Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
Published January 2019 by Park Row
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
1946, Manhattan

One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, Grace Healey finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a network of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

My Thoughts:
I have a confession to make (doesn't it seem like I have a lot of confessions to make when I sit down to write reviews?) - I may be one of the very few women in this country who did not read Jenoff's The Orphan Train, especially women who belong to book clubs. I imagine some day I'll get around to reading that one; but, in the meantime, when I was offered the chance to read this novel, I figured that was a good place to start with Jenoff.

And now here's another thing I often find myself saying in book reviews - this one proved to be the right book at the right time. History, mystery, women doing things we're not accustomed to women doing and interesting characters - it's all there, just when it was the kind of different book that I needed. If I'd have picked this one up at another time, I might have had more trouble with the times Jenoff demanded that I suspend disbelief. Or I might have had more trouble with the dual narrative that has become so common that it's become something that sort of turns me off on a book. But Jenoff does the dual narrative in a different way - her two tales are set only two years apart. This worked better for me because I found it much more likely that Grace would be able to find the information she needed than if she would have been searching for it 50 years later, even with the internet.

I fell into this book almost from the beginning. I needed to find out what happened to those women who were sent to Occupied Europe; I needed to find out how Grace was going to unravel the mystery. And I absolutely needed to find out who betrayed this women. I had my ideas, first one and then another.

Of course, as soon as I finished this book, I had to get online and find out how much of the story was based on fact. I hadn't been aware for the SOE (the organization behind the operations in the book) before the book but assumed that was real. It was. It was also true that women were recruited as couriers and radio operators and Jenoff has even included some real people who were involved. You know how much more that endears a book to me!

I can definitely recommend this book, like Jenoff's others, for book clubs. Thanks to the ladies of TLC  Book Tours for allowing me to discover Jenoff. For other opinions about the book, check out the full book tour. You can also find Instagram Features and Excerpts there.

Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels, including the international bestseller The Kommandant’s Girl, which also earned her a Quill Award nomination. Pam lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Read by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published July 2015 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: audiobook from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

My Thoughts:
This one is a tough read for so many reasons. It's tough to read about the ways an entire group of people has been maltreated and kept down for 400 years. Coates descriptions of the ways slaves were punished, for example, literally nauseated me.

It's also tough to face the things you're race has done, many of them things you might not have been aware of until you read the book. I get that some of that is on me, which is why I'm trying to read more diversely and learn more. Sometimes the saying "you don't know what you don't know" is true. According to Coates, I don't know a lot.

Coates is a man who has spent much of his reading and learning. Add all of that learning to the life he has lived and it's easy to see why Coates is an angry man. He's a man whose learning has caused him to alter his own opinions over the years but it hasn't made his anger any less fierce. It's important to understand that anger exists. It's important to understand that while we may revere Dr. Martin Luther King and those he lead in peaceful protest, there are those African Americans who disagree with that method of working for change. And it's important to see that some of that anger has to do with a father worried about his young black son's future.

This is an important book, a book that asks a lot of questions. Now to find some answers.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Life: it Goes On - January 27

Yesterday at 7 p.m. it was still 37 degrees. This morning it's 19. This is much better than my family up north is dealing with but still, I hate winter.

I haven't necessarily been Marie Kondo'ing my entire house but I've certainly been taking inspiration from her. I finished moving all of our DVDs into binders which has allowed me to move all of the albums back into the family room. And now I have a whole shelf open in my office. I'm leaving both it and the empty shelf on my family room shelves open for a bit while I think about exactly how I want to use them.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I FINALLY finished The Woman's Hour and I'm back to The Woman In The Window. I've got 7 hours of it left and only 2 days so I'm doubting I'll get through it before it has to go back and then I'll have to wait for it again. This is not the best way to listen to a book!

Watched: I've had a fair amount of time this week by myself so I've also had the television to myself. This means I've finished Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, watched some Queer Eye, rewatched Under The Tuscan Sun, started You (this one's a watch-in-the-daytime show!), and started season 5 of Grace and Frankie. How I've missed those ladies!

Read: I read In The Ground, which I reviewed, and started Pam Jenhoff's The Lost Girls of Paris which I'll review this week. I'm really enjoying it so far.

Made: Chicken enchiladas, triple chocolate brownies, chicken noodle casserole, chocolate chip cookies, street tacos.

Enjoyed: Helping Miss H work on her closet - we didn't so much try to see if things sparked joy so much as we were trying to leave her with only a wardrobe of things that fit and work for her right now. It felt good to make things work better for her but, even more, I enjoyed getting to spend a couple of hours just the two of us talking.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On doing that painting I didn't get to last week and moving some furniture around.

Thinking About: Getting back to putting together a weekly menu. We've been doing entirely too many what-should-we-have-for-dinner conversations at 5:30 p.m. lately.

Feeling: Like I need to tweak things around here - I'm already tired of the winter decor. I brought in some fresh yew for some bright green color. My cat immediately thought she might need to nibble on it. I disagreed.

Looking forward to: Family dinner to celebrate BG's birthday tomorrow night.

Question of the week: For those of you battling snow and extreme cold lately, what things are you doing to keep yourself from going stir crazy? Or are you one of those people who just bundles up and enjoys the things you can only do this time of year?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

In This Ground by Beth Castrodale

In This Ground by Beth Castrodale
Published September 2018 by Garland Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through TLC Book Tours

Publisher's Summary:
Just as his indie-rock band was poised to make it big, Ben Dirjery traded it all in for fatherhood and the stability of a job at Bolster Hill Cemetery. Now closing in on fifty, the former guitarist finds himself divorced and at loose ends, and still haunted by the tragic death of his former band’s lead singer, who is buried, literally, under Ben’s feet. Then Ben’s daughter begins questioning a past he has tried to bury. If he can face her questions, he might finally put to rest his guilt over his bandmate’s death, and bring music back into his life.

My Thoughts:
When I agreed to read and review this book for the tour, it was based on this summary, a summary that almost exclusively focuses on the music aspect of the book. But I missed the shovel on the cover of the book and that is a better clue to what this book is about than the guitar that also appears. Music plays a big part in the book but death, and the way we deal with it, is the real story here.

There's a lot going on in this book: there are multiple music stories at play, Castrodale looks at the ways burials are changing, there are a lot of relationships Castrodale explores, a great deal about mushrooms, there's some mystery, and there's even a side story about death in India. It doesn't all work; there's just too much in too short a book and some of the side stories take away from the main story lines. For a while, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to finish the book; I was having such a hard time settling in to it. It was partly saved by the fact that I bailed on the last book I was to supposed to review by TLC Book Tours. But it was mostly saved by the fact that I started to really want to know what happened to Ben to cause him to give up on music. I started to want to find out how he was going to talk the cemetery board into approving green burials (let's be honest, this is the kind of book that you already know that he'll succeed, it's just a matter or how he's going to make that happen). And I started to care about Ben. I wanted to see if he could come to peace with his past, if he could succeed in his relationships.

Castrodale's history as a newspaper reporter comes into play in the pieces she inserts to introduce each chapter, often pieces that mimic newspaper clippings. I found it an interesting way to add a layer to the book and also to move the story along.

It's not a perfect book but it's an unusual book that makes you care about its characters and I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds for Castrodale. For more reviews, check out the full tour.

Castrodale's Twitter picture!
Beth Castrodale has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. Her novels include Marion Hatley, a finalist for a Nilsen Prize for a First Novel from Southeast Missouri State University Press (published by Garland Press in 2017), and In This Ground (Garland Press, 2018). Beth’s stories have appeared in such journals as Printer’s Devil Review, The Writing Disorder, and the Mulberry Fork Review. Get a free copy of her novel Gold River when you sign up for her e-newsletter, at

Connect with Beth Castrodale on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult
Published October 2018 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley

Publisher's Summary:
The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order to save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester, disguised as a patient, who now stands in the crosshairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

My Thoughts:
Confession: I have never read a Jodi Picoult book before. Picoult has written 23 novels and I have never read a single one of them. And why is that, you may ask? They don't fall in any of the genres I tend to steer away from. They are books written to make readers think and we all know how much I like that in a book. Here's why: they are "issue" books. It's been my impression that Picoult's books are very much like the latest episode of Law and Order, story lines that are ripped from the headlines. Don't get me wrong, I'm perfectly fine with books addressing current issues. I just don't want it to feel like the writer is churning out books with no other intent other than to write about that issue. . NPR even did a segment about the way Picoult turns "tough topics into best-sellers." In that segment, NPR suggested that Picoult writes what might be called "ethical or moral fiction." I like that a lot better. They also pointed out that Picoult's novels tend to be written around families. Which brought me back to feeling like they might be formulaic.

But the thing is, this one is about a subject that I'm extremely interested in and have a fair bit of knowledge about so it seemed like it might be the right time to see what Picoult could do, how she might present an issue to readers.

And I was impressed.

This is not just a book that pits pro-choice against pro-life forces. Picoult has characters who are utilizing all of the services these clinics provide, she explores the many reasons a woman might choose abortion, and the ways that today's more restrictive laws actually make abortion more dangerous. She also gives, what felt like to me, fair voice to the pro-life characters. More importantly, she explored the ways that people can feel more than one way about the issue.

I'm not sure I've ever read a book that reads entirely backwards and sometimes it could drag as we moved further away from the day's action. But in writing the book in this way, Picoult is able to gradually expose the characters motives and relationships in a way I really enjoyed. And while you might think that this ends the book when everything was sunny and peaceful, Picoult has held back a couple of big surprises.

Will I pick up another Picoult? Probably. Maybe even the book she wrote before this one, Great Small Things, which tackles prejudice, race, and justice, all issues I'm very interested in as well.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Read by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published September 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my library

Publisher's Summary:
Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.

My Thoughts:
Divided into six sections – Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, Divinity –in Big Magic Gilbert encourages each of us to live our most creative lives. She’s not necessarily saying we all need to pursue work in the creative arts, even acknowledging that, should we reach the apocalypse, hers is a skill set that won’t be much use. Instead, she suggests that we all live our lives with curiosity, not fear; that we make time in our lives to be creative in some way. In the section titled “Permission,” Gilbert says too many of us wait for permission to be creative and insists that we don’t need that permission. But if we still feel we need it, she ends the section by giving us that permission.

Some of Gilbert’s ideas can sound a little kooky. She believes, for example, that ideas are a kind of living thing that may move from one person to another. Here, she has a valid reason to believe so. Some years ago, Gilbert began writing a novel she was very passionate about. She did a lot of research and had gotten well into the book before life intervened and she had to put the book aside. When she was finally able to come back to it, she found that she had lost her muse. The book just wasn’t working for her any longer. Flash forward some months to when she first met author Ann Patchett. Patchett asked Gilbert what she was working on and Gilbert said she had just given up a book and explained what the book had been about. Patchett was astonished; she was close to publishing State of Wonder, a book with an amazingly similar story line. What was more incredible was the fact that Patchett got the idea for her story at almost the exact time Gilbert gave up on hers. Gilbert remains convinced that this idea jumped from her to Patchett, the person best able to bring the story to life. Weird? Definitely. But it certainly does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

Gilbert reads the book and it’s very much like having a conversation with a friend who is so passionate about something that she can’t stop talking about it. She is funny, she is honest, she is absolutely passionate, and once in a while I felt like she was going on too long (as people can do when they really want to convince you of something). I very much enjoyed the writing and Gilbert’s many references to other creative souls, including musician Tom Waits, which made me even more inclined to recommend this book to my son, the artist and huge fa of Waits.

I needed this book. I needed that permission. I used to be much more creative. I made Christmas presents, I painted furniture, I sewed costumes and pillow covers, I journaled for my kids and kept a log of story ideas, character sketches, and interesting names to use in stories. I even set up my office several years ago to give me a space to be creative. The strange thing is that, when my kids were younger and lived at home and my life was much, much busier, I found the time to do those things. More recently, I have felt the pressure to do the things that “have” to be done instead. But I had so much fun being creative with my holiday decorating again this year and a window opened. Gilbert crawled right in and made me understand that it’s imperative, for our own sake, that we do those things our soul yearns to do.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Life: It Goes On - January 20

Early this past week, we started hearing about a snow storm coming. We might have gotten anywhere from 2 to 7 inches of snow. Instead we got ice while we worked Friday. My office closed early for only the third time ever. The president of the company was out salting the sidewalks as we left; the third in command was escorting women through the parking lot to their cars (great company, right?!). Kudos to the city crews - they had so well prepped the roads and kept them up that, until I reached my neighborhood, the streets were only wet. The best part of all of that? For a change, I didn't panic, I didn't worry. I accepted that I was not in control of what the weather would do and that I would just have to go with whatever Mother Nature gave us. 2019 me might turn out to be great!

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World and Me. Still working on Elaine Weiss' The Woman's Hour; hope to finish it by Thursday.

Watched: Westworld, Point Break with Keanu Reeves, The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, and, of course,  football.

Read: The Water Cure by Sophie MacIntosh. Today I'll start In This Ground for a TLC Book Tour.

Made: The Big Guy grilled steaks one night and pork chops another, we baked yams and made smashed potatoes, I turned the leftover potatoes into baked potato soup, and Friday I made two of Miss H's favorites, goulash and rice pudding. Today I'll bake bread and, maybe, finally actually cook something in the Instant Pot I got for Christmas. I finally worked up the courage to test it today so I understand how it works.

Enjoyed: Finally finishing up my CD project. I'm pretty stoked to have gotten more than 300 CDs into two binders! Today I'll be able to move record albums, which have been living in my office for several years, back into the entertainment center. Two empty shelves in my house from that project. And another in my closet after I Marie Kondo'd my clothes! You know I go through my clothes regularly so you can imagine my surprise to find that, by sorting using her tips, I got rid of four kitchen garbage bags of stuff.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On getting some furniture painting done this week. Miss H found a desk she wanted to redo for a dressing table. We bought it for her for a birthday present and I will get it reworked for her, along with a mirror. While I'm at it, I've got an end table and a stool I want to paint. 

Thinking About: Tackling the books. There's no way I'm dropping down to Kondo's suggestion of only keeping 30 books (and, again, I go through them regularly), but I do feel like I at least need to get them reorganized.

Feeling: So happy with my new prints from See-Nile Photography. I've got a frame in my kitchen that I've decided will have a revolving series of prints in it and these will work for winter, with just enough color to remind me that spring is coming.

Looking forward to: Seeing the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice in the theater tonight, a rescheduled book club meeting, and BG's birthday celebration next weekend. 

Question of the week: I'm still wrestling with my "One Word" for 2019. Do you pick a word for the new year? If so, how have you done with staying with it through the year?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Narrated by Julia Whelan
Published July 2018 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my audiobook copy through my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Our narrator should be happy, shouldn't she? She's young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a dark and vacuous hole in her heart, and it isn't just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. It's the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a powerful answer to that question. Through the story of a year spent under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs designed to heal our heroine from her alienation from this world, Moshfegh shows us how reasonable, even necessary, alienation can be. Both tender and blackly funny, merciless and compassionate, it is a showcase for the gifts of one of our major writers working at the height of her powers.

My Thoughts:
I saw this book on Netgalley before it came out and was drawn to the cover so I read the summary and decided to pass on it. My gut told me that it wasn't the book for me. But so many people loved it that I finally decided to give it a try. I should have listened to my gut.

This book was named on of the best books of 2018 by The Washington Post, Time, NPR, Amazon,Vice, Bustle, The New York Times, The Guardian, Kirkus Reviews, Entertainment Weekly and Audible. Which makes it one of those books that makes me feel stupid. Whatever in the world did those people get out of this book that I missed entirely?

Yes, yes, dark humor. Yes, yes, provocativeness. Yes, yes, existential. All things reviewers have praised. The thing is, I like dark humor, I'm not opposed to provocative, and even existentialism doesn't put me off a book. Maybe it's all of it in one book that put me off. Maybe it's the fact that I had a hard time finding much of anything redeeming about any of the characters in this book. Even knowing that I should feel some measure of pity for a young woman who was raised by uncaring parents and who is now an orphan, I had a hard time for most of the book feeling sorry for our unnamed narrator.

And yet. Sometimes my cold heart did feel sorry for her, did understand that part of the reason she was the person she was was because of the way she had been raised and the fact that even if her parents weren't very nice people, they were her parents. And sometimes I felt like the whole point of her year of sleep was because she understood that she was a terrible person and that her life was shallow. And, while Whelan did a fine job of narrating, I tend to listen most while I am driving and often at 1.25 speed (because I always have a backlog of books to listen to because all of my library holds come in at once). I can't help but wonder if I might have gotten more out of this book if I had picked up the physical book. Because, toward the end of the book, there was a moment when I gasped and understood that a part of me had become attached to one of the characters at least.

Still, I do have that backlog of books to listen to waiting for me and I still feel like I should have trusted my gut and moved on to the next book.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
Published December 2018 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

My Thoughts:
I chose to read this book solely based on Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale having been one of my favorite books the year I read it. After finishing this one, I realized, in truth, I can't remember what that first book was about. I looked it up. I have almost no recollection of it. I fear this book is going to suffer the same fate.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the book. There was a lot about it that I liked quite a lot. I quite enjoyed the way all of the characters' lives intertwined and the stories came together. Life on the river, the time period, the mystery, the science of the period, and Setterfield's characters all appealed to me.

There was also so much in this book that seems unnecessary. Much is made early on of the storytelling that has made The Swan renowned on the river and Setterfield returns to that throughout the book but it largely felt extraneous. The fact that storytelling at the inn is its claim to fame plays no real part in the story line. I was never sure, either, as to whether or not there was an element of the mystical at play. Was this meant to be a book with "real" otherworldliness at play or a book where the characters just believed in that? In the end, I think I knew which way Setterfield was leaning but the part of me that doesn't go much for otherworldliness in books, except when it's done really well, wished it had been clearer.

If I were to give numerical ratings to books, this one would fall right in the middle. We tend to dismiss books that fall there, looking instead for the books that are exceptional. But why do we act like books that are "good" aren't good enough? Before I started blogging, I was perfectly satisfied to read a book that was good. Maybe this one won't stick with me years from now, but I mostly enjoyed it while I was reading it and there's something to be said for that.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Life: It Goes On - January 13

One of the things I dislike about winter is how brown it can be. Dirt were gardens belong, bare branches, sand and gravel all over streets and sidewalks, the remains of efforts to make sure things are passable. For the past couple of weeks, it's been warm and often sunny. Light jackets, no hats or scarves. And it's been brown. Friday night into Saturday it snowed. It was beautiful. It is beautiful. But, as it turns out, this year, I'm ready to get back to the brown already. It's hard to look out into your yard and imagine the lawn green, leaves on the trees, and flowers and vegetables flourishing in the gardens when there is snow every where.

I should probably stop whining about the snow. In Missouri, where my brother lives they got just under 17" of snow. Even here, where we are much better prepared for snow fall, that's a lot of snow, the kind that actually does mean you needed to stock up on bread and milk. The kind that gives even this recluse cabin fever. My brother misses big snows; he's pretty damn excited to have the snow. Which makes me even happier that he got it and we didn't!

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic and I'm back to Elaine Weiss' The Woman Hour. I'm bound and determined to get through that one this checkout period! Next up, I'm back to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World and Me.

Watched: More Marie Kondo (see below for what this show has inspired me to do), Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, football, and we are finally getting started on season 2 of Westworld.

Read: Today I'll finish my first Jodi Picoult, A Spark of Light, and then I'll start Sophie Mackintosh's The Water Cure.

Made: I finally worked up the courage to try my bread machine again, after several failures consigned it to the pantry for several months now. I made a recipe I found on the King Arthur website but substituted some whole wheat graham flour for some of the all-purpose flour and it made a lovely dense loaf that toasts beautifully.

Enjoyed: Working on that project inspired by Marie Kondo - I moved all of our CD's out of their jewel cases and into a binder. Well, I moved A-R of the rock CD's into a binder. I had to order a second binder and pages for the rest of the rock, the jazz, folk and classical CD's. Those will come tomorrow. When it's all done, I'll have freed up half a cupboard in the entertainment center and an entire shelf on my bookshelves. Organizing gurus will tell you to get rid of the CDs entirely, but there's no way that's getting past my hubby so this will have to do!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: Finishing up that project and moving on to going through all of my clothes. Hoping I can convince The Big Guy or Miss H to do the same. Then I'm moving on to books. Marie Kondo says you need to move all of the like things into one place before you sort them. That means I'll have to bring books up from the basement, and down from all the rooms they are in upstairs. We don't have nearly as many books as some of you; but we've got quite a lot and I anticipate this taking quite a while.

Thinking About: 40 Bags In 40 Days, which will start March 6. Because I'll have done quite a lot heading into that, I'm really hoping to have the time to dig into some areas that I've managed to put off in previously years.

Feeling: Anxious. No particular reason why. This is just how I roll sometimes. The decluttering actually does help with this which is one of the reasons I'm doing it.

Looking forward to: Book club this week.

Question of the week: Are you also someone who starts off the new year in a purge and organize mood?

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
Read by Jenny Lawson
Published September 2015 by Flatiron Books
Source: audiobook from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In LET'S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, Jenny Lawson baffled readers with stories about growing up the daughter of a taxidermist. In her new book, FURIOUSLY HAPPY, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

According to Jenny: "Some people might think that being 'furiously happy' is just an excuse to be stupid and irresponsible and invite a herd of kangaroos over to your house without telling your husband first because you suspect he would say no since he's never particularly liked kangaroos. And that would be ridiculous because no one would invite a herd of kangaroos into their house. Two is the limit. I speak from personal experience. My husband says that none is the new limit. I say he should have been clearer about that before I rented all those kangaroos."

"Most of my favorite people are dangerously f*#ked-up but you'd never guess because we've learned to bare it so honestly that it becomes the new normal. Like John Hughes wrote in The Breakfast Club, 'We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it.' Except go back and cross out the word 'hiding.'"

My Thoughts:
As with her debut book (Let's Pretend This Never Happened), Furiously Happy is an impressive blend of hysterical humor and painful reality. Sure, some of the humor is of the "so stupid and lame it's funny" sort. On the other hand, in the "you can't make this shit up" vein, some of it is hilarious. Laughing-out-loud-in-your-car-while-people-stopped-at-the-red-light-next-to-you-think-you're-crazy kind of hilarious. Except when it's not funny at all, but incredibly sad. It's uneven, to be sure; but Lawson seems to want readers to understand that life is uneven and we have to make the most of what we have been given. She also wants people to stop stigmatizing mental illness and to talk about it.

Lawson is a woman who has waged a lifelong battle with a number of mental illnesses. She's also a woman who has learned how to not only survive but to thrive. She has chosen to live life furiously happy when she is not in the depths of a depressive episode, to make the most of the life she has. It can lead to some pretty hilarious situations. Like the time her friend convinced her to go to Australia and they visited koalas, Lawson in a full koala costume.
"Be bizarre. Be weird. Be proud of the uniquely beautiful way that you are broken. 
Be furiously happy."
As funny as this book is, in the end I came away feeling like I'd just been through therapy with a therapist who 100% understands what it's like to live with mental illness and would like me to understand that I am not alone and that there is always joy to be found in life.  Sometimes you just have to survive by knowing that you will survive. And sometimes you have to survive by living furiously happy.

*I checked out this book from my library. There is so much in it that I want to share that I will likely buy at least one copy. But not for my mom, because she will not be fan of the language. You've also been warned.

**I highly recommend the audiobook. This is the kind of book best read by the person who has lived this life. It also makes the chapter about recording the audiobook sort of meta. AND there is some bonus material for audiobook "readers."

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Hollow Middle by John Popielaski

The Hollow Middle by John Popielaski
Published December 2018 by Unsolicited Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
The Hollow Middle follows Albert Lesiak, an aging English teacher in Connecticut, who receives a windfall in delayed acknowledgment of the government’s complicity in his father’s cancer death and decides that it is time to live a different life on land he owns in Maine.

When his wife Mary suggests that they could foster or adopt autistic twin boys she fell in love with on a website and could use the stipend money in furtherance of Albert’s vision, Albert gradually perceives himself as possibly adapting to the role of patriarch.

A meditation on the curiosity of making sense and the dilemma of becoming true, The Hollow Middle ambles, mostly, and goes still for periods of various duration, acting like it’s not beholden after all to the rhetorical.

My Thoughts:
A meditation? Yes. Ambles? Yes. Goes still for periods of various duration? Absolutely, yes. It seems odd to me that these are the phrases the publisher uses to convince readers to pick up this book, whereas, I find them to be the very reasons I found this book so difficult to get through.

I had high hopes for the book right from the first chapter:
"Nothing is remarkable about the lightening hour and the mild fairgrounds air, and nothing is remarkable about the peeps and rabbits in the meadow where the birders, loyal to migration schedules, stalk when there is light to glimpse a little rarity, and nothing is remarkable about the yonder man, bespectacled, whose respiration is the stuff of late-stage hibernation."
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a vivid picture of a man passed out in a field as dawn breaks.

We spend much of the book in Albert's head; and, as an aging English teacher, Albert knows and uses all of the words. At least, I'm laying that on Albert but can't help wondering if it's not Popielaski wanting to show off his big vocabulary. Also, Albert has an opinion about every single thing. It certainly gives you a solid feel about the person Albert is but it seems that this is a part of the book that could have been curtailed quite a bit without losing anything in the story.

Mind you, Albert is not a very likable person, who is also an alcoholic. How poor Mary puts up with him is a wonder. Early on, though, in her quest to find the perfect children to pitch to Albert for fostering, Mary hits on a method to make life with Albert easier. And it struck me that Mary has likely spent a great deal of her marriage trying to work out the ways to do that. This time, it works. Albert, despite his hesitancy to become a father at 44-years-old (and the fact that he is obviously ill-suited to be responsible for anyone), is taken with the idea of doing some measure of good in the world. And making money through fostering.

There's a solid story here, buried in all of the words. Albert's not an uninteresting character and his relationship with Mary and their sons, and his dream to live off the grid, are all well written. I feel I say this too often about books, but fewer words would have made a better, tighter book. For me. But then that might not have been Popielaski's goal. Perhaps he always intended for readers to work hard to understand this character he obviously cares for.

For other opinions on the book, check out the full tour. Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours who always put books into my hands that challenge me.

John Popielaski is the author of several poetry collections*, including, most recently, Isn’t It Romantic? which won the Robert Phillips Chapbook Award from Texas Review Press. The Hollow Middle is his first novel. Find out more about John on his website, and follow him on Facebook.

*Ahhh, I didn't see this before but it explains so much about the writing. There is definitely a poetry to Popielaski's writing.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Life: It Goes On - January 7, 2019

Well, yesterday got away from me. Mini-him came over for lunch with his girlfriend so we spent the morning cleaning and prepping lunch and then he ended up staying through supper. Which I loved, of course. I just didn't get much done all day.

Can I just tell you how much I'm loving the winter we've been having this month? I mean, it has mostly been in the 40's and the 50's. And sunny with an occasional rain shower. That works for me! We've even been walking outside instead of going to the gym. If only all of the winter were like this!

Last Week I:

Listened To: My Year of Rest and Relaxation which I'll finish tomorrow. That is one odd book. I'm listening to the end to see if I can figure out how it ended up on so many best-of lists for 2018. Next up, I'm back to Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic.

Watched: Well, football, of course. Also, some Queer Eye For The Straight Guy and I binge watched four episode's of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. She's a funny little woman, and I don't know that I will be thanking each thing I get rid of, but she's got some great ideas and I'm ready to give it a shot.

Read: Tomorrow I've got a review up for The Hollow Middle for a TLC Book Tour. Next up, I'm back to Jodi Picoult's A Spark of Light.

Made: I swear to you, I cannot remember a thing we had for meals last week. Yesterday's lunch was a fried potato buffet with bacon, purple onion, mushrooms, yellow bell pepper, jalapeƱo pepper, cheese, sour cream. Normally, we throw everything we have on hand into one pan but we were trying to accommodate several dietary restrictions. It worked really well and I think we'll do it again.

Enjoyed: Celebrating New Year's Eve with friends. We did cocktails and appetizers at their house, went out to dinner, then did dessert and champagne at our house. Low key but very fun.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: Well, of course, I'm planning on getting to work on Marie Kondo's suggestions. Now to talk the rest of the family into joining in.

Thinking About: Painting. A lot of painting. If it can't run away, I'm liable to drag it outside and paint it.

Feeling: Pretty stoked about my latest Facebook Marketplace find.  These decanters on their way to Mini-me and Ms. S for their bar.

Looking forward to: My half day. This working a full week is for the birds!

Question of the week: Are you excited about getting back to your normal routine?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Tony's Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Tony's Wife by Adriana Trigiani
Published November 2018 by Harper Collins Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Chi Chi Donatelli and Saverio Armandonada meet one summer on the Jersey shore before World War II. Chi Chi is a talented and ambitious singer-songwriter working in a local blouse factory looking for her big break, while Saverio, a singer already on the rise, is fronting a touring band and has the good looks and smooth vocals that make success seem assured. It isn’t long before Saverio becomes Tony Arma and he and Chi Chi form a duo; together they navigate the glamorous worlds of nightclubs, radio, and television. Soon they’re married and all goes well until it becomes clear that they must make a choice: Which of them will put ambition aside to build a family and which will pursue a career? What compromises will they make to achieve their dreams? And on the road to fame and fortune, how will they cope with the impact these compromises have on their marriage, family, and themselves?

From the Jersey shore to Hollywood, New York City to Las Vegas, the hills of northern Italy and the exuberant hayride of the big band circuit in between: Tony’s Wife tells the story of the twentieth century in song, as Tony and Chi Chi make studio recordings and promote them with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As they juggle the demands of their public lives, secrets are revealed, promises are broken, and loyalty is tested as the Armas attempt to keep the music playing and their family together.

My Thoughts:
Ever since I joined Goodreads, and particularly since I started blogging almost ten years ago, I've been hearing people rave about Adriana Trigiani's books. I mean, the lady's name is in bigger print than the title of the books - you know you're a big deal with they do that for you. And for all of these years I've been meaning to read her books. Then a couple of years ago, I finally listened to one of her books and I didn't love it. But Trish, at TLC Book Tours, saw that there was a lot about it that impressed me and thought I might like to give Trigiani another chance. I am so glad she did!

Everything that impressed me in The Shoemaker's Wife was in Tony's Wife as well. I could easily imagine what it was like, in 1932 to work for Henry Ford on the assembly line. I could feel heat of the sun and the sand under my feet on the Jersey shore for 1938. I could vividly picture what the characters were wearing, the scenes in the clubs and life on the road. Trigiani helps readers understand what it means to work to make your dreams come true and the price you have to pay when they do. This time, though, I really felt the emotions Trigiani is trying to convey; and this time, it's because she makes me feel them, not because she' s just telling me this is how the characters are feeling.

In the publisher's summary it says "it didn't long before Saverio becomes Tony Arm and he and Chi Chi form a duo..." but that's not entirely true. We're almost half way through the book before that happens. You might think that would feel like too much build up, but you'd be wrong. It's necessary in order for readers to really get to know these two characters, the factory backgrounds they've come from, the families they were raised in, how they came to show business, and why they do the things they do. It's key to feel these are two people you know in order to understand them both once the going starts to get tough.

I can't help but feel, too, that this was the right book at the right time for me. I needed something that wasn't too dark, wasn't nonfiction, wasn't just depressing. But I also always like something that grabs me up and takes me along for a ride. Trigiani did that. The next time I'm looking for a book to help pull me out of a slump, or to break up a string of tough reads, I think I'm going to be looking for another of her books.

For other opinions of this book, check out for full tour. To purchase the book, check out these links: HarperCollins,  Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour.

Adriana Trigiani is the bestselling author of 17 books, which have been published in 36 countries around the world. She is a playwright, television writer/producer and filmmaker. She wrote and directed the film version of her novel Big Stone Gap, which was shot entirely on location in her Virginia hometown. She is co-founder of the Origin Project, an in-school writing program that serves more than a thousand students in Appalachia. She lives in Greenwich Village with her family.

Find out more about Adriana at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.