Monday, November 18, 2019

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson
Read by Amanda Carlin
Published March 2019 by Simon and Schuster
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:

When Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892, the arrest of the couple’s younger daughter Lizzie turned the case into international news and her murder trial into a spectacle unparalleled in American history. Reporters flocked to the scene. Well-known columnists took up conspicuous seats in the courtroom. The defendant was relentlessly scrutinized for signs of guilt or innocence. Everyone—rich and poor, suffragists and social conservatives, legal scholars and laypeople—had an opinion about Lizzie Borden’s guilt or innocence. Was she a cold-blooded murderess or an unjustly persecuted lady? Did she or didn’t she?

An essential piece of American mythology, the popular fascination with the Borden murders has endured for more than one hundred years. Told and retold in every conceivable genre, the murders have secured a place in the American pantheon of mythic horror. Based on transcripts of the Borden legal proceedings, contemporary newspaper accounts, unpublished local accounts, and recently unearthed letters from Lizzie herself, The Trial of Lizzie Borden is [a book] that offers a window into America in the Gilded Age.

My Thoughts:
Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Why ever in the world an elementary-school girl in the 1960’s would have grown up knowing this ditty? Was it a rhyme we used when jumping rope? How gruesome is that for preteens? Then in1975, I watched a made-for-t.v. movie about the killings, starring Elizabeth Montgomery (of Bewitched fame) and the story has stuck with me ever since then. Yet, for some reason I had never picked up a book about the murders. So when I came across this book on my library’s website, I knew it was time to remedy that situation.

Cara Robertson is a lawyer (she clerked for the U. S. Supreme Court) who has been researching the Borden case since 1990. She’s done an impressive job of pulling together the research and facts of this case. Moreover, she’s managed to put it all out there for the reader without pointing the reader in one direction or another. And she’s managed to do share her research in a way that brings the case to life: the image of the jurors miserably being shuttled about, the oppressive heat in the courtroom, the little bouquets of flowers Lizzie held each day, the sartorial splendor of the esteemed counsels, the claustrophobia of the Borden household, and clamor to be a part of the proceedings.

Lizzie, Andrew, Abby, Emma Borden - top, left to right

Robertson lays out the cases of both the defense and the prosecution, both their strengths and their weaknesses. She explores the ways that class, gender, and ethnicity impacted the investigation and the trial. In exploring this trial so thoroughly, Robertson also points out the difficulties in all trials – contradicting witnesses and experts, society’s expectations of how a defendant “should” behave, allowable evidence, bias, egos, the role of the media, and all of the ways the investigation can be compromised.

While Kirkus Reviews says Robertson “manages to avoid the tedious repetitiveness inherent in a trial,” I did find that the book occasionally repetitive. This might have been because it sometimes felt like Robertson was trying to pack in every bit of information she had discovered in her research. And while Amanda Carlin does a fine job reading the book, I did wish that I had read this in print so I could refer back to some passages. Nothing I can see says that the book includes maps or lists of the players, but I think that would have been helpful.

I know you’re all wondering if Lizzie really did take an ax and murder her father and stepmother. Armed with all of the facts, I can’t see who else could have done it or why. But because of the sloppy police work and the questions raised by the defense, I doubt I could have voted to convict Lizzie Borden.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Life: It Goes On - November 17

A fall day like the one pictured is now just a memory. Which makes me start to think about decorating for winter/holidays. Except it's been really warm the past couple of days so it doesn't remotely feel like winter and it's always been my thing to not rush past Thanksgiving. And yet Christmas will be here before you know it and I'd like to enjoy the ambiance for more than a couple of weeks. And this is how my brain has been working lately!

I woke up earlier this morning than I wanted to and thought I'd try to fall back to sleep. But my brain was already in overdrive and I knew there was no shutting it off so, even though I didn't go to bed until 2 a.m., I've been up for hours. I'd like to get started on some projects but the cleaning and laundry need to get done first so I'm trying to get through those things so I can move on to the fun stuff.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Jojo Moyes' The Giver of Stars on Saturday and started Colson Whiteheads' latest, The Nickel Boys. Furious Hours got downloaded from the library on Saturday so I'm going to have to do more listening around the house than usual so I can get to everything before my loans expire.

Watched: I forgot to tell you last week that we had been to Jojo Rabbit last Saturday. We highly recommend it, especially for fans of Wes Anderson's movies. It is sweet, and heartbreaking but also extremely funny. This week we saw Motherless Brooklyn to which we would also give two thumbs up. Edward Norton is terrific (he also wrote the screenplay), the story is great, and the whole atmosphere is just perfect. I downloaded the audiobook the other day so I'm interested in getting to that one soon to see how it compares to what Norton has done.

Read: I ready Anissa Gray's debut The Care of Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls and was really impressed. Now I'm reading Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments. I'm wishing I had reread The Handmaid's Tale first, partly as a reminder of how prescient it was. I'm going to have to take a break from that to do a quick read of this month's book club selection, Winter's Bone. Assuming I can find it on The Big Guy's book stacks.

Made: We baked a bag of potatoes on Sunday and built meals around those all week. First we had baked potatoes with baked chicken, then we did fried potatoes, and finally the best baked potato soup I think I've ever made. Sadly, I never stop to write down the exact ingredients and proportions so I will never be able to recreate it exactly!

Enjoyed: Movie night and a basketball game/date night with BG last night. Most of all, I enjoyed my two+ hours of pampering yesterday when I went to get my hair colored. I always say that if I ever win the lottery (although I'm pretty sure you must play to win!), I'd hire someone full time to do my hair everyday.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: I have got to get back to my basement project. Plus, I need to start making Christmas presents and get a plan put together for finishing up most of my shopping by the end of the month. 

Thinking About: Everything. Seriously. I cannot shut my brain off again or focus on one thing. Consequently, I'm also all over the place on getting things accomplished. I start something and then move on to the next thing before the first thing is finished. I have to get back on track with sticking to my planner.

Feeling: Like it's time to get off the computer and get busy!

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday.

Question of the week: What's your favorite way to pamper yourself?

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks
Published November 2019 by St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
Daniel Mayrock's life is at a crossroads. He knows the following to be true:
1. He loves his wife Jill... more than anything.
2. He only regrets quitting his job and opening a bookshop a little (maybe more than a little)
3. Jill is ready to have a baby.
4. The bookshop isn’t doing well. Financial crisis is imminent. Dan doesn't know how to fix it.
5. Dan hasn’t told Jill about their financial trouble.
6. Then Jill gets pregnant.
This heartfelt story is about the lengths one man will go to and the risks he will take to save his family. But Dan doesn’t just want to save his failing bookstore and his family’s finances:
1. Dan wants to do something special.
2. He’s a man who is tired of feeling ordinary.
3. He’s sick of feeling like a failure.
4. He doesn't want to live in the shadow of his wife’s deceased first husband.

Dan is also an obsessive list maker; his story unfolds entirely in his lists, which are brimming with Dan’s hilarious sense of humor, unique world-view, and deeply personal thoughts. When read in full, his lists paint a picture of a man struggling to be a man, a man who has reached a point where he’s willing to do anything for the love (and soon-to-be new love) of his life.

My Thoughts:
A book with books on the cover has to be good, right? And Taylor Jenkins-Reid (Daisy Jones and The Six) had endorsed it. I mean, she’s just published a creatively written book so she should know one when she sees one. But you’re probably saying to yourself, “how in the world can a book written entirely in lists be interesting or have any depth?” I thought the same thing going in but I figured that a book written entirely in lists wouldn’t take long to read so it wasn’t a major commitment to give it a shot.

Guys, if I had started this book on a Friday night, I might well have stayed up all night reading it. Because, yes, in the same way that an epistolary novel sucks me in thinking I’ll just read one more letter, I kept thinking, “I’ll just read one more list.” Or one more day. Or one more month. And it’s only lists so there aren’t that many words on each page, so that helps. Still, I would have stayed up reading this book all night because I really, really liked this book. It is unique and funny and insightful and surprisingly moving.

The book is broken into monthly sections and then by the day and time each list was written. It was important to pay attention to those dates and times to really see how Dan's mind was working - sometimes there were a string of lists separated only by a few minutes. Essentially this book is the very easiest stream of consciousness book to read (and possibly the best way to write one that people will happily read). I became very attached to Dan - I so wanted him to be a good man. I won't give away the ending. Let's just say, it worked for me in all of the right ways.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

National Geographic History At A Glance

National Geographic History At A Glance
Published November 2019 by National Geographic
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Beautifully illustrated, this penetrating book offers a sweeping view of humanity from prehistory to the modern day, presented in a unique time-line format.

Sweeping but succinct, this comprehensive reference presents all of world history in a browsable format featuring more than three dozen maps, along with hundreds of photographs and illustrations. From the dawn of humankind to today’s global complexities, this book provides a compelling reminder that history is unfolding all around us.

The epic story of humanity on all seven continents is explored through a unique design that combines concise essays with expansive time lines that invite deeper reading on milestone moments, explained within the broader context of the era. The final chapter highlights such recent events as SpaceX’s heavy rocket launch, the restoration of U.S./Cuba relations, and the historical trends that were the precursors to the state of our world today.

Informative and richly illustrated, this authoritative take on world history will be a compelling reference you’ll turn to again and again.

My Thoughts:
It's that time of year - time for big, dramatic books to appear in the bookstores. We love to give books but it can be hard to make sure you're choosing a book that the person you're shopping for rather than a book that just appeals to you. Here is a book that's going to solve that problem. My boys would have loved this book when they were in grade school. My husband is stealing this book as soon as I write this review. My dad, who is always picking up books to learn, would find plenty to love.

What makes it such a great book for so many people?

Well, it's National Geographic so you already know that it's filled with beautiful photography and that's it's well researched. The chapters are divided into eras so it's easy to find a specific time period you're interested in learning more about; each chapter has an overview of that time period and a "World At A Glance" map showing the key events throughout the world in the time period. Each chapter is further broken down into shorter periods of time with additional maps, breakout boxes on specific events or landmarks, and essays.

Our favorite thing about this book, though, is the time line that runs through all of the chapters. The time line gives the history of four regions: The Americas, Europe, Middle East and Africa, and Asia and Oceania and allows readers to see what was going on in each region at any given time compared to the other regions. The time line compares Politics and Power, Geography and Environment, Culture and Religion, Science and Technology, and People and Society. For example, on the time line  for 1545-1560, we can see that in Europe, Mary became Queen of England at about the same time as the Tutsi established the kingdom of Rwanda and the Mongols crossed the Great Wall and laid siege to Beijing.

I think this would make a great reference book to have in your home for almost all school-aged children. It is so easy to access information, particularly when you're look to compare what was happening in the various regions of the word at any given time, that I doubt you could find the information faster on the internet. I know that my husband is going to insist that it stay handy for him to be able to pick it up at any time and peruse different time periods or topics. We've only had the book for a few days so I clearly have not read all of it but in just a few hours I've not just brushed up on my world history but I've learned quite a bit as well.

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

Purchase Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Life: It Goes On - November 10

So yesterday, it was in the sixties. Today we are headed toward record low temperatures. This is how fall has worked this year - only very brief glimpses of what fall is supposed to be like. There's a part of me that is ready to get rid of all of the pumpkins every where in my house and another part of me that says "it's got to be fall somewhere!" So they're staying where they're at for now, at least until they turn to mush.

Last Week I:

Listened To: The soundtrack of My Fair Lady, a Spotify playlist called "Songs to Sing in the Car," and I started Jojo Moyes' The Giver of Stars.

Watched: The Voice, volleyball, football and Press on PBS.

Read: Tracey Garvis Graves' The Girl He Used To Know,  Cathleen Schine's The Grammarians and I've started both National Geographic's History At A Glance and Anissa Gray The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls. I'm a reading machine lately!

Made: Umm. Nothing? I mean, we've eaten, sure. But we've been out to eat a few times this week and done super quick and easy meals the rest of the week.

At one of their fave places
to eat. Could my boys look
more different?!
Enjoyed: A visit from Mini-me (he came down to go to a concert with Mini-him), happy hour with my besties, happy hour with the hubby and friends, and movie night with friends.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On getting back to work on my basement project. It's kind of gotten put on hold for various reasons but it got kickstarted again yesterday when we were able to take a load of stuff to a community clean up site. I was so proud of The Big Guy for agreeing to get rid of so many things that we "might be able to use someday." I mean, I've got to make room for all of the "new" things I've gotten lately that I'm going to use someday!

Thinking About: Decorating for Christmas. I usually start the weekend after Thanksgiving but Thanksgiving is so late this year and we have an afternoon wedding that Saturday so I'm probably going to start early. I've got some new things I'm eager to use. And, yes, that includes some new trees. It's a sickness.

Feeling: Ambitious.

Looking forward to: There's nothing on the calendar so I'm looking forward to a quiet week.

Question of the week: When do you start decorating for the holidays?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West
Published November 2019 by Hatchette Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:



From the moment powerful men started falling to the #MeToo movement, the lamentations began: this is feminism gone too far, this is injustice, this is a witch hunt. In The Witches Are Coming, firebrand author of the New York Times bestselling memoir and now critically acclaimed Hulu TV series Shrill, Lindy West, turns that refrain on its head. You think this is a witch hunt? Fine. You've got one.

In a laugh-out-loud, incisive cultural critique, West extolls the world-changing magic of truth, urging readers to reckon with dark lies in the heart of the American mythos, and unpacking the complicated, and sometimes tragic, politics of not being a white man in the twenty-first century. She tracks the misogyny and propaganda hidden (or not so hidden) in the media she and her peers devoured growing up, a buffet of distortions, delusions, prejudice, and outright bullsh*t that has allowed white male mediocrity to maintain a death grip on American culture and politics-and that delivered us to this precarious, disorienting moment in history.

West writes, "We were just a hair's breadth from electing America's first female president to succeed America's first black president. We weren't done, but we were doing it. And then, true to form-like the Balrog's whip catching Gandalf by his little gray bootie, like the husband in a Lifetime movie hissing, 'If I can't have you, no one can'-white American voters shoved an incompetent, racist con man into the White House.


We cannot understand how we got here-how the land of the free became Trump's America-without examining the chasm between who we are and who we think we are, without fact-checking the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and each other. The truth can transform us; there is witchcraft in it. Lindy West turns on the light.

My Thoughts:
Lindy West is a superhero. She’s who I want to be when I grow up. She is fierce and articulate and funny as hell. Also, she is right. Only in the meaning that she is correct, of course. Because she is almost as far from the right as you can possibly be. So if you tend to be on the other end of the spectrum, I’m fairly certain that you are not going to like this book at all. Although, you probably gave up on this blog about three years ago if you are.

The Witches Are Coming is not as personal as West’s previous book, Shrill, but I got no less a sense of who West is as a person and why she is so fired up.
“”Witch” is something we call a woman who demands the benefit of the doubt, who speaks the truth, who punctures the con, who kills your joy if your joy is killing. A witch has power and power in women isn’t’ likable, it’s ugly, cartoonish. But to not assert our power – even if we fail – is to let them do it. This new truth telling, this witchcraft of ours, by definition cannot be likable. We cannot pander or wait for consensus; the world is too big and complicated and rigged.”
In this collection of essays, West acknowledges that we all may have done some things in our pasts that, in retrospect, seem inappropriate and maybe even heartless; but also that we're products of a time and place, both personally and as a country.
“From makeover shows I learned that I was ugly. From romantic comedies I learned that stalking means he loves you and persistence means he earned you, and also that I was ugly. From Disney movies I learned that if I made my waist small enough, a man or large hog-bear might marry me and let me sit quietly in his castle until death. From sitcoms I learned that it’s a wife’s job to be hot and a husband’s job to be funny. From The Smurfs I learned that boys can have seventy-eight possible personalities and girls can have one, which is “high heels.” From The Breakfast Club I learned that rage and degradation are the selling points of an alluring bad boy, not the red flags of an abuser (and the thing is I STILL WANT HIM). From pretty much all film and TV I learned that complicated women are “crazy” and complicated men are geniuses.”
At the same time, she’s not accepting any excuses for that and offers this to help us avoid falling into that trap again: “Maybe the only thing to do, when you are one speck in an ungovernable community of nearly eight billion people on this planet, is to always keep an eye trained on the deep why of things: Why do I like this? Where is this impulse coming from? Am I telling the truth to myself about myself?"

What West is demanding in this book is that we do better. That we stop attacking people for their activism, that we stop “choosing the comfortable over what is right,” that women stop chasing likability so that we can do the real work, that we stop accepting the idea that someone being “offended” is a “dishonest, manipulative way to overstate “hurt feelings,” that social media “make their platforms safe, constructive, and non-Nazi-infested for all users, that we stop ostracizing those who speak out, that men speak up for women and white people speak up for minorities, that we stop allowing one minority group (that would be Christianity) to “implement legislation that impedes other people’s freedom,” that we stop treating liberal values as “inherently frivolous, dishonest, a joke.” Yeah, she’s got a lot to say. And she defends it all so well. I need to buy a copy of this book, transfer my highlights into it, and then carry it with me everywhere so I can pull it out as a reference whenever I find myself in one of those conversations where I just can’t put into words why what I’m saying is valid.

Perhaps it’s best if I let West do the talking:
“If we’re going to pull our country and our planet back from the brink, we have to start living the truth. We have to start calling things by their real names: racism is racism, sexism is sexism, mistakes are mistakes, and they can be rectified if we do the work.”
“The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your lies. We’re coming for your legacy.”

Monday, November 4, 2019

Conversations With RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law by Jeffrey Rosen

Conversations With RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law by Jeffrey Rosen
Published November 2019 by Holt, Henry and Company, Inc.
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
This remarkable book presents a unique portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, drawing on more than twenty years of conversations with Jeffrey Rosen, starting in the 1990s and continuing through the Trump era. Rosen, a veteran legal journalist, scholar, and president of the National Constitution Center, shares with us the justice’s observations on a variety of topics, and her intellect, compassion, sense of humor, and humanity shine through. The affection they have for each other as friends is apparent in their banter and in their shared love for the Constitution—and for opera.
In Conversations with RBG, Justice Ginsburg discusses the future of Roe v. Wade, her favorite dissents, the cases she would most like to see overruled, the #MeToo movement, how to be a good listener, how to lead a productive and compassionate life, and of course the future of the Supreme Court itself. These frank exchanges illuminate the steely determination, self-mastery, and wit that have inspired Americans of all ages to embrace the woman known to all as “Notorious RBG.”
Whatever the topic, Justice Ginsburg always has something interesting—and often surprising—to say. And while few of us will ever have the opportunity to chat with her face-to-face, Jeffrey Rosen brings us by her side as never before. Conversations with RBG is a deeply felt portrait of an American hero.

My Thoughts:
I’m pretty sure I’ve made my love of Ruth Bader Ginsburg abundantly clear before. So you can imagine that I jumped at the chance to read this book.

Jeffrey Rosen first met RBG in an elevator in 1991 when he was a law clerk on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she was then a judge. To break the silence in the elevator, he asked her which operas she’d seen recently. This without even knowing that RBG is a huge opera fan. It was the beginning of what has developed into a long friendship. Rosen’s familiarity with Ginsburg, both personally and professionally, gives readers the feeling that we are just eavesdropping in on conversation between two people sitting at the next table

Rosen says of Ginsburg that when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she was “viewed as a judge’s judge, a judicial minimalist, praised by conservatives (and questioned by some liberals) for her restrained approach to the judicial function. That hardly seems to fit with the woman many call the “Dissenter in Chief.” But it’s clear, through these conversations, that Ginsburg remains a judge who believes that the courts should stay out of making big statements; rather, they should rule more narrowly, sticking just with the issue at hand. I learned so much, reading this book, about how Ginsburg rules and why. It hasn’t always made her as popular with some people as she is now (feminists were not happy with her opinion that the court had ruled too broadly in Roe v. Wade, for example) but it seems every bit as measured and thoughtful as I expected it would. I also gained an appreciation for how the Supreme Court works and the interactions of the justices. Ginsburg says that, for the most part, the justices work to keep politics out of their dealings with each other (and, in theory) out of their rulings. This, and a mutual love of opera, helped Ginsburg become great friends with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a man conservatives loved.

Rosen and Ginsburg talk a lot about the cases she has been a part of over the years, as a lawyer defending cases before the Court, as a Circuit Court judge, and as a Supreme Court justice. They talk about Roe v. Wade, the Hobby Lobby ruling, and the Citizen’s United ruling. Rosen has organized the book by subjects but I often found the same cases coming up again and again. It did get repetitive at times and I sometimes struggled to remember to which case they were referring when only the case name was referenced. My only other issue was that, sometimes, things felt a bit disjointed, as though the conversations hadn’t been edited as smoothly as they might have been. Occasionally I found myself rereading passages to understand what it was Rosen was trying to convey.

Over her career, Ginsburg has often fought for women’s right circuitously, bringing issues to court with a male defendant. Her theory was that it would be easier to convince judges that the men deserved equal rights with the women as the reverse. In so doing, it has been her experience that women are the ones who truly gain. In this book, she talks a great deal about how laws have been made to “protect” women and what it has taken to overturn those laws.
“…my objective was to take the Court step by step to the realization in Justice Brennan’s words, that the pedestal on which some thought women were standing was all too often turned into a cage.”
“We were trying to get rid of all laws modeled on that stereotypical view of the world, that men earn the bread and women take care of the home and children.”
Going forward, Ginsburg says that to secure full equality, there need to be legal changes to the unconscious bias and work-life balance. Here’s to hoping she has many more years to help make those changes.
“Even when one is all grown up, death of a beloved parent is a loss difficult to bear. But you will honor your mother best if you carry on with your work and days, thriving in the challenges and joys of being alive. Isn’t that just what she would have willed?” – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I feel the same way about you, Justice Ginsburg!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House by M. C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House by M. C. Beaton
Published September 2003 by St. Martin’s Press
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Just back from an extended stay in London, Agatha Raisin finds herself greeted by torrential rains and an old, familiar feeling of boredom. When her handsome new neighbor, Paul Chatterton, shows up on her doorstep, she tries her best to ignore his obvious charms, but his sparkling black eyes and the promise of adventure soon lure her into another investigation.

Paul has heard rumors about Agatha's reputation as the Cotswold village sleuth and wastes no time offering their services to the crotchety owner of a haunted house. Whispers, footsteps, and a cold white mist are plaguing Mrs. Witherspoon, but the police have failed to come up with any leads, supernatural or otherwise. The neighbors think it's all a desperate ploy for attention, but Paul and Agatha are sure something more devious is going on. Someone's playing tricks on Mrs. Witherspoon, and when she turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Agatha finds herself caught up in another baffling murder mystery.

My Thoughts:
M. C. Beaton has been writing about Agatha Raisin since 1992 and has put out at least one book about her favorite middle-aged amateur sleuth every year since then. In nearly 30 years, Agatha hasn’t aged. In fact, very little about Agatha’s life has changed, which makes it difficult to make Agatha’s personal life interesting. Beaton has two solutions for this: a steady stream of dead people popping up wherever Agatha happens to be and a steady stream of men in her life. Curiously, my problem which the Agatha Raisin books is not so much that a lot of people have been murdered in her general vicinity, or the fact that she’s so cantankerous, so much as it is with her desperate need for a man in her life.

I gather that Agatha is somewhere around the same age as I am so you’d think I’d be a little more sympathetic to her plight. Maybe because I have a man in my life, I can’t relate to being alone at my age. Or maybe it’s because when my mother-in-law was widowed at age 60, the last thing she wanted to do was start over with a new man. Or maybe it’s because some days, let’s be honest, I’d happily trade my man in for a dog. Or maybe it’s just because the feminist in me would like to believe that women do not need men in their lives to be happy. So, yeah, I’d like Agatha better if she weren’t so damn needy in that way.

To be fair, Beaton has even Agatha questioning why a woman who likes to think of herself as independent flings herself at every eligible man that comes her way (and also at some who aren’t). Perhaps by book 14 (which this one is), the pattern was just so ingrained that Beaton can’t work her way out of it. I’ll give her this – the relationship between Agatha and Paul was fun as they both gained and lost interest in each other, working their way through other relationship difficulties and dead bodies.

As I did with my most recent Beaton read, Death of a Witch featuring Beaton’s other favorite character, Hamish Macbeth, I did find a lot of repetition in this book. I don’t know how many times I needed to know that Agatha was pulling frozen meals, covered in ice, out for dinner because she couldn’t be bothered to cook for herself. Or that her cats did get freshly prepared meals. Nor did I feel it necessary to make it a thing that Agatha went through a lot of wardrobe changes trying to make herself look just right every time she and Paul were going anywhere.

Even with all of that going against the book, I still enjoyed this book. At its core, it’s a murder mystery and it works well as a murder mystery. There were a lot of possible suspects and a lot of possible motive. I felt very much like I was being allowed to play along in trying to solve the mysteries, unlike some murder mystery books where the reader is not privy to all of the information that will eventually help solve the case. There was English history here, which, of course, had me going to the internet to learn more (and you know how much I love when a book makes me do that!). Sure there were some implausible bits; but for a book with this many moving pieces, I felt like Beaton did a good time tying everything together and making it all work. Did I have problems with the book? Yes. Maybe the truth of the matter is that I'm just not a cozy mystery person. But I'll still probably read another of the Agatha books!

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
Published June 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: checked out ebook from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In a sleepy seaside town in Maine, recently widowed Eveleth “Evvie” Drake rarely leaves her large, painfully empty house nearly a year after her husband’s death in a car crash. Everyone in town, even her best friend, Andy, thinks grief keeps her locked inside, and Evvie doesn’t correct them.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Dean Tenney, former Major League pitcher and Andy’s childhood best friend, is wrestling with what miserable athletes living out their worst nightmares call the “yips”: he can’t throw straight anymore, and, even worse, he can’t figure out why. As the media storm heats up, an invitation from Andy to stay in Maine seems like the perfect chance to hit the reset button on Dean’s future.

When he moves into an apartment at the back of Evvie’s house, the two make a deal: Dean won’t ask about Evvie’s late husband, and Evvie won’t ask about Dean’s baseball career. Rules, though, have a funny way of being broken—and what starts as an unexpected friendship soon turns into something more. To move forward, Evvie and Dean will have to reckon with their pasts—the friendships they’ve damaged, the secrets they’ve kept—but in life, as in baseball, there’s always a chance—up until the last out.

My Thoughts:
I know the phrase "chick lit" brings to mind a certain kind of light and frothy rom-com of a book. But if you think of it as "heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists," Evvie Drake Starts Over falls into the chick-lit genre in the very best way. It is smart, witty, and, as so many reviewers have called it, charming.

Unlike so much of what falls into the chick-lit genre, this book also has depth, touching on grief, emotional abuse, abandonment, failed dreams and complicated relationships between children and parents. None of it feels forced, which is tough in any book, but especially in a book where you are also trying to keep up a certain level of lightness. I would say to you that you'll know going in that you'll get the happily-ever-after ending you'll want for Evvie and Dean. Except that I wasn't so sure, by the end of the book, that Holmes was going to give me that which I found more than a little impressive.

In a happy coincidence, I was reading this book about a guy who had pitched for the New York Yankees just as I was watching the Yankees play in playoffs. It made the book feel all that much more real for me. Even without that, though, this book feels real. There is a scene where a drunk Andy and a drunk Evvie go after each other and I swear to you that you have heard people talk to each other exactly like this when drunk. Have I ever had a conversation as witty as some of Dean's and Evvie's? Probably not; but they are the kinds of conversations I wish I was having.

Linda Holmes is one of the cohosts of NPR's podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour and the writer and editor of NPR's blog, Monkey See. With all of that going on, I hope she can find time to write another book. She's got a knack for it.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

The Guest Book by Sarah Blake
Read by Orlagh Cassidy
Published May 2019 by Flatiron Books
Source: my audiobook copy checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
A lifetime of secrets. A history untold.
No. It is a simple word, uttered on a summer porch in 1936. And it will haunt Kitty Milton for the rest of her life. Kitty and her husband, Ogden, are both from families considered the backbone of the country. But this refusal will come to be Kitty’s defining moment, and its consequences will ripple through the Milton family for generations. For while they summer on their island in Maine, anchored as they are to the way things have always been, the winds of change are beginning to stir.

In 1959 New York City, two strangers enter the Miltons’ circle. One captures the attention of Kitty’s daughter, while the other makes each of them question what the family stands for. This new generation insists the times are changing. And in one night, everything does.
So much so that in the present day, the third generation of Miltons doesn’t have enough money to keep the island in Maine. Evie Milton’s mother has just died, and as Evie digs into her mother’s and grandparents’ history, what she finds is a story as unsettling as it is inescapable, the story that threatens the foundation of the Milton family myth.

Moving through three generations and back and forth in time, The Guest Book asks how we remember and what we choose to forget. It shows the untold secrets we inherit and pass on, unknowingly echoing our parents and grandparents. Sarah Blake’s triumphant novel tells the story of a family and a country that buries its past in quiet, until the present calls forth a reckoning.

My Thoughts:
When I sit down to write a review and find myself flummoxed and stuck, I often turn to Ron Charles of The Washington Post. I don’t always agree with him; but he often helps me sort out my feelings. Why did I, for example, absolutely love this book at the beginning but end with such mixed feelings? As he frequently does, Charles helped me right the ship, even though we don’t entirely agree.

Charles, for example, has no patience for Evie’s long bouts of grief about the prospect of the third generation of Miltons losing their island, rightly doubting that most readers will feel sorry for her (you know, regular people whose family has never owned an island). And I had that feeling to some extent, too. I mean, Evie can’t even bear the thought of selling off a part of the island – boo hoo, you’ll still have half an island left. But I looked at Evie’s pain as the pain of a woman whose family was losing her grandparents’ home, the place where the family had always gathered, where she was surrounded by love and bonded with her cousins, where so many memories were made. I looked at that place in the same way I look at my parents’ home and thought about the way their grandchildren are feeling as we near the place where they will have to leave their home. Or the way I felt when my own grandparents moved out of the small home they’d lived in for decades, the only home I’d ever known them to have. It’s hard to say goodbye to all of those memories and I could relate to the way Evie was feeling as her cousins pushed her to let it go.

I’m better aligned with Charles on some of his other feelings about the book. The beginning is lovely, reminiscent, almost, of Edith Wharton, as Blake introduces us to the Miltons and their life of privilege. The publisher’s summary says that Kitty’s refusal was her defining moment but that’s not correct. Kitty’s defining moment was the moment her beloved son died. It was really then that she understood the life she was meant to live, the way “people like the Miltons” handle things. That word “no” was just the next step, a demonstration that she understood that her family must behave in a certain fashion and that she was fully on board with the idea that some people were beneath them. And it’s that idea that will come back to haunt her and result in catastrophe for her family in 1959.

I struggle with books that have both a past and present story line; they don’t always work for me. So often one story line is stronger than the other; and so often the modern story line feels like nothing more than a way to delve into the historical story in a way to make a mystery of it. Here Blake uses that device to judge her characters from a modern perspective and asks the question: if your life has been made better, at least in part, by the ill-gotten gains or prejudice of your ancestors, how do you rectify that? Evie has to struggle with this question as the book progresses but Blake doesn’t give her the full story until the book is nearly finished, too late for her to answer those questions. When she tells another character she doesn’t know what to do with the information she’s just been given, he tells her “it’s a start.” But I didn’t want to get to the end of nearly 17 hours of book, only to be told “it’s a start.”

This book brings to mind the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “There Was A Little Girl” because when it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad it is, if not quite horrid, messy, conflicted, and it goes on too long. Still, Blake has given readers a lot to think about - classism, racism, prejudice, betrayal, moral failings, and secrets – and you know I’m going to at least appreciate a book for doing that. I only wish this one had been structured a bit differently; it might have been a book I would have loved.

"[H]istory is sometimes made by heroes, but it is also always made by us. We, the people, who stumble around, who block or help the hero out of loyalty, stubbornness, faith, or fear. Those who wall up—and those who break through walls. The people at the edge of the photographs. The people watching—the crowd. You."

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Life: It Goes On - October 27

Guys, this fall is making me work even harder than usual to not spend the entire season worrying about winter coming. Cooler than normal temperatures, grey skies, strong winds. Ugh. So I'm off to the woods and pulling even more fall into the house.

Last Week I:
Listened To: The Trial of Lizzie Borden (review to come in Nonfiction November) and this weekend we are listening to a lot of podcasts, including Radiolab and Criminal.

Watched: The Voice, This is Us, and the World Series. According to Miss H, we’re meant to be cheering for the Nationals (or, rather, against the Astros), but we really don’t care who wins; we just enjoy watching when every game really counts.

I have been reading up a storm! I finished M. C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House and Jeffrey Rosen’s Conversations With RBG and I started Lindy West’s The Witches Are Coming.

Made: Caprese pasta, tacos, and BLTs – all to use up the remaining fresh-picked tomatoes on our counter. We’ve got more tomatoes wrapped in newspaper and ripening in the garage but, even though they are still better than anything you can buy in the grocery store, they just aren’t as good as those that fully ripened on the vine.

Currently enjoying a visit to my sister’s house. Every time we’ve seen her and her husband this year, things have been busy and we haven’t had enough time to talk so we decided a road trip was in order. Let’s be honest, we’ll talk all weekend and we still won’t have had enough time to talk! Or laugh or drive our husbands crazy (which are sort of the same thing).

This Week I’m:

Planning: Lots of celebrations – my birthday tomorrow, our anniversary on Wednesday, my mom’s birthday on Thursday, and a party for friends who are like family who are celebrating their Golden Anniversary.

Thinking About:
What still needs to be done in my basement. We’ve got two more weeks for the citywide cleanup so I want to make sure I’m getting everything out of the basement that I want to get rid of and get it delivered to that event.

Autumnal. Can that even be a feeling? The leaves have been gorgeous this past week and falling so that when you walk outside, you’re getting that crunchy sound. Also, free fall decor is falling out of trees. Yes, I did pick up a branch in the parking lot at work. The Big Guy's just rolled his eyes.

Looking Forward To: All of that celebrating!

Question of the week:
How do you celebrate Halloween? Are you a go-big-or-go-home person or is passing out candy that night as much as you care to do?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Death of a Witch by M. C. Beaton

Death of a Witch: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery #24 by M. C. Beaton
Published February 2009 by Grand Central Publishing
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Returning from a vacation, Constable Hamish Macbeth senses a dark cloud of evil hanging over his Scottish village of Lochdubh. Newcomer Catriona Beldame has cast a bewitching spell over the town, causing the local men to visit her cottage at all hours of the night and infuriating the women. Hamish suspects that she is a great danger to the town. Before he can prove that Catriona is truly wicked, she is brutally murdered-and Hamish becomes the prime suspect in the case. The constable will call upon the assistance of a pretty female forensic expert as he attempts to clear his name . . . and perhaps even find some romance. But when more violence breaks out, loyal Hamish must use all his detective skills to restore peace to his beloved village.

My Thoughts:
I have long loved Hamish Macbeth. He’s tall, clearly handsome, and smart. He’s also something of a rogue – he’s got a trail of women who can’t get over him and vice versa – and he is forever finding himself in some kind of romantic tangle. He’s also forever finding dead bodies around the sleepy little village of Lochdubh. Honestly, I can’t help but think that I would be hightailing it out of that town if I lived there and that many people were dying. But Hamish wouldn’t be Hamish if he ever took the promotion his superiors are constantly trying to give him and Lochdubh would’t be Lochdubh if the villagers acted any differently.

Still, I may be growing tired of them. Certainly after reading quite a few of the Hamish Macbeth series, each of which is meant to stand alone, I'm growing tired of being reminded about how each character fits into Hamish's life. And, to be honest, I'm growing a bit tired of Beaton's tendency to repetitiveness within a book. I didn't love this one as much as I have the other Hamish Macbeth books I've read. Although, maybe it has to do with the fact that this is the first book in the series that I've read in print, rather than listening to them with a lovely Scottish accent.

Am I finished with Macbeth? Of course not. Because I love that Macbeth's a rebel; I adore the villagers' attitude; and, for the most part, I enjoy the crime storylines. Beaton mixes in a fair bit of humor; and there's none of the gore or extreme tension that tend to turn me away from other murder mystery books. Maybe next time I'll just go back to the audiobook...a Scottish accent will make any book better, right?

I chose this book to read for the R.I.P. Challenge.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Read by Molly Pope
Published May 2019 by Scribner
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while haunted by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

My Thoughts:
Many years ago, a neighbor came to my door to tell me that she couldn’t keep a school commitment she’d made because she was getting divorced. While I didn’t know her well, my husband knew her husband. He had no idea about the divorce. No one in the neighborhood, not one of the people who thought they knew this couple, had any idea that this husband was leaving his wife for “the other woman.” Jump forward twenty years and social media only serves to emphasis how little we really know about those we think we know and how little we actually talk about the truths of our lives.

Mary Beth Keane gets to the truth of her characters’ lives even as she reminds us how little we really know about even those to whom we are closest – how we often don’t know what has happened to a person in their past that will inform their future, how close to the breaking point a person might be, the crutches a person might be using to prop up their lives, the daily struggles just to put one foot in front of another every day.

As I have with so many books, I picked this one up after reading so many glowing reviews. But by the time I was able to listen to it, I’d completely forgotten what the book was about, for which I was grateful. Keane moves her forward in time, through different characters, often with leaps in time. We are allowed to see the growth of each character, often through another character's eyes; we are allowed to see them succeed and fail; we are allowed to fully see them, to judge them on the whole of their lives.

Keane has touched on so many themes in the book: gun violence, marital strife, mental illness, infidelity, substance abuse, family ties, abandonment, sexual assault, emotional scars, loss. All of it is seamlessly worked into a quiet novel about two families whose lives become irrevocably intertwined, much like a marriage for better or for worse. Mostly though, this is a thoughtful novel about forgiveness. There is not a character in this book who’s blameless; but there is also not a character in this book who is not capable of redemption. This one is going on the book club list.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Life: It Goes On - October 21

Happy Sunday! It's, at least right now, a beautiful, sunny Sunday. I'm headed out shortly to do more work in the yard and gardens while the sun is shining. We went seven days in a row this week without any rain- the longest we've been without precipitation all year. Turns out it hasn't just felt like it's been raining all of the time, it has!

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Sarah Blake's The Guest Book (mixed feelings about that one) and started The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson. Thought I was getting a novelization of that piece of history; I was pretty happy to find that it's nonfiction.

Watched: The Big Guy and I went to a high school football game Thursday night. My alma mater was playing our kids' alma mater and it was a great night for football. Truth be told, though, we really wanted to go see the school district's new scoreboard which was put in my the company our son works for and we were really impressed!

Read: Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes, which I enjoyed. Completely different from my usual read.

Made: Homemade applesauce in the crockpot with Granny Smith apples. So easy and so yummy! I'm headed to the grocery store soon to get more apples so I can make a double batch and can some jars of it to have this winter.

Enjoyed: Book club - I had to drag myself out of the door to go but these ladies always make this homebody glad she got out. Also, I enjoyed two new-to-me drinks, an espresso martini that I paired with tiramisu (we met at Bravo Cucina Italiano for book club) and Starbucks' pumpkin cream cold brew. It's a good thing for me that there's not a drive-thru Starbucks close to me or I would be there every day while the pumpkin cream cold brews are still available!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On getting back to my basement project. The nice weather has had me not wanting to be down where it's darker so that project has languished but I don't want to lose all momentum. 

Thinking About: Christmas. Yeah, I said it. I hate to overlook Thanksgiving, but the more I can get done for Christmas early, the less crazy it is later. And the more I can enjoy it. So I'm going to order our cards soon, hopefully this week.

Feeling: Peaceful. My dad had a health scare a week and half ago, but he's good now. My kids are all in good places. I've gotten plenty of alone time lately and I've been productive. All is well.

Looking forward to: A quiet week with a possible road trip to enjoy the fall colors.

Question of the week: We've been eating a lot of apples this week - with dip, as applesauce, and today I may make apple crisp. What's your favorite way to eat apples?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Published May 2016 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: purchased for my Nook

Publisher’s Summary:
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich.

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them.

LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a coconspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal.

But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.

My Thoughts:
I had no idea, going into this book, that it was part of a trilogy. As it turns out, I’ve read the other two books, The Plague of Doves and The Round House. But this never felt like the final chapter in a trilogy (although there are characters that have carried over, it is not essential to know their prior stories). The trilogy is less about specific people and more about the lives of the Ojibwe people who live in North Dakota. Each of the books has given me a wealth of interesting characters and plenty to think about. As much as I really enjoyed The Round House, I think LaRose impressed me even more.

It’s a book that takes readers on a journey into the past to try to explain the present, an idea that is more of a key to all of our lives that we generally acknowledge. Every one of us is, in some way, who we are because of our ancestors. The Native Americans, it seems, are just infinitely better at recognizing and honoring their ancestors.

Young LaRose Iron is not the first LaRose in his family; there were four before him, including his grandmother. In looking back at those women, we learn much about the ways of Native Americans when the Europeans first began to settle this continent and the mystical beliefs they held, beliefs their descendants struggle to hold onto. We see how the Europeans worked to try to annihilate the Native American way of life and how that system continues to impact them today. All of that is a bigger picture, set up by Erdrich to help us understand what is happening to these families.

I’m writing this review before my book club meets to discuss this book. I’m looking forward for what those ladies have to say about the characters in this book and its many themes. What do they make of Nola’s grief, which just keeps spinning deeper, despite having been given LaRose? Who are the “bad” guys in the novel? What must it be like to live together with the descendants of the people who conquered your people and who continue to keep their foot on the throat of your people? What of the themes of revenge (which so many here are trying to exact), motherhood, family, addiction, heritage, and forgiveness? And what role does food play in the book? Until I got to a party at the end of the book, it hadn’t occurred to me how much food had been talked about in this book. When it did, I had to stop and think about where Erdrich had included food and why.

This is review feels rambly and disjointed as I reread it but I’m not sure how much more cohesive it would be if I took longer to put together my thoughts. Erdrich has me thinking in so many different directions. I have a feeling this book will stay with me for some time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

This Blessed Earth by Ted Genoways

This Blessed Earth: A Year In The Life Of An American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
Published September 2017 by Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc.
Source: my ecopy courtesy of my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Is there still a place for the farm in today’s America?The family farm lies at the heart of our national identity, and yet its future is in peril. Rick Hammond grew up on a farm, and for forty years he has raised cattle and crops on his wife’s fifth-generation homestead in Nebraska, in hopes of passing it on to their four children. But as the handoff nears, their small family farm—and their entire way of life—are under siege. Beyond the threat posed by rising corporate ownership of land and livestock, the Hammonds are confronted by encroaching pipelines, groundwater depletion, climate change, the fickle demands of the marketplace, and shifting trade policies.Following the Hammonds from harvest to harvest, Ted Genoways explores the rapidly changing world of small, traditional farming operations. He creates a vivid and nuanced portrait of a radically new landscape and one family’s fight to preserve their legacy and the life they love.

My Thoughts:
I have lived in Nebraska all of my life and while I have always appreciated that farming is a tough, necessary job, I’m afraid that I’ve been quick to deny being a part of a farming state. “I live in a city,” I insist, as though there were something wrong with being part of a farming community, as complicit in that idea as those who live in much more urban environs. It’s snobbish and I know better. And if I didn’t before this book, I do now.

This book was not only the One Book, One Nebraska selection this year, it was also the Omaha Reads choice (as well as the Iowa statewide read for 2019). Clearly a darling amongst Nebraskans, right? Not our governor, who backed out of a proclamation and ceremony when it was selected for the statewide read. Of course, you know what that did, right? Not only did local bookstores sell out of this book, so did Amazon.

I always struggle with writing reviews on nonfiction books, especially books where I’ve learned as much as I did in this book. Yes, I want to tell you about the book but I also want to share what I’ve learned. If I’m doing that, how much do I share before I’m not so much writing a book review as a lesson on the subject at hand? I made three pages of notes of the things I highlighted but clearly I can’t share them all with you (you can thank me later). On the other hand, it’s hard to explain why a book is as good as this book is without that background.
Genoways has created a terrific mix of the very personal side of the business of farming with the historical and broader aspects of the industry. I never felt that one piece of the book was being lost to the other; the history, the role government and big business play in the lives of family farmers, knowing how water or the lack thereof impacts farming - all of that is readily tied into the story of the Hammond family as they fight to hang on to land that has been in the family for six generations now.

The Hammonds farm is not far from where my husband grew up; I could readily picture what the Hammonds’ land looks like which, of course, made it that much easier for me to relate to this book. I know what that land looks like, I know people in that neck of the woods. But you don’t have to be familiar with the land to be able to picture it; Genoways paints a vivid picture of the land and you will feel like you know the Hammonds after you have spent the year with them. They are every bit as hardworking as you would expect them to be. They are also smart people. They have to be – every day there are hundreds of decisions that have to be made. What type of seeds (and I’m talking what kind of soybeans or corn, not just which one) should be planted this year? When should they be planted? Does the irrigation system need to be run and, if so, for how long in each field? How long should the grain being stored be held to get the best price? And if you’re planting for one of the seed companies, you’ve got another set of issues to deal with, not the least of which is the extreme secrecy surrounding the seeds. Then there’s the weather, something you can’t predict that could wipe you out in a matter of minutes. Oh yeah, and the government, which may add new regulations, change up subsidies, or slap on embargoes or tariffs depending on who’s in office or who’s in charge of the Department of Agriculture.

I’ve long wondered what keeps families on the farm. Long hours, hard labor, dangerous chemicals, and a constantly shifting market for your goods would be enough to chase most of us away from any endeavor. But, for the Hammonds, and, I suspect, for most of the other farmers who stick it out, it’s not only all they know but it’s their family’s legacy.

Now, about what I learned:

  • “The rise of the soybean in the United States is attributable to, more than any other person, Henry Ford.” Yep, Ford was making a lot of money selling equipment to farmers but, due to a glut of grain, prices were so low farmers weren’t buying new equipment. Ford subsidized research into other uses for grains, particularly soybeans and financially incentivized farmers to grow soybeans. Ford believed the research and assistance to farmers should remain out of the hands of the government. Given what happened soon after, he may have been right.
  • After World War II, giant chemical manufacturers (who had secured defense contracts to produce ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia to make bomb and other munitions) “argued to the USDA that those chemicals could be used as fertilizers. The use of herbicides and pesticides rapidly increased. One of the products most used was Roundup, but Roundup was hard on the crops as well. Agribusinesses began developing genetically modified seeds that are now labelled as “Roundup Ready.” All of that research was costly and the companies who developed it want to make sure it doesn’t fall into their competitors’ hands (or into the hands of foreign governments). Distribution and planting of those seeds is highly guarded; even the farmers don’t know exactly what seeds they are planting.

  • Two Secretaries of Agriculture implemented policies that turned food into a weapon. Eisenhower’s secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, called small farmers “irresponsible feeders at the public trough” and vowed to return to a system where the biggest producers made the biggest profits. He used the overproduction to reduce global prices then used the excess as foreign aid. Nixon’s and Ford’s secretary, Earl Butz, also urged overproduction as a means to “undercut and control commodities markets to the disadvantage of our Cold War enemies.” He urged farmers to “acquire as much land as they could afford and to plant “fencerow to fencerow.”” This required dramatic change to the way farms were run and, critics argued, caused the farm economy to rely too much on agribusiness and less on family farmers.
  • In 1979 Jimmy Carter implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union after they invaded Afghanistan. Prices of grains plummeted. “As commodities prices fell, it became apparent: instead of making the world dependent on our grain supplies, we had grown reliant on their demand. “ This on the footsteps of Butz’ policies meant that farmers were carrying heavy overhead and servicing high-interest loans and the result was the Farm Crisis. Anyone else go to a Farm Aid concert to help raise money to help the farmers?
Truly, I could have rattled off ten more things that I found fascinating about farming and that’s a something that I never could have imagined myself saying. It just goes to show you the power of great nonfiction!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Life: It Goes On - October 13

It's been quite a week here and I'm feeling a little wiped out today. But, there's a lot to be done so it's time to put on my big girl panties and get moving. First up, I need to get out and uncover the plants I'm trying to save from the little run of just freezing temperatures we're having at night right now. The longer I can keep the potted plants on my patio and porch, the better my morale will be. Then it's time for some cleaning and yard work. A body in motion stays in motion, right?

Last Week I:

Listened To: I'm finishing up Sarah Blake's The Guest Book today. I'm not sure it's gotten great reviews, but I've enjoyed it.

Watched: I could have sworn there was something different I watched this week that I was going to tell you about; but, for the life of me, I can't recall what it was. So, let's just stick with the usual.

Read: Larose for book club this week and Evvie Drake Starts Over for a possible future book club read.

Made: Things slowed down a bit in the kitchen this week (more on why later), but I did get that chicken potpie made that I was planning last week, fettuccine alfredo, and some amazing sourdough grilled cheese sandwiches. Today I'm going to throw together some spaghetti sauce to simmer all day while I'm working around the house. I'm trying to use up the last of our ripe tomatoes.

Enjoyed: Getting more done than I had planned to get done on my basement reorganization project. Miss Sookie spent every minute of that task with me - often right where I needed to be! Now that I have things where I want them, I know what I need to buy to make it work best, like another bin for the Christmas overflow.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: More work on the basement, a lot of reading because I have a lot of library books right now, and decorating for Halloween. 

Thinking About: My parents may have to make some changes soon; my dad had a health scare this week that has us all looking to their future. Hard to think about them leaving the house they have lived in for 51 years, though.

Feeling: Grateful for the doctor and nurses that took care of The Big Guy when he had his gallbladder removed this week. He is getting along great; the trick to nursing him after surgery is always trying to keep him from doing too much!

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday!

Question of the week: What did you cook this week?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle

French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew by Peter Mayle
Published May 2001 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Ranging far from his adopted Provence, Mayle now travels to every corner of the country, armed with knife, fork, and corkscrew. He takes us to tiny, out-of-the-way restaurants, starred Michelin wonders, local village markets, annual festivals, and blessed vineyards.

We visit the Foire aux Escargots at Martigny-les-Bains-a whole weekend devoted to the lowly but revered snail. We observe the Marathon du Médoc, where runners passing through the great vineyards of Bordeaux refresh themselves en route with tastings of red wine (including Château Lafite- Rothschild!). There is a memorable bouillabaisse in a beachside restaurant on the Côte d'Azur. And we go on a search for the perfect chicken that takes us to a fair in Bourg-en-Bresse.

There is a Catholic mass in the village of Ri-cherenches, a sacred event at which thanks are given for the aromatic, mysterious, and breathtakingly expensive black truffle. We learn which is the most pungent cheese in France (it's in Normandy), witness a debate on the secret of the perfect omelette, and pick up a few luscious recipes along the way. There is even an appreciation and celebration of an essential tool for any serious food-lover in France-the Michelin Guide.

My Thoughts:
I'm a little bit at a loss as to how to review this book, which is, essentially, a group of essays Mayle put together about food experiences in France. And by food, I mean food and wine. I'm not sure there's a single chapter in this book that doesn't mention wine and there are quite a lot that include drinking a lot of wine. To the point that even Mayle, a man who is accustomed to drinking wine with his meals on the regular, concedes that the French may have taken their wine drinking a step too far. More on that later. Instead of a real review, I'm just going to share some takeaways from this one.

  • The French like their weekend food festivals and they will celebrate almost any food, including blood sausage, frog legs, and chickens with blue feet. These festivals are likely to include ridiculous rituals and costumes.
  • There are, apparently, a lot of "right" ways to cook an omelet and the pan I cook mine in is absolutely not the right pan. 
  • In Bordeaux they host the Marathon du Medoc - an actual marathon with serious runners but where the majority of the runners are in costume and the water tables are actually stocked with wine. I've never run a marathon (duh) but I've watched them and can't imagine how anyone could run 26 miles in drag and stop for wine several times along the route. 
  • The French people aren't nearly as snobby as their reputation would have you believe. Maybe because Mayle, at least in this book, spends his time in small villages that appreciate a visit from someone who appreciates their food and festivals. 
  • The Michelin guide was originally meant as an aid for people who were driving around in very unreliable vehicles and only included hotels. Their maps were so good that the Allies used them in World War II as they made their way across France. Also, working as a Michelin inspector is extremely secretive and wearying business.
I will admit to getting a little bored toward the end of the book. It began to feel a little repetitive - visit quirky little village, meet quirky people who like to argue amongst themselves, drink copious amounts of wine, eat lots of great food. On the other hand, Mayle has me convinced that you can hardly go wrong in visiting small French villages in search of great food and wine. He write with humor and respect for the country he's adopted as his home.