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. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
Published October 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher’s Summary:
Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is “a compelling life force” (San Francisco Chronicle). The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout “animates the ordinary with an astonishing force,” and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.

My Thoughts:
In November 2009, I read Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Olive Kitteridge. When I reviewed that book, I had this to say about Olive:
“Olive…is the kind of person that people avoid in her small town of Crosby. Olive was not a perfect neighbor, not a perfect wife, and certainly not a perfect other. She is abrasive, outspoken, and not in the least able to communicate well with anyone in her life.”
Later I added:
“…somehow, in some way, Strout is able to convince us that Olive is someone we should care about.”
And that is the genius of Strout. She made me care about Olive. She has been the standard to which I hold every other unlikable character. I expect all authors to give me a reason to still care about those characters. For ten years, Olive has stayed with me. I never expected I’d get another chance to read about Olive. In many ways, it didn’t seem necessary. So when I first read that Strout had written a sequel, I had mixed feelings. Could Strout move Olive’s story forward while retaining everything that made Olive Olive?

The quick answer is yes.

Olive is still outspoken and often abrasive. She is still terrible at communicating with those she cares about. But this is the Olive that we saw at the end of the first book, the Olive that is learning to mind what she says, who can be empathetic, and, even, vulnerable.

Like the first book, though, this is not just a book about Olive. Once again, Strout has strung together a group of short stories that tell readers as much about Crosby and its residents as it does about Olive. Some characters from the first book reappear; some characters from others of Strout’s books appear. Here again Strout deals with issues of love, marriage, and the relationships between parents and children. And, here again Strout does not pass judgment on her characters; she puts these relationships and situations out there for the reader to consider, allowing us just enough from both sides to really give us pause to think.

It’s quite possible that I care even more about Olive now than I did ten years ago. Ten years ago I thought I was done with Olive. Now I know that she will always be there in my head. Thank you, Olive, for moving back into Elizabeth Strout’s head and making her tell more of your story.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Life: It Goes On - October 6

Oh, how I wish it were this sunny and warm here! We have had the wettest, gloomiest, coolest last few weeks. It makes it so hard for this girl to try to love autumn. And I'm already having to do the yard things that mean winter is coming - pulling the basil plants to dry, cutting back the peony bushes and lilies, bringing in pots of herbs. I need some beautiful, colorful, crisp fall days! On the plus side, dreary days equal a lot of curled-up-in-a-corner-of-the-sofa-reading days!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Ask Again, Yes - I finished this today while I was working on projects. Tomorrow I'll start Sarah Blake's latest, The Guest Book.

Watched: Volleyball, baseball, football (lots of football, but then you already knew that), and today I even watched some WNBA basketball.

Read: Elizabeth Strout's followup to Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again. Loved it. I'm about half way done as well with M. C. Beaton's Death of A Witch and Jeffrey Rosen's Conversations with RBG.

Made: The plus side of all of these cool, dreary days is that I've been inspired to cook! This week I brined and roasted a chicken (why have I never brined a chicken before?!), made chili, chicken soup with orzo, and French onion soup and before I head to bed I'm going to put together a chicken potpie with the rest of that roasted chicken.

Enjoyed: A trip to the library, some thrifting, a morning at the salon, and an evening out with friends.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: The reorganization of the basement continues. I finished the first stage today; it's always exciting when these kinds of things work out the way you were hoping they would. This week I'll start stage two, which is bound to terrify The Big Guy even more than stage one did!

Thinking About: A meeting I went to the other day about the new library branch that will be built in the next couple of years near me. They are just in the very beginning stages of planning and asked for community involvement to see what we'd like to see included. There weren't many people at the meeting so my friend and I really felt like our voices were heard.

Feeling: Tired, in a good way that says "you've accomplished a lot this weekend."

Looking forward to: Another quiet week. I don't think there's a thing on my calendar that I have to do this week. But, as my mom reminded me last week, that can change quickly at my house!

Question of the week: I broke down and had my first pumpkin coffee this weekend. Have you started having all things pumpkin yet?

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Stir: My Broken Brain and The Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor

Sitr: My Broken Brain and The Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor
Published June 2015 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary: 
At 28, Jessica Fechtor was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage, and thinking about starting a family. Then one day, she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She nearly died. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and was forced to the sidelines of the life she loved.

Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking. Written with intelligence, humor, and warmth, Stir is a heartfelt examination of what it means to nourish and be nourished."

Woven throughout the narrative are 27 recipes for dishes that comfort and delight. For readers of M.F.K.Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Tamar Adler, as well as Oliver Sacks, Jill Bolte Taylor, and Susannah Cahalan, Stir is sure to inspire, and send you straight to the kitchen.

My Thoughts: 
I have had a sinus headache for a week. I'm not saying that to make you feel sorry; I'm saying it so that I can tell you that, even though I've had sinus headaches for more than forty years and even though I'm exceedingly familiar with their symptoms, every single time I get one that lasts for more than 24 hours, I begin to worry that I'm having an aneurysm or that I have a brain tumor. That's the way my thought process works.

It never occurred to Jessica Fechtor, on the other hand, to think that something might be seriously wrong with her when she felt a click in her head then what felt like water running inside her head. Not when she was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room of the local hospital. Not when she was transferred to another hospital, moved to the ICU, not when all of her family raced to be by her side. Not until they had to open her skull and put a clip on a blood vessel in her brain did she begin to understand that her life might have taken a turn for which she was not prepared.

Fechtor was a driven young woman who was working on her doctorate, running miles everyday, teaching, and entertaining regularly. She and her husband were nearly ready to start a family. She was not, in other words, a person who was used to sitting, taking it easy. But when a severe infection set in after her first brain surgery, it was the beginning of a long road to recovery. Fechtor was blessed to have family and friends who stepped up and really helped. But it was hard for her to sit on the sidelines, especially when it came to working in the kitchen. So it's no real surprise that it was the desire to get back to feeding her people that got Fechtor to push herself to recovery. It was not just a matter of building up stamina again. Fechtor had to learn to deal with the fact that her depth perception was off - the knife in her right hand might end up slicing the fingers on her left hand instead of the apple that hand was holding, the liquid she was pouring into a bowl was just as likely to run all over the counter instead of into the bowl.

I enjoyed this book on multiple levels - as a kind of medical memoir, as a memoir of a life in which food played a huge part, and for Fechtor's writing, which she honed by writing a blog as part of her recovery.
"Being sick is supposed to come along with grand realizations about What Really Matters, but I don't know. I think deep down, we're already aware of what's important and what's not. Which isn't to say that we always live our lives accordingly. We snap at our spouses and curse the traffic and miss the buds pushing up from the ground. But we know. We just forget to know sometimes. Near-death forces us to remember. It pushes us into a state of aggressive gratitude that throws what's big and what's small into the sharpest relief It's awfully hard to worry about the puddle of milk when you're just glad to be here to spill it."
All of the recipes Fechtor includes in the book come with the story behind them - the morel mushroom and fresh pea dinner she had on her 27th birthday that she worked to recreate - and explanations for why recipes give particular instructions, such as salting a chicken days in advance of roasting it. These recipes are all getting copied before I take this book back to the library!

Perhaps this was my favorite bit:
"Home is a verb. It's not only where we live, but how." 
I've never thought it home in exactly that way before, but it is absolutely the way I feel about my home. Fechtor has inspired me to up my game in the kitchen to get back to being the person who expresses my love through food but also in all of the ways I treat people - taking into consideration what will make the people I care about happy, what will provide comfort, what will make them want to linger.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Only Skill That Matters: The Proven Methodology To Read Faster, Remember More, and Become A SuperLearner by Jonathan A. Levi

The Only Skill That Matters: The Proven Methodology To Read Faster, Remember More, and Become A SuperLearner by Jonathan A. Levi
Published September 2019 by Lioncrest Publishers
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher and TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
In the next ten years, every knowledge worker on earth will become one of two things: invaluable or obsolete. No matter the industry, the pace of progress and new information is faster today than ever before in human history—and it's accelerating exponentially.

In this new reality, how can we possibly hope to keep up? How can we learn, unlearn, and relearn fast enough to stay relevant in the world to come?

In The Only Skill That Matters, Jonathan Levi unveils a powerful, neuroscience-based approach to reading faster, remembering more, and learning more effectively. You'll master the ancient techniques being used by world record holders and competitive memory athletes to unlock the incredible capacity of the human brain. You'll learn to double or triple your reading speed, enhance your focus, and optimize your cognitive performance. Most importantly, you'll be empowered to confidently approach any subject—from technical skills, to names and faces, to foreign languages, and even speeches—and learn it with ease.

My Thoughts:
I've been working with the ladies at TLC Book Tours for ten years now, almost as long as I've been blogging. When they contact me with a list of upcoming tours and ask what I might be interested in reading and reviewing, they often have one or two particular tours they are asking me to take a look at. They are often for books I might never have picked up with a nudge. Over the last ten years, I've learned to trust those nudges. Those books always give me food for thought. This book is no exception.

As a young man, Levi struggled with learning and suffered from ADHD. Eventually, he discovered that Ritalin and working harder than other students could make a big difference but keeping up was tough. And then he met Lev and Anna Goldentouch and trained with them for six weeks  in what Levi would later call SuperLearning. Since then, along with the Goldentouchs, Levi has extensively researched how we learn and to read faster. Here he shares much of what he has learned and provides beginning instruction on how to make yourself better able to learn and retain skills and how to speed read.

Can I speed read now that I've finished this book? Am I ready to learn a new skill in record time? No. And, to his credit, Levi doesn't claim that you will finish this book ready to go. He is 100% convinced that if you follow his methods, you will get there. But he is equally firm about the fact that it will take work and time before you are skilled enough for these lessons to pay off. Will I put in that work? That's yet to be determined. Even if I never fully utilize these methods, Levi has certainly put some tools in my hands that I can readily use with very little effort.

Even if I never do use Levi's methods, he absolutely gave me food for thought in this book and my husband may have gotten tired of me telling him things that I was learning. For example:
"As Homo Sapiens, we're especially adapted to learning in ways that are vivid, visual, and experiential. Scientists refer to this as "the picture superiority effect." And though many of you have been led to believer that you're an "auditory" or "tactile" leaner, the truth is, we are each naturally gifted at remembering pictures."
Levi doesn't just make this statement. He backs it up with evolutionary facts. Our predecessors survived because they could remember what things were edible, where their shelter was, and how to find their stored winter food by visual cues.

Levi makes much of the use of memory palaces and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where I knew that term from. Yes, it's a technique that's been around for centuries; but I swear I was reading about it in the recent past in a work of fiction. Was it Sherlock Holmes? Trying to remember is going to drive me crazy which is, I guess, the actual point of using memory palaces.

I am pretty stoked to learn that Levi, and Dr. Malcolm Knowles who spent decades studying adult learning, that old dogs can learn new tricks. Levi suggests that adult learners "should actively leverage our prior knowledge and experience when learning."

Two problems I had with the book: a) Levi provides a lot of links to dig deeper into his theories and techniques and the references began to make the book feel like a commercial for Levi's podcasts and other products to me (although others may find the links helpful); and b) while Levi has certainly accomplished a lot in his life, it sometimes felt like so much braggadocio. Still, if what Levi has developed with the Goldentouchs works as well as he says it will with practice, maybe he's entitled to that.

As always, thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour, and to Trish for giving me the nudge to read this book. For other opinions, check out the full book tour.

JONATHAN LEVI is a serial entrepreneur, keynote speaker, podcaster, and bestselling author of the Become a SuperLearner book and online course series. After struggling for decades as a student and “slow learner,” Jonathan discovered a powerful methodology for learning faster and remembering more. Since 2014, Jonathan has taught this methodology to over 220,000 people in 205 countries and territories. His award-winning podcast, SuperHuman Academy, has been downloaded over 3 million times. Jonathan has been featured in such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, Inc., BusinessInsider, and LifeHacker UK. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, with his wife, Limmor. To learn more, visit