Friday, July 31, 2015

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont
Published July 2015 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: Netgalley copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Jack Shanley is a well-known New York artist, charming and vain, who doesn’t mean to plunge his family into crisis. His wife, Deb, gladly left behind a difficult career as a dancer to raise the two children she adores. In the ensuing years, she has mostly avoided coming face-to-face with the weaknesses of the man she married. But then an anonymously sent package arrives in the mail: a cardboard box containing sheaves of printed emails chronicling Jack’s secret life. The package is addressed to Deb, but it’s delivered into the wrong hands: her children’s.

As the Shanleys spin apart into separate orbits, leaving New York in an attempt to regain their bearings, fifteen-year-old Simon feels the allure of adult freedoms for the first time, while eleven-year-old Kay wanders precariously into a grown-up world she can’t possibly understand.

My Thoughts:
Up front, I've perhaps read one too many books about infidelity recently. So, while Among the Ten Thousand Things is absolutely a unique book, it was a hard one for me to read. Which seems wrong given other comments I've read about the book and given the many passages I highlighted. Among The Ten Thousand Things looks at the impact of infidelity on everyone in a family, in a way that feels honest...

The children:
"As furious as he was with his father, he was furious with her too, for reasons he couldn't explain yet but that had something to do with how her reaction was not enough. Though he didn't know what would be."
"Here was their son and they'd made him so angry. Jack, maybe mostly, but she had too. What would Simon say if she told him how she'd known already, known for months, and had done nothing. That she'd tried just to make it go away. Probably he'd say she was weak, and dumb."
The cheated:
""I keep thinking about how someone might say it's my fault. For not doing anything." And because she did know what it was like to lose sight behave badly, and she was afraid of bringing in the mud, the ugly, of what might be used against her if she pressed Jack, and if he tried really to defend himself."
""Are you hurt?" "Am I hurt? Um, hm...Would yes be too scary an answer?" Kay swished her hair, no. "Then yes. I was hurt. Yes, what your father did was very hurtful to me." Maybe it wasn't right to let Kay see her angry, letting her know that this was a thing to be angry about, but Deb, sorry, wasn't a saint and did, maybe, in bursts, want her daughter to be a little bit angry too. It hurt to see Kay, after everything, reach for that telephone, want Jack anyway, want to love him."
The cheater:
"That was it. Jack did not really, in the end, believe he'd done anything so wrong. With the girl he'd been careful to make no promises. He'd encouraged her to date. Deb would need time and patience to forgive him, but here, alone with his tools, he could feel he was forgiving himself already."
The book's structure is entirely unique. Not half way through the book, Pierpont does a fast forward from beyond this time in their lives, through each of the character's lives, then takes readers back to the point she had left them at previously. As I read it, I wondered where Pierpont was going with the book. And how was she going to keep readers' interest when she returns to the present when they already know what's going to happen? Somehow she makes it work. In fact, it was at this point that I came to care more for the characters and to hope for all of them to find peace with what has happened in their lives.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic - It's All In The Family

So this may seem kind of weird to you but my husband has a cousin who is a bestselling author whom I have never mentioned in over six years of blogging. It seems weird to me, anyway. Technically, it's BG's cousin's son and what with a divorce and some family issues, we haven't seen a whole lot of him over the years, but still.

Anyway, you may have heard of him - Tom Rath. He has a background in research of human behavior (his maternal grandfather started a research and selection company that years ago merged with Gallup) and has now written six books in the last ten years. His first was How Full Is Your Bucket. StrengthFinders 2.0 was the 2013 and 2014 top selling book world wide on

Tom Rath
Big time, right? Still, when I was listening to an episode of Gretchen Rubin's "Happier" podcast last week, I was surprised to hear them say they were going to be interviewing him about his latest book, Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life. I had to stop listening until I got home so BG could hear it, too.

Somewhere in this house, we have StrengthFinders 2.0. BG has read it (I haven't) but it's the only of his books we've ever picked up. Given the number of books he's sold, I don't think Tom's noticed our lack of support. Still, as much I enjoy the "Happier" podcast, if Rubin thinks Are You Fully Charged fits with what she's teaching, I might just have to pick it up. If I do, you can be sure I'll let you know what I think!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Published July 2014 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: purchased as my local library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

My Thoughts:
My three are all in their twenties now, but the politics involved in being the parents of school-aged children are still fresh in my mind making Big Little Lies a story I knew would be relatable.

Pirrete Public may have a principal and staff of teachers, but it is ruled by the Blonde Bobs, a group of moms who all seem to have the same hairdo. There is an ongoing debate about who is doing more for their children and the school - the stay-at-home moms or the working moms. At what to make of the stay-at-home dads? When two moms which big personalities start to fall out, which side will the other parents land on? And behind it all, what kind of secrets are each of these parents hiding? Yep, pretty much sums up my experiences with the parents, especially when my kids where in grade school, where parent involvement is at a frenzied high.

Liane Moriarty has an uncanny ability to take very heavy topics and deal with them in a way that feels very real. At the same time, she imbues them with humor ("Champagne is always a good idea") and everyday events that make her books approachable. So here we have a book that runs the gamut on violence - schoolyard bullying, physical abuse, rape, and sex trafficking. To make it all work, Moriarty focuses on mostly ordinary people going about their lives - lives that, like most of ours, include humor and sadness, little problems and big crises.

In Big Little Lies, the story centers around the events leading up to a death. Along the way, Moriarty plays with her readers, including a Greek chorus of police interviewees introducing or closing chapters, offering readers glimpses into the central characters and tossing out a few red herrings along the way.

I thoroughly enjoyed Big Little Lies. There are bad guys, little guys to cheer for, situations that made me laugh, violence that made me cringe. I felt like I knew these women (and some of the men) and understood what they were going through, even when I had never been through it myself.

Jane's sadness is a mystery that will slowly be revealed but, when it is, what happened to her is less about what happened physically and more about the harm that words can do. I think it's something everyone can relate to, especially women, who are constantly bombarded by images of what we should look like.
"Whey did I feel so weirdly violated by those two words? More than anything else he did to me, it was those two words that hurt. 'Fat.' 'Ugly.'"
In Celeste, Moriarty gives readers a new way to look at abused women and why they don't leave. Poor Celeste was so willing to take the blame and so quick to think that the abuse was the price she paid for the lifestyle she was able to live.
"...each time she didn't leave, she gave him tacit permission to do it again. She Knew this. She was an educated woman with choices, place to go, family and friends who would gather around, lawyers who would represent her. She could go back to work and support herself. She wasn't frightened that he'd kill her if she tried to leave. She wasn't frightened that he'd take the children away from her."
"I don't think I deserve it. But I'm not a victim. I hit him back. I throw things at this. So I'm just as bad as he is. Sometimes I start it. I mean, we're just in a very toxic relationship. We need techniques, we need strategies to help make us stop."
None of Celeste's friends know about the abuse. So while I was thinking of all of the ways this book reminded me of my personal experiences, it also made me wonder which of the moms I knew were going through this. In all of the people I met in eighteen years of getting all three of my kids from kindergarten through high school, there is almost certain to have been someone who suffered in silence.
"It occurred to her that there were so many levels of evil in the world. Small evils like her own malicious words. Like not inviting a child to a party. Bigger evils like walking out on your wife and newborn baby or sleeping with the nanny. And then there was the sort of evil of which Madeline had no experience: cruelty in hotel rooms and violence in suburban homes and little girls being sole like merchandise, shattering innocent hearts."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Life: It Goes On - July 26

The Big Guy & Mini-him
My dad and Mini-him
Happy birthday to Mini-him! I can't believe it's been 27 years since we welcomed him into the world. We were so nervous but he was so mellow and made life so easy for us...until he started
moving! Since then he has kept us on our toes but always with his great smile. We are so proud of the man he's become!

He's out of town today so we'll celebrate with dinner tomorrow.

It's been a very laid back week here, although we've had lots of times with our bookend kids around. Y'all know how much I love that!

This Week I'm:

Listening To: Tomorrow I'll start Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes after spending most of last week listening to podcasts including Futility Closet (I love their lateral thinking puzzles), This American Life and Happier (more on one of those episodes that later this week).

Watching: More Orange Is The New Black with Miss H, probably too many episodes of Real Housewives (Orange County and New York), and a few old movies. Trying to avoid all of the summer reality shows but BG does love them.

Reading: I've been struggling with Among The Ten Thousand Things - a book that should only have taken a couple of days. Now the question is - what to start today? My friend has loaned me her copy of Go Set A Watchman but then I picked up The Good Lord Bird yesterday which I'm alway eager to get to. Or maybe Circling The Sun? Since today is the last day of the High Summer Read-a-Thon, I'm hoping to spend a good amount of time with which ever I decide on.

Making: Risotto, cast iron skillet oven s'mores, bar-b-que chicken, sloppy joes, and BBT's (bacon, basil and tomato - we were out of lettuce but what a happy discovery!).

Planning: A move for Mini-him. The owner of the house he's been renting is selling it out from under Mini-him and his roommate after just a few months. Yippee.

Grateful for: Air conditioning. The thermometer in my car registered 105 degrees on Friday. I am not amused.

Enjoying: Meeting with my book club the other night. We had a good discussion about the book which lead to a good discussion about how we saw ourselves reflected in the book which lead to a whole lot of fun and laughs. As usual. Love these ladies!

Feeling: Excited for Mini-me who is off in Chicago this weekend with his girlfriend. She spent a couple of years working there are has thoroughly enjoyed showing him the sights. He sent me this pic late last night from the 96th floor of the John Hancock building.

Looking forward to: Celebrating Mini-him's birthday, lots of reading (cuz so many new books in the house!), and some furniture painting.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow
Published January 2011 by Algonquin Books
Narrators: Kathleen McInerney, Karen Murray, Emily Bauer
Source: purchased by audio copy at my local library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

My Thoughts:
This is a book that interested me on several levels: my own heritage is partially Danish, stories about family tragedies always draw me in, and I have two great-nephews and a great-niece that are biracial so I'm going to touch on each of those by way of reviewing this book.

Durrow herself is the daughter of a Danish mother and African-American G.I. who grew up struggling being a young girl with light brown skin and blue eyes who grew up struggling to define who she was for people who only wanted to understand if she was black or white. Taking that background, Durrow has crafted a haunting tale of a young girl forced to face her not only the tragedy of the lose of her family, but her own heritage. Rachel and her siblings spend their earliest years unaware they are either black or white...they just are.

But when their mother moves them to the U.S. (a place their father has refused to live), she becomes acutely aware that people look at the children and don't understand they belong to her. She has to face racism. Her quest to protect them will, ultimately, lead to tragedy. As the book unfolds, readers learn more and more about what actually happened, and what led to it.

It was not until Rachel went to live with her grandmother and aunt that Rachel finally began to find out what it meant to have brown skin and nappy hair, particularly when those came paired with bright blue eyes. As much as her grandmother pushed her to fit in to her new community, the other children were not so quick to accept her. This was not in the deep South; it was in Portland, Oregon. Even when Rachel finds a young white man who seems to fit in seamlessly in both worlds, it becomes clear that part of her attraction for him is her color. My own teenaged niece and nephew have large circle of friends but that doesn't mean they haven't faced their share of struggle. Durrow helped me understand exactly what that struggle feels like.

This is a powerful story that was, for me, brought down by having listened to it, rather than reading it. Three narrators were used for the audio version of this book - only one of them really worked for me. My recommendation then, if you find this book of interest, is to pick it up in print form.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop
Published July 2015 by Harper Paperbacks
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Summer 1972—Famagusta is Cyprus’s most desirable tourist destination in the Mediterranean. Aphroditi Papacostas and her husband, Savvas, own The Sunrise, a wildly successful new luxury hotel. Frequented by only the very wealthiest of Europe’s elite, The Sunrise quickly becomes the place to see and be seen. Yet beneath the veneer of tranquil opulence simmers mounting hostility between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Years of unrest and ethnic violence come to a head when, in 1974, Greece’s coup d’état provokes a Turkish attack on beautiful Famagusta. The fallout sends the island’s inhabitants spiraling into fear and chaos, and the Papacostases join an exodus of people who must abandon their idyllic lives in Famagusta and flee to refugee camps. In the end, only two families remain in the decimated city: the Georgious and the Özkans. One is Greek Cypriot, the other Turkish Cypriot, and the tension between them is palpable. But with resources scarce and the Turkish militia looming large, both families must take shelter in the deserted hotel as they battle illness, hunger, fear, and their own prejudices while struggling to stay alive.

My Thoughts:
Confession: I have not finished this book. Not because I didn't have time. And it's not that I might not finish it at some point. But right now, I couldn't do it. And that disappoints me because, judging from the summary, I was sure that it would absolutely pull me in. But there's something missing in that summary that I just couldn't get past. After 135 pages, I pulled the plug. If you read this blog very often, you know how rare that is.

Do you see anything in that summary about a "love" story? Me either. It's not that I'm opposed to a love story. After all, a Romeo and Juliet story would have worked just fine given the setting and time. But that's not what Hislop has centered this book around. Instead, we have the classic trope of two beautiful people who hate each other eventually ended up in bed together. I'm not giving away anything here - you'll know this is coming the minute you find out how much these two dislike each other. I found it so unnecessary - at least as far as I got, 135 pages.

But...the political situation very much interested me as did the two families (who, more or less, had nothing to do with the lovers) on opposite sides of the conflict. So I haven't entirely given up on this one yet. Because it does seem like it could turn into something that I would very much enjoy.

For other opinions about The Sunrise, check out the full tour.

Victoria Hislop is the internationally bestselling author of The Island and The Return. She writes travel features for the Sunday Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, House and Garden, and Woman and Home. She divides her time among rural Kent, London, and Crete. She is married and has two children.

Monday, July 20, 2015

High Summer Readathon - July 20-26

It's time again for Michelle's (True Book Addict) annual High Summer Read-a-Thon and I am so ready for the excuse to curl up and do some extra reading this week! No rules to this one, which I love; just a week to try to find as much time as you can for reading. My summer's been fairly busy and I'm sure there are things I should be doing instead (I know there are things I should be doing instead!), but sometimes you just need to take time for yourself.

My rather casual goals for the week are:

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I'm guessing that will more than do it for one week! If, by some extraordinary chance, there is time for yet more reading, then I'll move on to Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Life: It Goes On - July 19

Well, we had such a fun weekend - how about you?

The Big Guy, Mini-me and his girlfriend headed to Lincoln Friday night to hang out with BG's brother while Miss H and I had a girls night.

Saturday BG and I headed to visit my uncle and aunt for a long overdo visit to their lovely home. We had a tour of Cedar Rapids, a stop at the Czech-Slovak National museum (which was moved after the historic flooding of 2008 - the entire building was moved back from the river edge, turned and raised up 11 feet), a visit to a local pub, and an outdoor performance of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." It was crazy hot but the great food, excellent company, a trailer full of furniture they were ready to part with, and a play performance that included frogs singing, bats flying overhead, and a deer running just off stage more than made it worth the trip.

This Week I'm:

Listening To: Tomorrow I'll finish Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. Not my favorite narration but a really thoughtful story. Not sure what I'll start next. Perhaps some podcasts?

Watching: Two more episodes of Orange Is The New Black with Miss H on Friday night, Hollywood Game Night, and some baseball. We really haven't gotten into any of the summer shows.

Reading: Finishing Big Little Lies for book club then onto The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman.

Making: More caprese pasta, some salad - not much actually. It's been too hot to cook much.

Planning: On doing a lot of reading this week - the High Summer Read-a-Thon starts tomorrow!

Grateful for: The wonderful hospitality my aunt and uncle showed us. They have such a beautiful home - I'm hoping it convinced BG that color on the walls is a good thing.

Enjoying: Miss H is at a concert right now of a band I really like so she just called and let me listen to one of their songs. Fun to hear it but I most enjoyed that she thought to do it.

Feeling: Tired. Co-piloting while towing a trailer is hard work, ya know?

Looking forward to: Book club Tuesday night - cannot wait to discuss Big Little Lies, lots of things to talk about!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic

I love new words, especially big words. It's inherited - my dad loves new words, too. In fact, one of the running jokes in my family is based on the word "nadir." It also has to do with a couple of classes I took in high school which focused on the Greek and Latin roots of the words we used. Needless to say, one of my favorite things when reading is to find new words or words I love that don't get used nearly enough. Care of Care's Online Book Club often includes new words in her reviews and I've often thought I'd do that, too, but I never seem to remember.

But...when I was reading We Are Not Ourselves I was gobsmacked by the number of words to love and wanted to share a few with you.

Exigencies - that which is required in a particular situation - usually used in plural

Numinous - supernatural, mysterious; filled with a sense of the presence of divinity; appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic

Coruscate - to give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes; to be brilliant or showy in technique or style

Senescence - the state of being old, the process of being old

I just wish I would have thought to be marked words sooner - because I was reading it on my Nook and it's soooo easy to do it!

And then there's this - which I found on Facebook (maybe from one of your pages?). Love it! Kind of plays to my reading these days, what with Fangirl on my nightstand, Big Little Lies my book club selection this month and having just finished We Are Not Ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Published August 2014 by Simon and Shuster
Source: purchased for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on how much alcohol has been consumed. From an early age, Eileen wished that she lived somewhere else. She sets her sights on upper class Bronxville, New York, and an American Dream is born.

Driven by this longing, Eileen places her stock and love in Ed Leary, a handsome young scientist, and with him begins a family. Over the years Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house. It slowly becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper, more incomprehensive psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.

My Thoughts:
I feel into this book within the first few pages, so impressed was I with the character of Big Mike Tumulty, Eileen's father, the man who would so form the person she would later become.
"She wasn't too young to understand that the ones who pleased him were the rare ones who didn't drain the frothy brew of his myth in a quick quaff, but nosed around the brine of his humanity awhile, giving it skeptical sniffs."
Mike was a man who believed in living large in all ways - in his drinking, in personality, in his spending. He was a man who left an impression on everyone who came in contact with him. But Eileen's mother played an equal role in forming Eileen into the person she would later become - her drinking, her time away, her coldness.
"Her mother had worked hard to kill the past, but it club to life in Eileen's mind, in the thought that this apparently solid form might dissolve back into the liquid that had seeped into every corner of her childhood, bringing disorder and rot. The smell of the past, that irrepressible smoke, was spoiling the air between them, where, in the absence of others to filter it, an acrid cloud now hung." 
Eileen grew up knowing exactly what she a husband, in a home, in her much so that she was willing to spend the rest of her life working in a field she had no interest in simply because it would give her what she wanted.

When she found Ed Leary, she knew instantly that he was the one, the man who would help her rise in society and prosper. But not everything we learn stays with us, not everything that does stay with us is for the best, and not everything turns out the way we think it will no matter how hard we work for it.

In Eileen, Thomas has created a woman was often unpleasant, selfish, judgmental, and a racist. It's a daring thing to do with the character who is at the center of your story. In fact, none of the main characters is exceptionally likable. But there are parts of each of them that readers can relate to, enough to draw readers in and, as the book progresses, to make you care about what is happening to these people. As the book progressed, I found myself more and more emotionally involved, something I was not expecting to have happen. It is at once a saga and an intimate look at one family's journey and worth reading all 650 pages.

As Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came To The End, says of We Are Not Ourselves "It's all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on." He's so right.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Life: It Goes On - July 12

If it didn't feel like summer before this weekend, it does now! With temps in the upper 90's and humidity driving the "feels like" temp even higher, being outside during the day pretty much means you're going to melt.

 We've had a busy, fun-filled week. Wednesday we went with friends to see the Avett Brothers at an outdoors venue. They are tremendous musicians and put on such a great show. When we got home, BG's brother and his wife were at the house; they spent the night on their way through town so we went into work late on Thursday to spend time with them.  Thursday evening was my company's annual picnic/baseball game at the local Triple A team's stadium. Miss H and Mini-him were able to join us. Another beautiful night to be outside.

Last night was date night - a trip to a local bbq food truck which we were allowed to eat in a bar across the street for the price of a couple of drinks. They were having a pin-up contest later in the evening and the place was filled with young ladies dolled up a modern-day versions of 1940's beauties. Capped off the evening with a visit to Mini-me's coffee shop. Fun evening!

This Week I'm:

Listening To: I started Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From The Sky on Thursday after a trip to the library book sale. For music? The Avett Brothers, of course.

Watching: Some food shows ("Pioneer Woman," "Farmhouse Rules") and a new-to-me home show called "Stone House Revival."

Reading: I finally finished Matthew Quick's We Are Not Ourselves (review this week) and started Victoria Hilsop's The Sunrise which looks like the perfect beachy read on the cover but which promises to have some politics woven in.

Making: Shrimp and pasta, chicken tacos, caprese salad, mushroom risotto and bar-b-que'd chicken.

Planning: For another busy week - a birthday get-together for my mom's 96-year-old cousin, an evening with BG's siblings, and a trip to visit my aunt and uncle.

Grateful: To Mini-me and his wonderful girlfriend for spending another of their summer days helping my parents around the yard last week. I'm not sure who enjoys the time together more, my folks or the young people!

Enjoying: New experiences.

Feeling: Recharged after a mostly relaxing weekend. Hoping to get some reading time in yet today.

Looking forward to: Our trip east this weekend to see my aunt and uncle. The four of us will be attending a performance of Sinclair Lewis' "Our Town" on the grounds of the Brucemore mansion, picnic dinner and all.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera
Published June 2015 by Harper
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours

Publisher's Summary:
Casting light on the most serious of problems and at the same time saying not one serious sentence; being fascinated by the reality of the contemporary world and at the same time completely avoiding realism—that’s The Festival of Insignificance.

Now, far from watching out, Kundera is finally and fully realizing his old aesthetic dream in this novel, which we may easily view as a summation of his whole work. A strange sort of summation. Strange sort of epilogue. Strange sort of laughter, inspired by our time, which is comical because it has lost all sense of humor.

My Thoughts:
Apologies up front for not getting this review posted earlier - just wrapped up the book yesterday then had to head out for the evening and didn't get back in time to write my review.

Also, gotta apologize for rushing this book. It's thin, just 128 pages, and my tendency, unfortunately, is to assume that will mean a quick read. So I didn't allot myself nearly enough time to really read and think about what Kundera wrote. And this is a book that really wants you to think. So I'm not sure I got out of it all that I could have. Perhaps other stops on the TLC Book tour will offer you a better perspective.

I know of Kundera from the movie adaptation of his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being (starring the very young, very beautiful trio of Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin) which I quite liked. So when this book came up for review, I assumed it would be something along the same lines. Perhaps it is in the same vein as that book, but I've never read that book so I can't say. What I can say is that this book feels entirely different from anything I've read before. It also feels entirely foreign; there is always something to translated works that I read that make me think that we just don't get it here in the U.S. Which is sort of the way I felt about this book. For a little book, filled with insignificance, it's chock full of big ideas. I'm just not sure I understood what Kundera was trying to say about all of those things - perhaps that all of those things that seem small in our days might just be very important? Or, buried in all of that mundane are really important moments? Or, perhaps, as this piece seems to be saying, there is insignificance everywhere - even in the biggest things?
"I wanted to talk to you about something. About the value of insignificance...Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst disasters. It often takes courage to acknowledge it in such dramatic situations, and to call it by name. But it is not only a matter of acknowledging it, we must love insignificance, we must learn to love it."
The book follows a group of men in the space of a few days where very little happens other than the reader getting deeply into the heads of these men. But Kundera uses some interesting tools to make his points - a book about Nikita Khrushchev, for example, serves as a tool to illustrate points throughout. The seduction/seductiveness of women is also a recurring theme (go figure, a book about men where seduction plays a big role).
"The uselessness of brilliance - yes, I get it." "More than useless. It's harmful. when a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she's entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine too, to not give herself over without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need to vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible."
Yeah, so, maybe I didn't entirely "get" it...but then maybe that was Kundera's purpose. Just to make readers think, to make them look at things in a different way. Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for offering me this chance to stretch my brain!

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published September 2014 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: got this one for a Christmas present

Publisher's Summary:
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all.

My Thoughts:
I have been wanting to read this book since I first learned about it. I have had it on my bookshelf since Christmas. For some reason, I kept putting it off. Oh yeah, I know the reason - dystopian fiction. Dystopian fiction and I have a love/hate relationship. I really, really have to be talked into reading it. Maybe I need to get over that. Because I loved this book.

Maybe because Mandel's focus is not on the horror of the pandemic or its immediate aftermath. In fact, although the pandemic is the pivotal moment of the book, Mandel does not focus on it. It happens quickly and 99% of the world population is annihilated. Jump forward 20 years. There are no zombies, there is no reason crops can't be grown, there are no cannibals to avoid. Which is not to say there is no tension because that prophet? He is not a nice guy. Also, people start disappearing. So it's not entirely without the usual scary post-apocalyptic stuff.

Mandel moves the story back in forth in time, changing the focus from one character to another, although Arthur remains the heart of the story even though he dies before the pandemic starts. Mandel crafts a mystery, leaving clues along the way then gradually reveals how everything is tied together. It was, for me, an impressive balancing act that caught me by surprise at the end. I'm hesitant to tell you more about the book because I feel like it's something you need to have unfold as you read it without knowing too much in advance.

As she has in her previous books, Mandel has crafted interesting characters involved in unusual situations. It was fun to look back at think about the way her previous books have been building up to this work. Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke award and The Morning News Tournament of Books, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and was on the Bailey's Prize long list as well as numerous Top 10 lists for 2014. It's going to be a tough one to top.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Published February 2010 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: both the audio book and hardcover copy were purchased by me

Publisher's Summary:
It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings, desires, and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman, and risks becoming the conspiracy's weak link.

My Thoughts:
If my review could be just one word, it would be devastating. Or maybe brilliant. Or, perhaps, overwhelming. So, yeah, maybe one word won't suffice.

I've studied American History, I've read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dolan Valdez-Perkins. But I have never read anything as powerfully written about slavery as The Book of Night Women. James does an exceptional job of capturing the hopelessness and claustrophobic nature of Montpelier Estate where Lilith grows up an unloved orphan.

It is not until Lilith comes of age to be of use on the plantation that she fully grasps the horrific future that awaits her. She is saved by the head house slave after a she commits a shocking act to save herself from field work. But life for Lilith will never be the same. Outside of the house, the "johnny jumpers" are always looking to punish her. Inside the house, the other slaves look down on her. And everyone is looking to use her in some way. Lilith doesn't always act in her own best interest, alienating those who might be her allies and angering those she can least afford to anger. She is conceited, impulsive, and convinced that she is better than the other slaves because her green eyes mean her father was white.

For the squeamish, this is not a book for you. It is brutal and shocking and, had I been reading it in print, I might have had to put it down and walk away from it more than once. We are all well aware that slavery was a barbarous practice but nothing I have ever read before comes close to capturing just how sadistic and cruel it was. James does not spare the slaves, who were often equally brutal to each other, nor are most of his white characters entirely one-dimensional.

I listened to this book on audio. Having passed along my hardcover book before I started reading it, I can't speak for how James' writing might have flowed from the page; it would almost certainly have been more difficult to read given that the patois narration is not always easy to understand. On audio, it is simply breathtaking. Robin Miles perfectly captures the dialect and accent and does a fine job of differentiating the many different characters, both male and female. Audiobook fans, I highly recommend this one.

I believe I first learned about this book on NPR and have owned the hardcover book for years. But it's a book that languished on my shelves in no small part to the fact that it gained so little attention in the press or blogging world. What a shame. I am not alone in being impressed with The Book of Night Women:

“Both beautifully written and devastating…Writing in the spirit of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker but in a style all his own, James has conducted an experiment in how to write the unspeakable— even the unthinkable. And the results of that experiment are an undeniable success.”
— The New York Times Book Review

“The narrative voice is so assured and the descriptions so detailed and believable that one can’t help being engaged. This is a book to love. . . . The Book of Night Women is hard to pick up, even harder to put down . . . and it deserves to be read.”
—Chicago Tribune

“The Book of Night Women is a searing read, full of blood, tears, and the stench of misery. It’s barbaric and ancient, but also familiar in the ways that people, consumed by their differences and divisions, easily overlook all that binds them— the desire for independence, the right to a civilized life, and the need to give and receive love.”
—The Boston Globe

“The Book of Night Women is not merely a historical novel. It is a book as heavily peopled and dark as the night in this isolated and brutal place. It is a canticle of love and hate.”
—Los Angeles Times

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Life: It Goes On - July 5

Well, that was a fast three-day weekend! And, apparently, a fast last week - it went by so fast that I wasn't even aware until Friday that I had entirely neglected to post any book reviews last week. So, this week - two of my favorites of the year!

Friday night we met for appetizers, desserts, drinks and camaraderie with the neighbors then got treated to our first great fireworks show of the weekend, thanks to our neighbor who puts on nearly professional shows twice over the Fourth. This year we nearly had a disaster when one of the fireworks blew out the side of its box. Let's just say that my reflexes aren't what they used to be. And I may be too attached to my phone.

Friday night fireworks
Yesterday, our three kids, two girlfriends and my parents enjoyed lunch on the patio before the kids blew some stuff up in the street so they could share the fun with their grandpa. Miss H and Mini-him headed off to join friends but the rest of us were later joined by friends for a low country boil, killer margaritas, and multiple desserts for a second meal on the patio). Thanks to our neighbor putting on a second show for his family, we were able to enjoy more fireworks to end the night. A perfect day!

Perhaps some pictures before we dove into the food would have been more appealing?!

This Week I'm:

Listening To: I'm all caught up with the Nerdette podcast's "Game of Thrones" recaps and this week I'll finish up the other episodes I have left. Then it's on to a new book. Not sure what that will be yet.

Watching: "West Side Story," women's World Cup soccer, and not another thing I can recall. Must have been an exciting tv week!

Reading: I'm about two-thirds of the way through We Are Not Ourselves and hope to finish it by tomorrow. Then I'll read Milan Kundera's The Festival of Insignificance for a TLC Book Tour. After that, I'm on to Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies for this month's book club selection.

Making: Caprese salad, dipped pretzels, red velvet cake, and that low country boil.

Planning: My office had become a dumping ground for things that Miss H was sending back home but I've got that all dealt with now and it's time to get back to projects in there. It needs to be painted but not this week so I'm just planning on working on a couple of sewing projects and some scrapbooking.

Grateful for:  An abundance of food. We take it for granted but after spending all day today eating just the food we had leftover from yesterday, I'm reminded how fortunate I am to be in a country where there is plenty and in a position to afford it.

Enjoying: Relaxing today, after a busy weekend, and in anticipation of a busy week.

Feeling: Sated. Yesterday was a good day that filled me with love, laughter, and oh, so much food!

Looking forward to: Going with friends Wednesday to see the Avett Brothers in concert then Thursday is my company's annual picnic followed by a Triple A baseball game.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Fourth of July!

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Read All About It! Colonies Form Union - Break Away From England!

Here in the Unites States, we call it the Revolution. In Britain, they call it the Rebellion. Of course, I prefer the former. But when you look around the world and see "rebels" trying to overthrow governments, remember that 239 years ago that's just what Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and their band of brothers and sisters were doing. Sure you learned all about it in school but if you really want to learn the truth, there are plenty of books to choose from.

You can hardly go wrong picking up a book by Joseph Ellis, Jeff Shaara, David McCullough, or Page Smith but don't stop there. There is always something new to be learned, surprisingly.

The men are certainly well covered by books and it's interesting to be able to read their actual writings. Don't stop with these well known books - there are a number that discuss the contributions of Benedict Arnold before he betrayed the cause, books about the men from other countries who helped the revolutionaries, and those lesser-known founding fathers who played major roles in the founding of our country.

And let's don't forget the ladies! Of course, we're all familiar with Abigail Adams. But there were women behind most of those founding fathers who made it possible for them to go off and do what they did and who often found themselves in the position of defending their homes on their own.

Now where did I put my copy of Nathaniel Philbrick's Bunker Hill??