Thursday, December 31, 2020

Fare Thee Well, 2020!


I think we can all agree that the end of 2020 couldn't come soon enough. Between ugly politics, social unrest, and CoVid-19, it's been one of the most stressful years in a very long time. In this house, we've certainly had it better than many, for which we are grateful. Still, it's been a long, tough year.  

Even though this has been a year that has filled us with anxiety, fear, and stress, it wasn't all bad. As we learned to adapt, we found ways to be with my parents, do things new ways, and appreciate what we have. It's easy to look back on this year as one of the worst we've ever had, but today I'm trying to focus on the good things that happened this year. 

We learned that even though we couldn't hug each other, nothing could keep us apart. From parking lot dinners, to picnics, to driveway celebrations, we found ways to be together. And Zoom and FaceTime helped keep our family and my book club (when we couldn't meet on patios) talking. Even for this introvert, those human connections were vital.

We took advantage of all the free time we had to get some things done around the house. I stripped, sanded, and painted things we already owned, things I found on FaceBook marketplace, and things we were gifted. Some time and elbow grease gave several rooms a whole new look which was sorely needed, what with us being stuck in the house so much!

We made gifts and outdoor games - some easy to do, others a whole lot more work that took two of us to finish. And I finally got around to painting my office when my sister gifted me the mate to one of my antique bookshelves, which involved reorganizing and rearranging the entire room. 

Knowing we were going to spend a lot of time in the backyard, we painted, created a new light fixture, and planted a lot of flowers. We got a chance to see our kids, keep up family holiday traditions, learned what we like and dislike about working form home, and had some fun with the stadium cutouts we gave my parents for Christmas. 

Some reading slumps may have slowed down my reading at times, but I still finished 87 books this year. I had a hard time finding ten fiction books that were worth putting on a Top Ten list but I read a lot of great nonfiction and listened to a lot of great book readers. I won't list them here; you can see them in the tab above. Of the books I read 58 were written by female authors, 54 were checked out from the library, 39 were audiobooks, 25 were nonfiction, 15 were from NetGalley, and more than 20 were set outside of the U. S. The books included 10 about U. S. history; 10 mysteries; 2 each of fantasy/sci-fi, dystopian fiction, science, humorous, classics and political; 3 self-help; 5 that included religion; 14 women's fiction; 4 about social issues; 3 from series; 3 about immigrants; 8 collections of essays or short stories; 15 works of historical fiction; 3 true crime books; and 15 books about diversity. It was a good year of reading, even though I did a terrible job of reading from my own shelves, which should have been easy this year! 

I hope that you've found ways to make 2020 a good year and that you've been able to find joy. Here's looking forward to 2021. We've still got a long road ahead of us as far as the virus is concerned but I'm feeling hope now and that's such a nice feeling after such a difficult year. 

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

 by Maggie O'Farrell
Read by Ell Potter
Published July 2020 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker) and best-selling winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 

Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family’s land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever. 

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

My Thoughts:
I finished this book the day before I am writing this review and cannot decide if I should wait to write this, in the hope that I can do it justice, or rush to it while it is still fresh on my mind. If I were writing this any week except Christmas week, I might wait. I am still in that state where I am, honestly, a bit at a loss for words. I have already added this to my list of favorite books for the year and I am not alone in considering it one of the best books of 2020. NPR calls it a "tour de force," The Boston Globe calls it "magnificent," and The Washington Post calls it "brilliant." 

Very rarely are settings as vivid as O'Farrell's - you can feel the leather under your fingers, smell the flowers Agnes uses in her cures, picture yourself sitting in the rooms of the houses in Stratford. More importantly, you feel that you know these people and are wrapped up  in their passion and their grief. You do, in fact, at least know of these characters. They are, despite the fact that their last name will only be mentioned once near the end of the book, the family of William Shakespeare. He is never named, only called the Latin tutor or the husband. He is not the focus of this book; rather this is book belongs to his wife, a woman whose life is filled with tragedy. Agnes may be my favorite character of the year; she will stay with me a long time. This is a woman who escapes an abusive childhood home only to find herself married to a man who must leave her to find his own life, away from the family business run by his abusive father. Through it all, she remains steadfast until he begins to miss the things that matter, including the death of his son. In his own grief, he begins staying away for longer and longer periods, leaving his wife and daughters alone to deal with their grief.

I loved this book but it was made even more memorable by Ell Potter's reading, which conveys ever emotion of the book. I can't recommend this audiobook highly enough. Clearly, I do not have the words for it. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

by Alexander McCall Smith
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:

The summer after university, Emma Woodhouse returns home to live with her widowed father and launch her interior design business. Apart from cultivating grand career plans and managing her father’s hypochondria, Emma busies herself with the two things she does best: matchmaking and offering advice on everything from texting etiquette to first date destinations. 

Happily, this summer presents abundant opportunities for both, as old and new friends are drawn into the sphere of Emma’s counsel: George Knightley, her principled brother-in-law; Frank Churchill, the attractive stepson of her former governess; Harriet Smith, a na├»ve but enchanting young teacher’s assistant at the local language school; and the perfect (and perfectly vexing) Jane Fairfax. Carriages have been replaced by Mini Coopers and cups of tea by cappuccinos, but Alexander McCall Smith’s sparkling satire and cozy sensibility are the perfect match for Jane Austen’s beloved tale.

My Thoughts:
In December each of my book club members chose a "guilty pleasures" book to read. It was so interesting to see what each person picked. I went around and around trying to choose a book and finally decided on this one. I'm not sure why, because I generally don't much care for retellings of Jane Austen's books or any spinoffs. They rarely do her justice and often have characters going so far astray from what Austen portrayed that they feel like different people. Sadly, this book was no exception. 

The publisher's summary references Smith's "sparkling satire and cozy sensibility" but, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, I do not think that phrase means what they think it means. I haven't read any of Smith's previous books (and he is a prolific and hugely popular author) so I can't speak to how well he interpreted Austen's original in his own style. But "sparkling satire" and "cozy sensibility" I didn't get. In fact, I really felt like Smith had smoothed over the much of the satire and the coziness that is inherent in all of Austen's books. 

Smith took the idea of making the book a "modern retelling" seriously and worked in homosexuality, drunken driving, reality television, and the struggle of land owners to keep Britains grand homes afloat, none of which was a bad idea but even most of that didn't work for me. It often felt like he was forcing these things into the story. He repeatedly referenced homosexuality but didn't make any of the characters gay, making it more of a punchline than an part of life. 

As for his treatment of the characters, Smith made Emma much more self-aware which might have been a good thing except that it meant that readers could see that she knew what she was doing might be wrong but she continually excused it. In Austen's hands, it always felt like Emma was (as the movie adaptation's title indicates) clueless that what she's doing might be harmful. Harriet Smith wasn't just naive, she was also a little stupid, George Knightley felt flat in his relationship with Emma (although I did like the way Smith fleshed out who he was apart from Emma), and Jane Fairfax never got to be forgiven for being standoffish. To be fair, Frank Churchill was still a heel, Miss Bates was well portrayed, and I quite enjoyed the fleshing out of Mr. Woodhouse. 

It's clear that I should probably step away from Austen retellings and adaptations, at least where books are concerned. This is a fan favorite of the books that are considered part of The Austen Project. Check out Laurel's (Austenprose) reviews of three of the adaptations. She enjoyed this one much more than I did and she certainly knows her Austen!

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Life: It Goes On - December 27

Happy Sunday! How are we all feeling post-holidays? Did you find ways to make this CoVid year Christmas a good one? We were able to spend a few hours with my parents on Christmas Eve and enjoyed a delicious meal with them but it was so strange not to have the house full of people and to leave that evening. Christmas Day we spent with the kids plus one, a friend of Miss H's, and FaceTime'd with Mini-me and Ms. S. We are fairly used to celebrating with Mini-me and Ms. S this way so Christmas Day felt fairly normal, and normal felt so good. 

We're spending the weekend lazily putting the house back together and enjoying the girls before they head back south. I won't take Christmas down until next weekend but I'm sort of ready to have things back to "normal," even though we won't be entertaining for New Year's Eve.

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished Emma Donoghue's The Pull of The Stars yesterday; it's an unusual book. Today I'm starting Jess Walter's latest, The Cold Millions.

Watched: As many Christmas shows as I could, including White Christmas, Scrooged, A Christmas Carol, and, Meet Me In St. Louis (which isn't Christmasy at all except it features Judy Garland signing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas). 

Read: Only a few pages of Jack; I'm hoping to finish it this week now that things are quieter. 

Made: Taco soup, sugar cookies, loads of caramel corn (including another batch of vegan, which was a hit with both vegans), puppy chow, twice-baked potatoes, cranberries, homemade ice cream and chocolate syrup. We'll be eating a lot of leftovers this week - I may not need to cook for days. 

My siblings and I bought my parents cutouts to be in the stadium during the home football games this fall. Tuesday I picked the cutouts up and took them around town for pictures. Then my brother lifted the cutouts from a pic and laid them into a whole bunch of pictures from places my parents have lived and enjoyed and we made them into a book. It was a joy to watch my parents flip through the book as I read them the story of how the cutouts had stolen my car and gone for a grand adventure. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: A very quiet, very lazy week. We are hoping to be able to figure out some way to celebrate New Year's Eve with friends. 

Thinking About: How blessed with are that our families were not among the hundreds of thousands whose holidays were sad this year because of the loss of family members this year. 

Feeling: Tired right now. But the girls will leave soon and then it will hit me that there is nothing to look forward to in the near future, except weeks of winter. 

Looking forward to: Saying goodbye to 2020 this week!

Question of the week: What was best part of your holidays this week?

Friday, December 25, 2020

Wishing You...

 Because I could decide which picture to use, I'm going to wish you a...


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

I Was Anastasia
by Ariel Lawhon
Read by Jane Collingwood and Sian Thomas
Published March 2018 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia. 

Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson. As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory yet: the nature of identity itself. 

The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

My Thoughts:
Lawhon winds her twin stories - Anastasia and Anna - through time. Anastasia's story, told in the first person, moves forward from the days just before her family is removed from was removed from their palace and exiled in Siberia. Anna's story travels back in time, from 1970 when she is awaiting the decision of a German ruling on her identity, to 1920, when she was pulled from a canal in Germany. It's an interesting structure, made a bit difficult to follow (especially when you're listening to it) by the backward skips in time in Anna's parts of the book; sometimes Lawhon skips back four months, then six months. But it also worked to bring the two story lines together at the crucial point where we learn if Anastasia truly did survive the mass execution of her family and their servants. 

Almost as soon as the Romanovs were assassinated, rumors began swirling that Anastasia, the youngest daughter, had miraculously survived. Anna Anderson was not the only woman who claimed to be Anastasia and there was certainly a willingness among many to believe the notion that Anastasia had somehow not only survived the basement where the family was killed but also managed to escape Russia. For decades there were no remains to prove or disprove the stories, which only fed the rumors. I've read several books now about this time in Russian history; and even though I knew that reality of life for the people under the rule of the czars, it's hard not to buy into the romance of Anastasia's survival. I mean, who doesn't love Don Bluth's animated movie Anastasia, Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brenner in Anastasia, or the spectacle that is Nicolas and Alexandra, starring Laurence Olivier? 

If you don't already know how this is all going to end, please don't spoil it for yourself by looking it up. You will find yourself wanting to believe that Anastasia survived; Lawhon makes her such an appealing character and the brutality of what was done to their family so heartbreaking. Even knowing the truth didn't stop me from being surprised by the way Lawhon brings her story to a conclusion. 

I picked this book for my book club to read in January, hoping that there would be plenty to talk about and I am not disappointed on that score. It's not a perfect book but I'm always impressed with Lawhon's research and her ability to know what to include in her stories and I suggest that readers read the author's notes to see why Lawhon choose to tell her story the way she did. I also can't recommend the audiobook highly enough; both readers are excellent. This was just the book I needed, a mystery rooted in history. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Stories From Suffragette City edited by M. J. Rose and Fiona Davis

Stories From Suffragette City
edited by M. J. Rose and Fiona Davis
Published October 2020 by Holt, Henry, and Company, Inc.
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Stories from Suffragette City is a collection of short stories that all take place on a single day: October 23, 1915. It’s the day when tens of thousands of women marched up Fifth Avenue, demanding the right to vote in New York City. Thirteen of today's bestselling authors have taken this moment as inspiration to raise the voices of history and breathe fresh life into their struggles and triumphs. 

The characters depicted here, some well-known, others unfamiliar, each inspire and reinvigorate the power of democracy. We follow a young woman who is swept up in the protests when all she expected was to come sell her apples in the city. We see Alva Vanderbilt as her white-gloved sensibility is transformed over the course of the single fateful day. Ida B. Wells battles for racial justice in the women's suffrage movement so that every woman's voice can be heard. Each story stands on its own, but together Stories From Suffragette City becomes a symphony, painting a portrait of a country looking for a fight and ever restless for progress and equality.

My Thoughts:
One hundred and five years ago more than 25,000 women marched through New York City calling for the vote for women. Five years later, white women finally won that right. This collection celebrates that victory by using that march as its theme. Some of the stories center around real women, some of them quite well known in the movement; most are about fictional women and girls caught up in the movement. 

Ida Wells-Barnett
As with all short story collections, some of the stories resonated with me more than others. Perhaps the weakest of the stories, for me, was Steve Berry's Deeds, Not Words, primarily because it tells the story of a man peripherally involved with the march. Many of the stories are told from the perspective of immigrants. I particularly was impressed with Chris Bohjalian's Just Politics which is the story of a young Armenian refugee who has been convinced to walk in the march but who can't shake a sense of impending doom because of what happened to her people in Adana, Turkey. All of the stories are told from the perspective of white women except Jamie Ford's Boundless, We Ride and Dolen Perkins-Valdez' American Womanhood are told from the perspective of women of color which are both strong stories. Perkins-Valdez' story is especially interesting because it focuses attention on the violence of the 1913 march in Washington D.C. and the betrayal of the black women who had worked so tirelessly to advance women's rights by white women. It's primary character is Ida Wells-Barnett, an investigative journalist and activist in the civil rights movement. She's certainly a woman I'd like to learn more about.

I don't know, of course, what parameters each author was given for the stories they wrote. There must have been some direction as to which point in the march the author's characters would become present, because the stories seem to be in a type of chronological order for the day. There may also have been a suggestion that a certain young girl named Grace, introduced in M. J. Rose's story, be incorporated as she appeared in several of the stories.  Where she did appear, it felt as a piece of the story that was fitted in just as a device to tie the stories together because it didn't really advance any of the other stories. Yet, once I'd become accustomed to her appearance, it felt odd when she didn't appear. For my part, I would have preferred she be left out of all but Rose's story. 

As a reminder of all of the women who worked so hard and risked so much to earn women (well, at least white women) the vote, I definitely recommend this book. It will almost certainly make readers want to learn more about the movement. Fans of the authors included will not be disappointed. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Life: It Goes On - December 20

Happy Sunday! Are you as surprised to find that it's Christmas week as I am? I am so excited to have the whole week off; it's been a long year with very few days off. Even though this is going to be an unusual Christmas, I'm determined to make the best of it, including making some time for myself to just relax this week so I'm working hard this weekend to get things ready. 

I thought I was keeping things a little simpler this year, decorating wise. I only used about half of my tree ornaments. When I saw this picture, though, I thought I could have made things much easier if I would just have thrown everything at the tree and let it hang where it landed. Isn't that hilarious?!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished I Was Anastasia (review this week) and Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet. I recommend the audio version of both of these books. Today I'm starting Emma Donoghue's latest, The Pull of the Stars

Watched: Lots of football, the season finale of The Voice, and It's A Wonderful Life

Read: Alexander McCall Smith's Emma (sadly, I can't recommend it) and I started Marilynne Robinson's latest in the Gilead series, Jack

Made: More caramel corn (both vegan and regular), bavarian mints, hummus from dry beans (so easy but I'm still working on the seasoning), and two loaves of sourdough bread (I will get a loaf that turns out the way it's supposed to eventually!). 

 My book club's virtual Christmas party. Several of our members contributed treats for everyone and one of our members coordinated making sure everyone got some of everything and delivered it all. We had all chosen a "guilty pleasure" book to read and it was fun to see what each person chose picked to read. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Some last minute shopping, lots of meal prep, wrapping gifts, decorating guest rooms, and I have a fun project which I can't tell you about here but I'll share with you next week if I can pull it off. 

Thinking About: How much we're going to miss family this year over the holidays. Mini-me and Ms. S are stuck in Rochester so we won't even have all of our immediate family. I'm working hard to make the best of it - we've known this was coming for months and we're going to do what we need to do to keep each other safe.`

Feeling: A little freaked out. I tossed some bird seed out on the patio yesterday because I didn't want to bundle up to take it out to the feeders. Last night we looked out the window and there was a giant opossum dining on the bird seed. He didn't even run when we opened the door until I started banging on pans. I know he is supposedly more afraid of me than I should be of him but I kept looking at that long mouth and picturing him attacking me like the raccoon in Elf attacked Will Farrell! Plus, what about my cat - is it safe to let her outside?!

Looking forward to: Celebrating Christmas with my parents Thursday and then with my kids on Friday. 

Question of the week: How are you adjusting to the holidays this year?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Transcendent Kingdom
by Yaa Gyasi
Read by Bahni Turpin
Published September 2020 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group 
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary: 
Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief—a novel about faith, science, religion, love.

My Thoughts:
Transcendent: adjective
  • beyond or above the range of normal or merely physical human experience
  • (of God) existing apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe
  • surpassing the ordinary; exceptional
Two years ago I read Gyasi's debut, Homegoing, and was so impressed with her writing and the story she told. I knew that I would read her next book and requested it from my library before it was even available. I was not alone - it took until November for me to get the book. It might have been because other people had also been impressed with her first book or because this one is gaining high praise from all quarters. For good reason. This book lives up to its title in every way. 

It's a complex novel that handles a lot of themes beautifully, never becoming overwhelmed by them. Gyasi's characters are complicated and wholly developed and I felt so deeply for them. Gyasi looks at the immigrant experience from the point of view of those who choose to stay and those who choose to return home. But this is not just an immigrant story. It's the story of parenting, the relationship between parents and children, the pressure we put on our children, marriage, addiction, mental health, faith, and science. 

Certainly these are not, on their surface, characters to whom I shouldn't necessarily be able to relate. But I can relate to the experience of being the mother of an addict and the constant fear that you are going to lose your child. Mercifully, I did not lose my child to a drug overdose as Gifty's mother did; but I can absolutely imagine finding myself reacting in the same way, being crippled with grief and depression. I also related to Gifty's struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing and faith with science. Even as Gifty is studying science and running an experiment she hopes will help people like Nana, she longs for the days when she could put herself in a higher beings hands. This conflict is one of the strengths of this book, of which there are many. 

If you've listened to any other books read by Bahni Turpin, you'll understand why she was the perfect choice to read this book. I'm always impressed with her work; you absolutely find yourself believing you are listening to the characters tell their stories. If you choose to read this book, I highly recommend the audiobook. I was about a third of the way through this book when I knew it would make a great choice for my book club and put it on our calendar. I recommend it for your book club as well. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Last Story of Mina Lee by

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Published September 2020 by Park Row Books
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Margot Lee's mother is ignoring her calls. Margot can’t understand why, until she makes a surprise trip home to Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. Determined to discover the truth, Margot unravels her single mother’s past as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother, Mina. Thirty years earlier, Mina Lee steps off a plane to take a chance on a new life in America. Stacking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing she expects is to fall in love. But that moment leads to repercussions for Mina that echo through the decades, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death. Told through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, The Last Story of Mina Lee is a powerful and exquisitely woven debut novel that explores identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong. 

My Thoughts:
Told in alternating chapters between Mina and Margot, Kim tells the story of Mina's immigrant experience  and Margot's story of growing up the daughter of a single-mother, undocumented immigrant. Like so many books with dual narratives, Mina's story line is stronger than Margot's. It felt like Kim had the idea for Mina's story and designed Margot's piece as a vehicle to explore one piece of it. 

Margot's present day story line requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief and lacks the passion and the emotional depth that Mina's story has, although Margot's story when she looks back on her life growing up with her mother has more emotional heft. It was easy to believe that Margot would have had incredibly mixed emotions growing up with a woman who didn't fit in in the country they live in and who seems to be completely consumed with working. As Margot tried to discover if her mother's death might have been something more than an accident, I enjoyed the "mystery-to-be-solved" element of the story, although some of the pieces felt a bit forced and I didn't care much for the piece that involved a police detective. 

Mina's story is heartbreaking even before she arrives in the United States. Unfortunately, we know from the beginning that her life doesn't get better and ends sadly. It's an important story to explore right now as we struggle with what who we should allow to immigrate and how we treat (and mistreat) those who do.

As with so many relationship stories, so much of how the characters feel about each other has to do with a lack of communication.  How might have Margot felt about her mother if she knew why her mother refused to learn English? It always makes me wonder, when I read books like this, what have I not said to the people I love that I should have said. There were so many times Margot's and Mina's relationship might have been different if Mina would have knocked on Mina's closed door or Margot would have learned Korean so it was easier for the two of them to communicate. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Life: It Goes On - December 13

Happy Sunday! It's beginning to look a lot like winter here. Friday evening we started getting heavy wet snow and it's been cold enough that it remains yet today. The roads are clear so we are only left with the snow that is pretty to look at and that gives us a break from all of the brown, so I'm enjoying looking out at it. 

Friday evening I went into not one but two stores. It's the first time I've done that since March. Heck, I've only been inside a store about five times since then at all. We were doing some Christmas shopping and, even with masks and signs on the floor reminding people to social distance, it felt normal and normal feels so good!

Last Week I: 

Listened To:
 I finished I Was Anastasia yesterday and today I will start Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

Watched: The usual. I couldn't even convince The Big Guy to turn on Netflix. 

Read: I finished a print book this morning! I'm hoping, so hoping, that as I'm checking things off the Christmas to-do list, my reading will pick up again as my mind becomes better able to focus. We'll set. 

Made: Last night BG and I cobbled together a few recipes to make an absolutely delicious cheeseburger pizza. But that wasn't the most interesting thing I made yesterday. With a vegan family member and a vegan coming for Christmas, I decided to try my hand at vegan caramel corn. It took some tweaking but it's not at all bad. 

Enjoyed: A a. theater! It's the first time I've been in a movie theater since last December and it was so much fun to do something fun that was, again, normal. My department rented a theater for our Christmas party and we had the theater to ourselves so I felt perfect safe to even have my mask off some of the time. My how I have missed movie theater popcorn! 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Christmas gifts get mailed, Christmas cards get picked up and then mailed, I'll finish working on a gift I'm putting together, and I'll decorate the guest rooms. Yep, it's all about Christmas still. 

Thinking About: Making a plan for things to do in January and February to keep those months from being so long and lonely. They are hard enough for me in a regular year, but not being able to get together with friends is going to make it worse. 

Feeling: Sad about the lack of Christmas cards we've gotten this year. Has everyone decided that, since no one has done anything, it's not worth sending them? 

Looking forward to: Book club this week. We're doing an unusual Zoom Christmas party. One of our ladies is coordinating a snack share and we're hoping to get a shared cocktail lined up as well. 

Question of the week: How are your Christmas plans coming along?

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Sh*t, Actually by Lindy West

Sh*t, Actually
by Lindy West
Published October 2020 by Hatchette Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
New York Times opinion writer and bestselling author Lindy West was once the in-house movie critic for Seattle's alternative newsweekly The Stranger, where she covered film with brutal honesty and giddy irreverence. In Sh*t, Actually, Lindy returns to those roots, re-examining beloved and iconic movies from the past 40 years with an eye toward the big questions of our time: Is Twilight the horniest movie in history? Why do the zebras in The Lion King trust Mufasa-WHO IS A LION-to look out for their best interests? Why did anyone bother making any more movies after The Fugitive achieved perfection? And, my god, why don't any of the women in Love, Actually ever f#^king talk?!?! 

From Forrest Gump, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Bad Boys II, to Face/Off, Top Gun, and The Notebook, Lindy combines her razor-sharp wit and trademark humor with a genuine adoration for nostalgic trash to shed new critical light on some of our defining cultural touchstones-the stories we've long been telling ourselves about who we are. At once outrageously funny and piercingly incisive, Sh*t, Actually reminds us to pause and ask, "How does this movie hold up?", all while teaching us how to laugh at the things we love without ever letting them or ourselves off the hook. 

Sh*t, Actually is a love letter and a break-up note all in one: to the films that shaped us and the ones that ruined us. More often than not, Lindy finds, they're one and the same.

My Thoughts:
I am a huge fan of Lindy West. I love her radical feminism, her sense of humor (even though sometimes it makes me cringe - here that means a lot of references to pooping and penises), and her political voice. She and I are clearly riding the same political wave; and, even in a book about movies, she manages to get in plenty of punches against the current administration. Clearly, then, this is not a book for fans of our 45th president. Our people who don't like cursing in a book because, as you can tell by the title of the book, West doesn't pull any punches there, either. 
"I love making fun of movies. I love turning a piece of criticism into a piece of entertainment. I love pointing out a plot hole that makes a superfine write me an angry e-mail. I love turning my unsophistication into a tool. I love being hyperbolically, cathartically angry for no reason. I love being flippant and careless and earnest and meticulous all at once.
...I'd rewatch a successful movies from the past to see how they hold up to our shifting modern sensibilities. That concept has grown even more relevant in recent years, as grappling with those shifts has become something of a national obsession...Are we "allowed" to like imperfect things that mean something to us?"
"...I selected movies that fit at least one of three categories: 1) cultural phenomena that took over the earth, 2) movies I was personally obsessed with, or 3) movies I picked because it seemed like someone should talk about them."
"...what I began working on as a silly book released into a darkness I understood - the demoralizing grind of public life under Donald Trump - is now to be a silly book released into a darkness I don't. I finished writing Sh*t, Actually six weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine - six weeks of trying to think of funny things to say about Face/Off while worrying about a friend on a ventilator, six weeks of mustering comical outrage over Harry Potter plot holes while the president went on television to suggest that the ill try drinking bleach."
See, even in the introduction, West works in politics. But that's hard to avoid when you're writing during a year like the one we're in. Kudos to West for being able to muster up the ability to find the funny in life right now. I need it. We need it. 

You may have noticed that West suggests that The Fugitive reached perfection in movie making. She loves it so much that she ranks all other movies against it. It ranks a 13 out of a possible 10. But that doesn't save it from West's skewering. And if she'll do that to one of her faves, you can imagine what she did to American Pie, which earned 0/10 Fugitives

West points out misogyny in these movies (lots and lots and lots of it), the lack of strong female characters (or any at all in some movies), and the lack of persons of color in the movies she's chosen. You might suggest that she handpicked the movies she reviews to make these points. But if you watches movies in the late 1990's, you'll quickly recall that she's pretty spot on. One of my favorite reviews was that of Face/Off, which is a movie I had, until recently, only seen once and hated it. But when my son was last here, he made us watch it because it finds it to be hilarious. As it turned out he was right and as I was reading West's review I was 100% in agreement with her because I could exactly picture the scenes she was talking about. My least fave review? The one the book's title is taken from, Love, Actually. Not because West is wrong about the movie but because she's right. I love that movie, even with the flaws I was already willing to acknowledge, and West may just have ruined it for me. And it's Christmas time, time for my annual viewing. Will I even be able to watch it? Oh, who are we kidding? Yes, I'll absolutely watch it. And I'll still love it (I mean, that scene of Hugh Grant, Prime Minister of Great Britain, dancing down the stairs of 10 Downing Street alone is worth watching the movie for); but I'll watch it with a new point of view. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

Dark Tides (The Fairmile Series Book 2)
by Philippa Gregory
Published November 2020 by Atria Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Midsummer Eve 1670. Two unexpected visitors arrive at a shabby warehouse on the south side of the River Thames. The first is a wealthy man hoping to find the lover he deserted twenty-one years before. James Avery has everything to offer, including the favour of the newly restored King Charles II, and he believes that the warehouse's poor owner Alinor has the one thing his money cannot buy—his son and heir.

The second visitor is a beautiful widow from Venice in deepest mourning. She claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and has come to tell Alinor that her son Rob has drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.

Alinor writes to her brother Ned, newly arrived in faraway New England and trying to make a life between the worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move toward inevitable war. Alinor tells him that she knows—without doubt—that her son is alive and the widow is an imposter.

Set in the poverty and glamour of Restoration London, in the golden streets of Venice, and on the tensely contested frontier of early America, this is a novel of greed and desire: for love, for wealth, for a child, and for home.

My Thoughts:
I haven't read any of Phillipa Gregory's books since The Other Boleyn Girl. When I got an email about this book, I thought it was time to give her stories another chance. Did the pitch mention this was part of a series? I don't remember. 

I was 100 pages into this book before I realized it was the second book in a series. To be sure, there's plenty of backstory hinted at throughout but Gregory does such a good job of making it seem to be part of the way she wanted to tell her story that it never appeared to be an attempt to catch readers up on a first book. Except...

There are two story lines here, that of Alinor's family in London and that of Ned in the New World. As they summary says, they're brother and sister who write to each other and Ned occasionally sends boxes of herbs. And that is as close as the two stories ever come to intersecting; it was obvious about half way through the book that that would be the case. Alinor's family's story was much more interesting to me and I raced through those chapters, although Ned's might have been a fine story if I were reading it in it's own book. Gregory makes both locations come alive and there are some really terrific characters in both story lines but Alinor's story is the story that has the action and the suspense.

And in the end? Dark Tides is literally the The Empire Strikes Back of this book series. We only ever get the barest glimpse of the entire backstory and the stories more or less just drop off at the end of this book. There may, in fact, actually be more loose ends by the last page as there were at the beginning. 

If you're a fan of Gregory's, I think you'll enjoy this one. And if you've already read Tidelands, I think you won't be disappointed in this next installment of Alinor's story. If you haven't read that one, read it first. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Life: It Goes On - December 6

Happy Sunday! It was supposed to be warm (well, warm as in almost 50 degrees which is warm for here in December) and sunny today. It isn't. Which makes me kind of cranky and much less motivated to get things done. It would be a good day to curl up with a book and just take a mental health day but it's December and you know that means that there's much too much to be done for a day like that. 

I am finally almost finished decorating for Christmas. I'd like to tell you that is because I've really knocked it out this year but that's not true. Part of the problem is that I've changed some things up this year but also because it just seemed pointless. The other day Miss H asked if one of her friends could come for Christmas. I was hesitant at first, but this friend is already being very careful about the virus and agreed to my stipulations. Agreeing to have her with us gave me the boost I needed to finish things up.

Last Week I: 

Packages are arriving and my cat 
couldn't be happier about it!
Listened To: I finished Yaa Gyasi's Transcendent Kingdom and started Ariel Lawhon's I Was Anastasia, which I'm listening to for book club. The reader is wonderful - I'm going to have a hard time deciphering if the book is actually good or if I just liked it because of how well read it is.

Watched: The Voice, football (hurrah, my Huskers finally won another game!), lots of HGTV, and Rudolph (because Christmas). 

 I finished The Last Story of Mina Lee and started Stories From Suffragette City. I'm still struggling with sitting down and reading so I'm not too far into it. 

Made: I finally tried my Instant Pot for something new - navy beans and ham. I had to cook it longer than the recipe called for but it still was done in a fraction of the time I'm used to navy beans and ham taking and it tastes delicious. 

Enjoyed: I went into the office this week for the first time in three weeks; and, even though I hated having to get up and hustle, it was so nice to see other people.

This Week I’m:  

Planning: We're babysitting Mini-him's cat for a couple of weeks while he's traveling for work which means that I'm spending a lot of time in the basement to keep him company. So my plans for the week include getting a lot of sorting done down there. This week I've filled a big garbage bag already - the good thing about saving things for scrapbooks you don't even actually get around to putting together is that not even half of what you've saved seems important twenty years later. 

Thinking About: My sister - today is her birthday. She's had a tough couple of months what with moving and then getting CoVid just as they arrived at their new house. I'm glad she's finally feeling better (although still battling lingering effects two weeks later) and happy that she's close enough for her daughter to be with her today. Wish I were!

Feeling: Stressed. Mini-him has, once again, been exposed to someone with CoVid. He is, mostly, pretty careful but at this point it feels like him getting it is more a matter of when, not if. 

Looking forward to: My work team is renting a movie theater for our Christmas celebration this week. It will be the first time I've been in a theater in almost a year and I don't know if I'm more looking forward to seeing a movie in a theater or movie theater popcorn. 

Question of the week: Do you usually do Christmas cards? If so, are you planning to do them this year?

Friday, December 4, 2020

...but that's not me.: Fitting the pieces together. The pieces of all of us by Erika Shalene Hull and Dr. Cheryl LeJewell Jackson

 ...but that's not me.: Fitting the piece together. The pieces of all of us by Erika Shalene Hull and Dr. Cheryl LeJewll Jackson
Published December 4 2020 by The CornHer Office

Publisher's Summary: 
Detailing the journeys of multiple women as they entered, endured, and escaped a wide range of domestic abuse, ...but that's not me. is a bold and powerful homage to strength, courage, and resilience. Stories are intertwined with hard-hitting truths about what domestic abuse is, how we find ourselves in abusive situations, the perpetuation of abuse, and the path to recovery. 

The problem is not the amount or availability of information but the ability to recognize what is happening in the moments of the abuse. By telling the stories of average, hard-working women in middle-America, Hull and Jackson invite you into an awareness traditionally silenced, bringing attention to painful realities of abuse that will linger, etched on your heart, long after the book is closed. Hull and Jackson write: “We aren’t out to hurt anyone, and it would be a lot safer and more comfortable to not tell these stories at all. But when we look at the faces of our children, our friends, and those suffering in silence, we can’t quietly sit back any longer. By having these uncomfortable conversations, we hope to encourage you to believe in yourself, learn to set better boundaries, and know that you are worthy and deserving of so much more.”

Happy publication day! It's not often that I post about a book that I haven't read but when my friend Natalie (Coffee and A Book Chick) started talking about this book on Instagram, I could see that it was an important book that I wanted to put in the hands of some women I love. When she asked me if I'd help get the word out about it, of course I agreed. 

Natalie says of this book, in her review, "And while the vehicle to drive the subject of this book might be domestic abuse, with very raw and personal stories shared, analyzed and reviewed to discuss new language and words to describe abuse, the totality of the message is inclusive to all of us. "...but that's not me." is so much more than a book about domestic abuse."  She also says:
"And is domestic abuse solely regarding intimate relationships? No. It can be an abusive family situation, it can be an abusive sexual harassment case at work. It can be toxic friendships. Suffering, abuse, victim status don't always come to play and many don't identify with it because it doesn't fit with what we've been indoctrinated to believe is a pure example of abuse. TV and books in the past have painted this image of what it most likely looks like, so when the victim doesn't get a black eye, the words "...but that's not me." echo throughout their thoughts."
More than 38 million women will have experienced domestic abuse in their lifetime. You know someone who's been in an abusive relationship, even if you don't know about it. I do. We've experienced in my family. Helping someone get out of that kind of relationship is incredibly difficult; you have to convince them first that they are being in an abusive relationship. Even when they acknowledge it, they are so often convinced to go back to the abuser. It's important for us to be able to put this book into their hands, to see themselves and find the way out. 

At The CornHer Office website, Hull and Dr. Jackson talk about why they wrote this book: 
"Meeting at a conference in October of 2019, we began a journey that ended in a very different place than either of us ever expected. When Erika approached me at my author table, I was instantly intrigued by her courage and passion. I was drawn to her story, knowing it was one that must be told. As we began to peel back the layers, I felt my own past on display. As our stories collided, we knew we were onto something much bigger than ourselves. We were telling not just her story or mine, but ours….all of ours."
Dr. Jackson and Ms. Hull

If you'd like a copy of this book, it can be found at Better Over Perfect, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble.