don't add more books that I'm getting read.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Devils in the Sugar Shop by Timothy Schaffert

Devils in the Sugar Shop by Timothy Schaffert
Published May 2007 by Unbridled Books
Source: I bought this one at the Omaha Lit Fest

Publisher's Summary:
The lives of a failed erotic novelist, a hostess of prim sex-toy parties, an artist and a bookshop owner pursued by a demented if harmless stalker--all members of the artsy crowd in Omaha, Nebraska--collide one snowy winter evening, the week before Valentine's Day. These wives and lovers plot to hold onto families, friendships and personal lives during an extravagant evening of wildly innocent sex parties, and may only be saved by their own children, a timely fire, and a return to their senses. Ashley, a frustrated novelist, teaches a community college class in the writing of erotica, which only seems to turn a magnifying glass on her own marriage woes. Deedee is becoming rich by selling marital aides at Tupperware-like home parties, but still longs to reunite with her ex-husband. Viv, an artist, learns to find creative inspiration, and maybe even a better understanding of herself, from a dirty-minded stalker who sends her startling obscene pictures in the mail. Peach and Plum, twin sisters, own a bookstore called Mermaids Singing, where together they attempt to unravel the knots of their own neuroses. All the while, the questionable wisdom of a tough-love motivational speaker, known only as Sybil the Guru, echoes throughout all their lives. The day ends with a few raucous parties that threaten, or promise, to challenge the ways these various men and women continue to live. As they struggle for guidance in the face of sheer lunacy, they come to realize that the most useful answers are likely the ones they come up with all on their own.

My Thoughts:
Timothy Schaffert is clearly a man who has been surrounded by amazing women he loves. In Devils in the Sugar Shop, Schaffert has crafted a cast of of female friends who, like so many groups of female friends, are equally as capable of hurting each other as they are of supporting each other.

The entire story is set in one jam-packed day filled with interactions between the ladies that expose their insecurities, hang ups, and strengths. Deedee has built a successful business selling sex aids but she can only discuss the products and body parts by using silly nicknames. Ashley has doubts about her both her writing and parenting abilities. Plum ponders an affair, despite a satisfying marriage, tired of feeling like she's living in Peach's shadow.

Throw in some drag queens, a swingers club, and plenty of alcohol and these ladies will learn something about themselves and each other in the the course of the day resulting in a soft landing at the end of a wild ride. Funny, naughty and sweet, Devils in the Sugar Shop was a quick read that was just the thing I needed to break things up.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Life: It Goes On - February 9

The Olympics have started, the Olympics have started! Which means, as you may imagine given how excited I am about them, that my reading will take a hit the next couple of weeks as I am glued to the television. I even took a day off of work this week just to stay home and watch. Is there such a thing as an Olympics addiction?

Friday night we went out with my sister and most of her family to celebrate her last day at a job where she has spent the past fourteen years of her life. There is much she will miss about the job but the bad had long since overwhelmed the good. It was time for her to leave but it was hard to do and she needed family and friends' support. And, of course, the reminder that life: it goes on.
Here's What I'm:

Listening To: I've been alternating listening to Shirley with podcasts. This week I caught up with the Satellite Sisters and Book Riot. I'm about to call it quits with trying to listen to Shirley. I downloaded it from Librovox and there are quite a few readers who aren't doing it for me. Plus, it's just such a slow book.

Watching: Not much between "Sherlock" on Sunday night and the Olympics on Thursday except "Castle" reruns while I was on the treadmill. I miss football already!

Reading: I'm back to Timothy Schaffert's Devils In The Sugar Shop which I put down for books I needed to read for review. I've also gotten quite a bit of Tinkers read this week and I've started Under The Wide And Starry Sky by Nancy Horan for a TLC Book Tour.

Making: Last Sunday I cooked a half dozen chicken breasts in the crockpot and we had three meals out of that, including chicken and dumplings. I also tried roasting broccoli (the jury's still out on that) and made two loaves of banana bread.

Planning: On finishing up some projects that I've been working on, including both of the boys' rooms. The photo project will be front and center as I watch the Olympics. I hope to get that done before closing ceremonies.

Grateful for: The crews who kept the roads safe for all of us who had to be on them this week when it snowed for twenty-four hours and then kept refreezing.

Loving: Cocoa - I'm not usually a big fan of cocoa but for some reason it's really hit the spot this week. Last night I even made it from scratch with milk - oh so yummy!

Feeling: Like nesting. I've been rearranging, cleaning, fluffing. I've added six new home blogs to my blog roll, looking for inspiration. Too much time in the house this winter?

Thinking: About what books I want to read for my annual Mystery March. Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire and Tana French's In The Woods will definitely be on the list. I've got a lot to choose from on my shelves so I'm looking forward to a good month.

Looking forward to: Curling up with my projects, the Olympics, and warm blankets the next couple of weeks, staying out of the cold as much as possible. What are you looking forward to this week?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The List - The Un-Bucket List

I've never really sat down and made a "bucket" list, a list of things to do before you die. I don't know when that will be and I don't know how long I'll be active enough to get around. I'm shooting more for doing these things before I'm 65 - if they're all checked off by then, and I'm still in good shape, I can always add more, right? So let's just call it a life list instead.

1. See whales - this is, seriously, the number one thing I want to do. I have no idea why.

2. Visit Scotland, Denmark, England - the countries of my heritage - and Italy, just because.

3. Become conversant in Spanish - I took five years of it in school and it's almost all gone now. I want to learn another language; I think Spanish will come back to me once I get started.

4. Learn to knit - my mother-in-law tried to teach me but as soon as she'd leave, I'd forget everything I learned. I want to be able to make things for my someday grand babies!

5. Take some computer classes - I don't want to be able to build a computer or write software, but I would love to understand them better, to be able to really make them do what I want them to do.

6. Get my family all back to Breckenridge, Colorado for a vacation - we used to go every year and now the kids can't remember it. Maybe this year? I love it there in the summer!

7. Get a tattoo - sorry, Mom, but this is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. When I do it, Miss H and I will get matching tattoos to honor the fight against cancers our family has fought.

8. Reteach myself to play the piano the way I used to be able to - I miss using music to express my emotions.

9. Retrace our honeymoon trip - Philly, Boston, Rhode Island, New York City. We packed so much into two weeks - at our age, we may have to stretch it to three weeks!

10. Learn to make slipcovers - I've wanted to do this for years.

What would you put on your life list?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Published February 2013 by St. Martin's Press
Source: bought this one for my Nook to read with the Omaha Bookworms

Publisher's Summary:
Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love—and just how hard it pulled you under.

My Thoughts:
I really liked Rowell's Attachments and Rowell herself is just adorable, plus you all told me this book was great and still I was surprised by how much I loved this book.

Eleanor and Park are unique in literature but not as much in real life. We've all known the girl who dressed in a way that made other kids stare, the boy who isn't one of the in-group but respected enough that they leave him alone. The relationship between the two develops in a way that is natural and real, happening slowly and complicated by problems that are both universal and distinctly their own.
"There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes me want to let him open doors for me..."
"But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself. He kept finding new ways to betray her." 
If you follow Rainbow Rowell on Twitter or are "friends" with her on Facebook, you'll know that she often writes in Starbucks where she can listen in on conversations and frequently asks for help from her readers coming up with just the right word to use. It shows in her writing with dialogue that is amazingly true to life, a style that makes every word count, and a voice that is purely her own.
"Don't bite his face, Eleanor told herself. It's disturbing and needy and never happens in situation comedies or movies that end with big kisses..."
"...the backseat was an Erica Jong novel just waiting to happen."
Rainbow Rowell
Some of people have tried to ban Rowell's book, citing a fair amount of f-bombs and some sex. Truly, there's not much sex and it is a book about teenagers, after all. And that cursing? I suppose it says something about my family that I really didn't notice it. Others in my book club did have an issue with it and it's worth noting that it's there. But please don't skip over this book because of it.

I rarely reread books; I keep very few of them once I've read them. Eleanor and Park will be a reread...maybe even this year. It is funny and sad and frightening and hopeful and, dare I use that incredibly overused word, poignant. And it has writing like this:
"She didn't know there were things worse than selfish." 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Please Excuse Our Dust

A few weeks ago I set up a test blog to try out some changes I wanted to make to Lit And Life. Of course those changes worked in the test environment. And then I moved them over and found all kinds of funky things going on with previous posts. Needless to say, I'll be doing some tweaking of things around here as I try to get everything worked out. In the meantime, please try to overlook the strangely large amount of white space showing up in my posts!

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr

A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr
Published April 2013 by Berkley Trade
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Born into a life of privilege in rural Georgia, Emma yearns for important work. An ardent passion burns in her soul, spurring her beyond the narrow confines of her family’s slave-holding plantation. She meets and weds Henry Bowman, a tremendously attractive former Texas Ranger twice her age, who has turned from the rifle to the cross. Together with their dreams of serving God they take ship for West Africa. Emma leaves every known thing behind, save a writing box Henry has made for her. In it she carries a red journal and an odd carving made by an old African owned by her father. The couple’s intimate life has hardly begun when they are beset by illness, treacherous travel, an early pregnancy, a death. Emma opens her heart to Africa, yet at every turn her faith is challenged. In deep night, she turns to the odd carving for comfort and in snatches of calm makes record in her diary. She redoubles her energies, even as she begins to doubt her husband’s sanity. Yet she loves him. When they hire Jacob, a native assistant to guide their caravan, Emma is confronted with her greatest challenge. Henry’s health begins to fail, and she is drawn deeper into the African world. Something is revealing itself to her. But is it a haunting mystery from her past or a new revelation coming toward her out of this mysterious continent? A compelling story of temptation, courage, faith, and the redemptive quality of love, both human and divine, A Different Sun will transport you to a world where tragedy and triumph lie a heartbeat away.

My Thoughts:
While A Different Sun is much more a love story, it brought to mind Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible in showing readers the impact, ignorance, and arrogance of Christian missionaries who traveled to Africa sure that they were showing the African people a better way, the "right" way in not just religion but in all things. Henry Bowman is one of them but he is also much more - he is a man with a past he is running from which has every bit as much to do with the way he behaves in Africa as does his religion.

Emma carries guilt to Africa as well. As the daughter of a slaveowner, she has felt the wrongness of the things that were done to the people who took care of her. As much as she travels to Africa to spread the word of her God, she does it to atone for what her family has done. But life for a proper young lady in 19th-century Africa was difficult and shocking. Finding out that her husband is not the man she thought him to be is equally as difficult.

This one was a slow start for me, despite the story moving along at quite a rapid pace. Orr wanted to get a lot of background in before she sent her missionary couple on their way and while readers get a good background on each of them, it was hard to me to feel I knew them, particularly Emma. Along the way, there were other times when things felt rushed as well but at about the half way point, I finally became invested in the story - the African landscape and people, Emma's plight, even Henry's conflict - and was eager to see what would become of them.

Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour. For more opinions about A Different Sun, check out the full book tour.  Orr was born in Nigeria to medical missionary parents and spent the first sixteen years of her life there, through its civil war. It's clear she loves the land in her writing.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life: It Goes On - February 2

We have been so lucky with weather this winter and blessed with so many beautiful sunrises and sunsets - I just had to share this one!

We got some snow for the first time in weeks last night - a lovely light, slow snow that started late in the evening. Perfect if you're all home and can just sit and watch it. Not as perfect when you have adult children that insist on being out on slick roads. You know the drill - mom can't sleep until everyone is home safe!

Here's What I'm:

Listening To: Still plugging away on Shirley but I will admit that I have picked the speed up to times 1.5  to get over the slow parts, and there are plenty of slow parts. And what's up with a book where the title character doesn't even show up until Chapter 11?

Watching: I started watching "Orange Is The New Black" on Netflix the other night. Are any of you fans of this one? I still haven't read the book.

Reading: Finishing A Different Sun today and then it's on to Under A Wide and Starry Sky, both for TLC reviews. I'm supposed to start Outlander for the Tuesday Book Talk group on Goodreads but I'm going to have to put that off for a week.

Making: Homemade enchilada sauce with a new recipe for beef and onion enchiladas and bean and cheese enchiladas. I can't stop cooking for at least five - we ate enchiladas for three meals.

Planning: Continued work on the boys' rooms. Mini-me's room is, sadly for him, looking less and less like his room. He can have it back if he ever needs to come home. In the mean time, I need the library space.

Grateful for: Good food, good friends, good conversation. Such a great way to recharge your batteries.

Feeling: Like my house needs some orange. I foresee a trip to Home Goods for pillows in my future.

Thinking: I'm ready to be able to start sitting out on the patio - how many more months do I have to wait?

Looking forward to: Well, you know me - the Super Bowl, although I will be sitting at home watching it by myself. I pretty much reserve Sunday nights to decompress before the work week begins. Will you be watching? Who will you be cheering for?