Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published May 1989 by Faber and Faber
Source: purchased this one with my own dollars

Publisher's Summary:
Stevens, the perfect butler, and of his fading, insular world in post-World War II England. Stevens, at the end of three decades of service at Darlington Hall, spending a day on a country drive, embarks as well on a journey through the past in an effort to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving the “great gentleman,” Lord Darlington. But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington’s “greatness,” and much graver doubts about the nature of his own life.

My Thoughts:
I have been meaning to read this book since I saw the movie adaptation and realized it was based on a book. Last year I finally picked up a copy but then, as with almost every classic book I own. When I realized, at the end of 2019, that I had only read 3, yes 3, classic books all year, I decided I needed to kick off 2020 with a classic and I consider this one a modern classic.

Because I saw the movie before I read the book, I read the entire book hearing Hopkins' voice as Stevens. I was impressed with Hopkins performance when I saw that movie; having now read the book, I'm even more impressed with the way he perfectly captured Stevens in a way I'm not sure any other actor could have.

How to make this quiet, introspective book sound interesting, though, for those of you who may not have seen the movie, who may wonder how a book about a middle-aged man reflecting on his life as  an English butler might be worth picking up? I did what I always do when I'm in a quandary like this - I hit the internet to see what people smarter than me had to saw about the book. I was more than a little surprised to find that not all of the reviews were glowing. And not in the way of "too slow moving for me" or "I just didn't get it."

Kirkus Reviews, for example, had this to say: "...yet there is something doomed about Ishiguro's effort to enlist sympathy for such a self-censoring stuffed shirt, and in the end he can manage only a small measure of pathos for his disappointed servant." What? How could you not feel pathos for a man who has spent his entire life trying to live up to a certain standard, who has spent decades believing he was serving a man worth his admiration, who suddenly discovers that he has wasted his life? But this is Kirkus and I so often disagree with them that I guess I shouldn't be surprised. The people who award the Man Booker Prize disagreed, I guess, since they gave the book their award in 1989.

I'm with the Man Booker Prize people.

It's not a long book but also not a book you can race through. You may feel like it's slow going, as you read. But it's important to pay attention, to absorb what you're reading. You are watching a man wake up to what his life has really been, what he has lost, and what he can do to make his life better. I'm so happy to have started the year with this book; it has set the tone for my reading this year.

Monday, January 27, 2020

This House Is Haunted by John Boyne

This House Is Haunted by John Boyne
Published: October 2013 Other Press
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.
From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past

My Thoughts:
I know it’s weird to read a haunted house story in December and I could have added it to my “save for later” folder on my library account. But I’ve read so many great books this year and I want to make sure I end the year the same way. I felt certain I could count on Boyne to help me do that. He kicked it off with a bang and set the tone:
“London, 1867 - I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father”
When her already sickly father and Eliza attend a reading by Dickens on a rainy day, her father takes a rapid turn for the worse and shortly thereafter dies, leaving Eliza an orphan who soon realizes that the place she has always called home isn’t actually owned by her father, effectively leaving her homeless. How very Dickensian! Boyne even throws in some social commentary on prison conditions, religion, and the place of women in society to further parallel Dickens’ writing (although, let’s be honest, Dickens never really worried himself over the inequalities that women faced). Dickens isn’t the only author Boyne calls to mind: there are hints of Wilkie Collins, the Bronte sisters (orphaned girl forced to become a governess), and especially Henry James (think The Turn of the Screw). There’s even a paragraph about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Boyne went so deep into trying to make this a Gothic mystery that the language often felt stilted (there were a lot of phrases like “answers there came none”) and the descriptions sometimes went on over long, as writers of that time tended to do. Unfortunately, that’s not the extent of my issue with this book. Boyne really ratchets up the violence toward the end of the book, culminating with an actual battle scene that feels more in line with the violence level of a modern thriller than a Gothic one. And where Eliza had been a protected, contented, not over intellectual young woman when the book began, later I often found it hard to believe she was only twenty-one.

Don’t get me wrong – I raced through this book. Even though much of what happens is straight out of the Gothic horror writing textbook, it’s still Boyne. There’s still some humor: “It had been hanging on that wall for so long that perhaps I never really notice it any more, in the way that one often ignores familiar things, like seat cushions or loved ones.” And there are plenty of secrets to be revealed and an ending that you might see coming but I sure didn’t. So should you read it? Sure. It’s not Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger but it’s still a fun read, especially if you read it at near Halloween.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Life: It Goes On - January 26

Happy Sunday!

After three weeks flying solo, The Big Guy is finally home. He was home five whole minutes before we were out the door because he needed to socialize with friends and only a couple of hours longer before we just started watching 2-20 minutes snippets of things on television trying to find something to watch. My neat and tidy home is already back to having towels hung up willy-nilly, blankets just tossed over a chair, and "stuff" everywhere. I'm not saying I didn't miss him but I do already miss the quiet!

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finally finished Africaville and started Ruth Reichl's Save Me The Plums. Reichl is reading it and I am really enjoying it.

Watched: While BG was gone, when the television's been on, it's been on with a purpose. I watched a season of Britain's Interior Design Masters, half of the final season of Orange Is The New Black, and the rest of season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This weekend BG and I watched Nicholas Nickleby which starred Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and featured so many other well-known names.

Read: I finished The Starless Sea and started Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone In the Dark. Because I couldn't read a book about a serial killer when I was home alone in the evenings, I switched that up with more of Leslie Jamison's Make It Scream, Make It Burn. I had gotten of gotten bogged down on that one but it's picked back up again for me.

Made: Spaghetti pie, an updated version of tater tot casserole (even made my own cream of mushroom sauce instead of using a can of soup), and oatmeal butterscotch cookies.

Enjoyed: Lots of time with Miss H, just the two of us. Because she doesn't get home from work until late evening, we often ended up staying up until midnight talking and laughing. Not that we don't spend a lot of time doing those things when BG is home but we amped it up while he was gone.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: It's been too cold to spend much time in the basement the past couple of weeks (our basement is carpeted but doesn't have finished walls so it gets cold down there). This week is supposed to be warmer so I should be able to get back to my reorganizing down there. 

Thinking About: Putting away my snowmen for the year because I'm already over winter after spending some part of every day for a week shoveling snow or scraping off ice.

Feeling: Happy to be headed off shortly to have dinner with some of our oldest friends to celebrate BG's upcoming birthday.

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. We had to reschedule last week because of a forecast of icy moving into our area just about the time we actually started talking about the book. Said iciness, of course, did not move in until after ten.

Question of the week: I'm pretty excited to have the sun shining today; make me a much happier girl. But I know a lot of people really enjoy rainy, cloudy days. Which do you prefer?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Read by Jacqueline Woodson, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Peter Francis James, Shayna Small, Bahni Turpin
Published September 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary: 
Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson's taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody's coming of age ceremony in her grandparents' Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody's mother, for her own ceremony— a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody's parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they've paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives—even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

My Thoughts:
I am not the least bit surprised to have found this book on 2019 best-of lists. After reading it late in the year, I had to make the difficult decision as to which book on my list of books I loved in 2019 I was moving off the list to make room for this book. It's so good that Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, almost had to come off the list. And just what makes it so good, you ask?

Woodson's brilliance is this: she can tell the most layered, emotional story in the fewest words of any writer I've read. This book is only 200 pages long but manages to tell the story of three generations of a family while touching on, as you can see by the summary, so many important themes. In just about 200 pages, Woodson manages to tell the story of three generations and leave readers feeling like they really know these people. She can, even, make readers rethink issues that we've long felt certain about - here a mother who doesn't bond with her daughter. Woodson manages to make Iris not quite the evil woman we mother, in particular, might consider her. She helps readers to understand Iris' choices and allows us to consider the possibility that Melody is better off without Iris as her mother. It's a tough sell but Woodson handles it beautifully.

I clearly recommend this book but I even more strongly recommend the audiobook. The readers are all wonderful; I felt that I was actually listening to people relating their own stories not merely reading a book.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
Published May 2019 by Sourcebooks
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
The hardscrabble folks of Troublesome Creek have to scrap for everything—everything except books, that is. Thanks to Roosevelt's Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project, Troublesome's got its very own traveling librarian, Cussy Mary Carter.

Cussy's not only a book woman, however, she's also the last of her kind, her skin a shade of blue unlike most anyone else. Not everyone is keen on Cussy's family or the Library Project, and a Blue is often blamed for any whiff of trouble. If Cussy wants to bring the joy of books to the hill folks, she's going to have to confront prejudice as old as the Appalachias and suspicion as deep as the holler.

Inspired by the true blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service of the 1930s, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a story of raw courage, fierce strength, and one woman's belief that books can carry us anywhere—even back home.

My Thoughts:
What are the chances that I would read three books about book mobiles in just a couple of months? I don't really know how I ended up doing that but I'm afraid that they all may have suffered some because of being read too closely together. This one particularly did given that it is the second book about the Kentucky pack horse librarians I've read, Jojo Moyes' The Giver of Stars being the first.

Richardson has given this one a turn that one didn't have, a twist that is based on fact; there actually were people in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky who were blue because of a rare, recessive genetic disorder. In the book, the "Blues" are considered even lower than African-Americans and it seems likely that would have been the case. In reality it was not until there had been blue people in this area for almost 200 years before the case was found and a "cure" discovered. Richardson moves that cure up twenty years so that Cussy Mary has a choice to make. Does she take the medicine and put up with the side effects? Will being white make her life better? And is taking the medicine merely a vanity? The Blues were ostracized because they were different but also because no one understood why they were blue. While townsfolk looked down on the blue people because of inbreeding, there wasn't much choice. Cussy Mary faced all of that even as her father pushed for her to marry so that she wouldn't be alone when he was gone.

By choosing to write about the blue people, Richardson has placed her novel right in a place where there are a lot of other things that make for interesting story lines - life in the hills of Kentucky, the mines and the fight to unionize the workers, and the pack horse library project of the WPA. Richardson does a respectable job of tying all of these things together. We spend a lot of time on the routes with Cussy Mary, meeting the people along her route and seeing the reaction of the hill people to her color (versus the city people) and to the idea of putting books into the hands of people who might otherwise not have access to them and the knowledge they bring. All of that time riding along with Cussy Mary seemed to be more than was necessary; Richardson could have cut back here and not lost her story at all. And I could see where the book was going long before it got there, although there was a twist that I did not expect (and which I felt might have been resolved differently in a way that would have tied up all plot points better).

I have to admit that I got a better feel for the terrain than I did in Moyes' book and I actually like Cussy Mary better than I did Moyes' protagonist. I wish this one had been edited a little more tightly and been a little less predictable but I still enjoyed it and would probably recommend it over the Moyes' book.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Life: It Goes On - January 19

Well, it still doesn't look like this outside my door but it looks a lot more like that than it did a week ago, what with snow and ice we got this week. Years ago, when The Big Guy taught be how to use the new snow blower, I jokingly said to him "well, that's one less thing I need you for." This weekend I'm reminded that, while I may very well be able to scoop snow and scrap ice, I hate, hate, doing it!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Still listening to Jeffrey Colvin's Africaville. I'm about half way through it and I'm struggling a bit with it. It's actually a book I think might have benefited by being longer (I'll bet you never thought you'd hear me say that!).

Watched: I spent a good chunk of the week watching Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I also watched three movies this week, Gloria Bell (oh my land, so depressing!), the live action Aladdin (which I thought it is probably way too scary for little kids), and, finally, Lady Bird (worth all of the accolades!).

Read: I'm working my way through The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I loved her debut, The Night Circus, but half way through, this one still hasn't sucked me in the way that one did.

Made: It's only been Miss H and me this week and she's been at work most evenings to I haven't cooked much. What I have made would lead you to believe I'm carbo loading for a major sporting event. We had goulash one night, a pasta dish another night, and I made rice pudding two nights. Miss H and I love, love rice pudding and we may have eaten it for breakfast more than once!

Enjoyed: Hearing my kiddos talk about their trip to Green Bay to cheer on their Packers to a first round playoff win. The two of them had so much fun hanging out together.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: I'm working on a desk project that I'm trying to get finished up before BG returns this week. 

Thinking About: Spring. Our winter hasn't even been that bad yet and I'm ready for it to be over now. I've already planned my gardens and potted plants for this spring.

Feeling: Sore. That first snowfall reminds me of muscles I haven't used enough in a while.

Looking forward to: Book club this week. Now if I can just find my copy of the book. Oops.

Question of the week: Are you more of a winter or summer person?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Read by Ocean Vuong
Published June 2019 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my audiobook copy from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

My Thoughts:
This has been a tough review for me to write. I finished the book a couple of weeks before I started to write this then read a couple more books and the holidays came and it's a little blurry for me now. But, also, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book.

I knew as I was reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous that it would end up on best-of lists for 2019 and it has. For good reason; Vuong is a poet and it shows in his beautiful writing. All of your senses are brought into play - tastes, smells, and touch stimuli are vividly written. To be honest, some of it was a bit too vivid for me and I suspect I'm not alone in being uncomfortable with some of it. But, as the Time reviewer said, Vuong is daring and "goes where the hurt is." The parts that made me uncomfortable are also the parts that most show Little Dog's vulnerability.

The reviewer for The New Yorker called this book "auto fiction" because the book is largely the story of Vuong's life; it's a deeply personal book that feels almost as though there were things Vuong needed to say to his own mother as much as it is a story about a writer looking back on his life and writing to his mother. Which actually brings me to a problem I had with the book (and I'm not alone in this) - Little Dog is writing a letter to a woman who can't read which means he isn't really writing a letter to his mother so much as just putting in writing things he wants to say. That being said, the writing goes back and forth between something that one would write in a letter and a novel. It sometimes made things complicated to follow.

But I go back to the writing - it's so good and the story touches on so many topics. One that really stuck out for me was war. Because the family is from Vietnam, of course that's the most obvious example. But Vuong also takes on the war of drug addiction and the war that often wages between our feelings for family. Little Dog loves and depends on his mother but she is also physically abusive, leaving him with complicated feelings for her, feelings so many people battle with. If you're up for a book that is difficult, emotionally, to read, I would recommend this one for the writing alone andVuong reading the book definitely enhances the book.

As for that wonderful title, The Guardian had this to say about that:
"The essential gesture of the novel is there in its title: in early youth, somewhere beyond the margins of conventional society, there’s a brief authentic flowering of life and happiness, which can’t be carried forward into disappointing, grown-up, settled existence. That nostalgic pattern so characteristic of US fiction, whose archetypal expression comes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, exists in interesting counterpoise with the shape of Lan and Rose’s stories, their ungorgeous youth, their war trauma and blunt humour, the sheer dogged persistence and will to survive that carry them into emigration and the future."

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Read by Joe Morton
Published September 2019 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her—but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known.

So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.

This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children—the violent and capricious separation of families—and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved

My Thoughts:
Ta-Nehisi Coates has impressed me with both Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years In Power. I’m not sure, as a white woman, I’m qualified to say who is or is not an important voice for African Americans but it certain seems to me that Coates is one. He has certainly challenged me look at and think about things differently. I knew, when I saw that he had written a novel, it would be something that would well worth reading. I was not wrong.

I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I read The Water Dancer because like Whitehead, Coates has taken a known piece of history and put his own spin on it in a way that ties it directly to the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s case, the Underground Railroad was, literally, a railroad that was underground. Coates picks up from the idea that railroads have conductors and Hiram’s power is called “conduction,” a power he will grow to learn allows for people to be transported using their own powerful memories. And Hiram does have memories. Born with a photographic memory that allows him to become an even more valuable asset to the plantation owner who is also his father, Hiram will learn to use that skill to become educated, to recall terrain and routes, and for the handiwork with forging papers that will make him so valuable to the underground railroad.

Coates doesn’t pull any punches regarding the treatment slaves suffered at the hands of what Coates calls “The Quality,” but it is much less graphic than in some other books. I appreciated that – I have seen enough and read enough to understand how horrific the physical damage done to “The Tasked” was. Coates seems equally interested the mental and emotional toll the work, the degradation, the fear, and the loss of family took on the enslaved. For example, in one chapter, as the railroad is bringing some men north, they stop at the men’s freed parents’ place to rest and eat. The men’s father brings food to them but never looks at the men and later moves with them for part of their journey blindfolded so, if asked later, he can honestly say he never saw them. He gives up what is likely to be his last chance to see his own sons because of fear. It is every bit as hard to imagine having to live like that as it is to imagine the physical abuse.

Coates doesn’t end his story with his characters making it North and he wants readers to understand that even making it North didn’t mean a black man or woman was safe. And he portrays the Underground Railroad in a way I’ve rarely read – as much as it was an humanitarian effort, there were many ways it had to be handled as a business. There were surely differing opinions about how things should be handled. And, in Coates’ hands, choices have had to be made in order to protect the railroad and its operators that felt heartless. Given the source material he was working with, I can’t help but think this is historically accurate.

If you choose to read this book, and I hope you do, I highly recommend the audiobook; Joe Morton does an amazing job!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Life: It Goes On - January 11

Happy Sunday! I'd like to tell you I had something witty to wow you with or some profound wisdom to drop on you but, I'm sorry to say, I've got nothing.

It's been a very quiet week and weekend. The Big Guy was gone all week for work, Mini-him's been out of town all week, and yesterday morning I dropped off Miss H for a flight to Chicago. She is meeting up with Mini-him there and then they will head north to Green Bay. Today they will be, literally, dressed from head to toe in Packers gear as they cheer on the Pack in their playoff game against the Seahawks. They are both beyond excited, in no small part because they feel like they are living out a dream for their grandpa (who taught them to love the Packers). He won't be far from their thoughts all day.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Susan Choi's Trust Exercises which is some seriously twisty goodness. Today I'll start Jeffrey Colvin's Africaville. To be honest, I have no idea what that one is even about any more!

Watched: Because I was home alone two things happened: there were long periods when the television wasn't on at all and I binge-watched Season 3 of The Crown. I also watched Fiddler On The Roof and Nathan Lane/Matthew Broderick version of The Producers.

Read: I finally finished a print book and I'm so glad I kicked off the year with a modern classic. To be completely honest, I read the entirety of The Remains of the Day in Anthony Hopkin's voice, which is not altogether a bad thing.

Made: Zip, zilch, nada. One night Miss H was home for dinner and I made grilled cheese sandwiches but that hardly counts. Otherwise, when the cat's away, the mouse will eat...a whole box of peanut brittle and the easiest meals possible.

Enjoyed: Dinner out with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law at the restaurant Miss H works on. Made her wait on us which is always a nice treat for a parent!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: Can you believe that the corner of my basement I started weeks ago still is not finished? I'm hell bent to get that organized this week. 

Thinking About: Daylight Savings Time. It's less than 2 months away and this girl cannot wait to come home and have some daylight hours to enjoy.

Feeling: Rested. My parents have been here this weekend; and while we haven't been entirely lazy, we have spent a lot of time just sitting and talking.

Looking forward to: Hearing about my kids' adventure.

Question of the week: It's time to start making soup again. What's your favorite soup?

Friday, January 10, 2020

2019 Wrap Up - Finally!

This was meant to be done in the final days of 2019. Or maybe even the first days of 2020. Ah well, better late than never!

It took 2019 a while to take off, reading wise; but in the end, I'd read a lot of books that I really loved. In fact, it was so hard to narrow down my fiction faves to just ten that I accidentally left eleven on my list!  It was, unintentionally, the year of the woman. Books by women outpaced books by men 4 to 1 and the majority of my nonfiction reads were by or about women. I read, again unintentionally, the second most books I've ever read in a year, thanks largely to having re-upped my library card and being able to download audiobooks at long last; I listened to twice as many books this year as I did in 2018. And I read a record number of nonfiction books. I made great use of the library; about 60% of the books I read were from the library. That actually kept me reading faster because of the time constraint of those darn due dates!

It was an abysmal year, on the other hand, for reading classics and for being a part of the blogging community (or, for that matter, even being interactive with my readers). Goals, there will be goals for 2020! But first, the numbers:

Total books read: 106
Books by Women: 81
Books by Men: 21
Diversity: 24
Nonfiction: 34
Audiobooks: 30
Short Story Collections/Essay Collections: 7
Classics: 3
Library Books: 60

My top ten books in each category are updated on the tab at the top of the page. When I added the books I'd read by or about persons of color, I was surprised; I thought I'd done better. I think the reason I felt that way was because so many of the 24 books I read were so good they made my best-of lists; 60% of my fiction choices and 40% of my nonfiction and audiobook choices were by or about persons of color. That should be a good incentive to read more diversely.

Now, about those 2020 goals.

I'm not good at goals (or challenges, either; you'll notice I don't sign up for those any more). But, as always, in looking back over the past year, I definitely see some things I'd like to change. And, let's face it, it's a whole lot easier to make changes to your reading than to your exercise routine. So this should be too hard, right?

1. Read more classics: I love classics. I almost every classic I'd like to read. To push this goal along, I chose The Remains of the Day, a modern classic, as my first book of 2020. It being 2020, I'd like to read 20 classics this year and get back on track.

2. Read less: Ha! I'll bet you've never heard me say that before! But when I was putting my list of books read in 2019 into my journal, I honestly couldn't remember what some of them were about. Which isn't the end of the world when we're talking about books that I read just for escapism. But I couldn't remember some of the books I knew I had enjoyed reading. That's not good. It's not a competition; and even if it were, I don't need to win. I'm not sure how to intentionally go about achieving this goal, but I am 10 days into the new year and have yet to finish a single book. Maybe the key is just to, sometimes anyway, find other productive things to do with my time, like take up crocheting again. Or finally get around to painting my office and making it the beautiful space I've been wanting it to be for years. So I can go in there, put my feet up, and read!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Good Neighbor by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighbor by Therese Anne Fowler
Published March 2020 by St. Martin's Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son, Xavier, who’s headed to college in the fall. All is well until the Whitmans—an apparently traditional family with new money and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter—raze the house and trees next door to build themselves a showplace.

With little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie's yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers.

A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today—what does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don't see eye to eye?—as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.

My Thoughts: 
This is my third book by Fowler. I was not a big fan of the first book I read by her, Exposure (written under Therese Fowler) but enjoyed her last book, A Well-Behaved Woman so I didn't hesitate to give this one a try. Interestingly, this one has a lot of parallels to Exposure, with two young people falling in love over the objections of her father, objections that lead to terrible consequences.

We recently drove through older neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights. In some of these neighborhoods the location makes the property valuable enough that people will buy homes only to raze them and build new, bigger, more modern houses on the lots. I've often wondered what the people who have lived in those neighborhoods think of the new people who were too good to live in a home like the ones they have lived in for years, who build homes that don't blend into the neighborhood. So when I was looking for my final book of 2019, this one seemed like just the book for the moment.
"An upscale new house in a simple old neighborhood. A girl on a chaise beside a swimming pool, who wants to be left alone. We begin our story here, in the minutes before the small event that will change everything. A Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them. Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who's to blame."
Not an insignificant part of the reason I liked this book was because Fowler has chose to have the story narrated by the neighborhood; not an individual but the collective neighborhood. It was a unique perspective that allowed the narrator to see everything happening but also be intimately involved. Fowler also seamlessly works in the history of her main characters, which is key to understanding why they act the way they do, particularly when things start to fall apart.

You know how I feel about novels where there author has tried to work in too many themes; they so often feel forced and unable to really explore every theme. In A Good Neighbor, Fowler has tackled race, religion, class, parenting, and how we live together. And it all works; nothing feels gratuitous.

For the most part, the characters are all fully developed and believable. The only exception, and it's really my only quibble with the book, is Brad Whitman. He practically rides in wearing a black hat that screams bad guy and, while Fowler gives him a background that might be meant to make us understand why he is the way he is, he never feels like anything more than "the bad guy." Which he absolutely is.

You think you know where the tension is going to come from in this book and then Fowler takes it in a new direction and really ramps things up. And then those last twenty pages just grabbed me. I'm pretty sure this one is going to bump something on my book club's list of books for the year. Maybe just so I can have them read the book club parts of the book, especially where Fowler calls the chatty part of the book club meetings as the "graze and gab" part. I loved that!

Monday, January 6, 2020

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Read by Hillary Huber
Published May 2019 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted—thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more years working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.

My Thoughts:
In the prologue to Furious Hours we see Nelle (Nell, not Nellie, a mistake so many people made that she decided to use her middle name only on her book) Harper Lee sitting in the gallery, watching the trial of Robert Burns, accused of killing the Reverend Willie Maxwell. And then we don't see her again until the final third of the book. To be honest, I felt a little gypped by this. I was expecting her story to be tied in throughout the book. When Cep finally got back to Lee, though, it was well worth the wait.

There are three parts to this book. First is the story of the Reverend Maxwell, a man who took out literally hundreds of life insurance policies on family members, some of whom didn't even know he'd done it. After two of his wives died, a nephew, and a step daughter, most of his family lived in fear of him. Almost every one believed he was guilty of these murders but the law couldn't seem to find him guilty, thanks in no small part to his lawyer, Tom Radney.

When Radney flips and defends Maxwell's killer, the book moves into the crime story that Harper Lee hoped to make into her In Cold Blood. This part of the book is Radney's and he's every bit as much a character as was Maxwell. Lee worked closely with Radney and he even gave her a giant folio of material for a book about Maxwell and his murder. we all know, Lee never wrote that book. In the final section of this book, Cep returns to Lee. It's the first time I've ever really felt like I knew Lee and the first time I ever felt like I really understood why she never published another book. It certainly wasn't because she didn't want to write. But by the time she was ready to write the book about Maxwell, most of the people who had supported her when she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird were gone and she appears to have been lost as to how to put the material together.

Any one of the sections of this book could stand on its own and Cep includes a lot of interesting back story (including the origins of life insurance and a background of voodoo) that really add to the book. I definitely recommend this book and the audiobook is especially good. Just know, going in, that this book is not exclusively Lee's story. If you know that, you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Life: It Goes On - January 5

Happy New Year! Fortunately, if you're like me and would prefer as few big snows over the winter as possible, it looks nothing like this here. In fact, for most of the past few weeks, it's rarely been cold enough for it to even snow. It's meant easy commutes and me not having to worry as my family goes around on its travels.

Speaking of travels, my family is off on all kinds of travels in the coming weeks. Even though, as you all know, I do love me a quiet house, it may prove to be too quiet even for me! Maybe the most exciting of the trips is Mini-him and Miss H heading north next weekend to see their beloved Green Bay Packers play the Seattle Seahawks in a playoff game at Lambeau Field. Go Pack!
Last Week I:

Listened To: It was all podcasts last week, mostly The History Chicks. I listened to three hours about Audrey Hepburn's life; if I didn't adore her before that, I certainly do now! Currently listening to an episode about Charlotte Bronte. When that's done, I'm back to books, starting with Susan Choi's Trust Exercise.

Watched: All of the football, some college basketball, a Seth Meyers standup special, some Queer Eye, and, right now, Fiddler On The Roof. We had intended to see Little Women at the theater on New Year's Eve but there was a bat in the theater and they cancelled the show. We are never going to convince the husbands to go to that a second time!

Read: After I looked at last year's reading and discovered that I'd really only read one classic, my choice for the first book of 2020 is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains Of The Day. So far I'm loving it but I didn't have much time to read last week so I'm just getting started.

Made: Nothing worth mentioning. I did put together a charcuterie "board" as our part of progressive dinner on Friday evening. It's always fun to choose what to include with those and I found a couple of cheeses I really liked this time. Now to remember what they were!

Enjoyed: Our progressive dinner and our New Year's Eve festivities with friends, even if our New Year's Eve plans had to be changed on the fly!

This Week I’m: 

Planning: The Big Guy has been spending a lot of time working in the evenings at my desk but I finally have it back to myself so I'm planning on getting caught up on a lot of computer work and blogging in the coming week.

Thinking About: I've got the house to myself for most evenings this week so even though there are plenty of things I could be working on, I'll be in front of the t.v. a lot. I'm trying to decide what I want to watch - catch up on some series? watch some movies? and which ones? Decisions, decisions!

Feeling: I'm sad to be through the holidays (and the days off work!), but I'm also ready to get back to a routine.

Looking forward to: A visit this weekend from my sister and her husband and my parents.

Question of the week: I managed to get through the holidays and our dinner the other night without taking a single picture. I'm glad to have been in the moment instead of having my camera in front of my face but I'm sad not to have those photographic memories. What about you? Are you a picture taker or do you prefer to sit back and enjoy gatherings?

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Published April 2019 by Bloomsbury USA
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher’s Summary:
One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.
While the men of the colony are off in the city, attempting to raise enough money to bail out the rapists and bring them home, these women-all illiterate, without any knowledge of the world outside their community and unable even to speak the language of the country they live in-have very little time to make a choice: Should they stay in the only world they've ever known or should they dare to escape?
Based on real events and told through the “minutes” of the women's all-female symposium, Toews's masterful novel uses wry, politically engaged humor to relate this tale of women claiming their own power to decide.

My Thoughts:
This is, quite literally, a book about women talking. Nearly all of it is the minutes of two meetings this group of women hold as they try to decide what to do about what has happened to them. I was well into the book when I realized this was all there was going to be. I had expected something more, some action on the women’s part, and I wasn’t sure if nothing but conversation was going to work for me. Then, without me even realizing it, I discovered that these two meetings were really all the book needed. It allowed me to really get to know these characters and the way they live.

The book is not entirely without men. August Epp, a man who has returned to the colony after his father was excommunicated and fled with August and his mother, is taking the “minutes” of these meetings because none of the women read or write. Periodically, a man will pop his head into the loft where the women are secretly meeting and quick thinking is involved to try to prevent the men from figuring out what the women are considering. Despite their differences and disagreements, the women are united in preventing the men from knowing what is happening until they have taken their destiny into their own hands for the first time.

The book is surprisingly funny but also incredibly insightful and thought provoking. The women must decide which of three things they will do about what has happened and they need to decide quickly before the men return from town: do nothing, stay and fight, or flee. The group meeting in the loft has quickly ruled out the first option but making the decision beyond that proves much more difficult, particularly in light of their religion.

Must they forgive the men in order to be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? If they elders have decided the women don't require counseling because they were not conscious when the attacks occurred, then what are they obliged to forgive? How will the Lord find them when the Rapture comes if they are not in Molotschna? If they stay and fight, they will be guilty of the sin of rebellion and of betraying their vow of pacifism; and, if they lost their fight, they would be "plunged deeper into submissiveness and vulnerability." What is the difference between "leaving" and "fleeing?"

These discussions were so interesting and Toews made it clear that all of the women had valid points about what needed to be done and why. These are a group of women with no understanding of the outside world; no ability to read, write, or speak the language of the world they would be venturing out into; no money or possessions of their own (although that makes for another interesting debate); and no ability to even read a map. The question then is this: is it more frightening to stay and face the known dangers or venture off into the unknown?