Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea
by Isabel Allende
Published January 2020 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary:
In the late 1930s, civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires. 

Together with two thousand other refugees, Roser and Victor embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, the couple embraces exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, they face trial after trial, but they will also find joy as they patiently await the day when they might go home. Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

My Thoughts:
Isabel Allende is one of my favorite authors - she is superb at writing sweeping sagas that span generations of captivating, unusual characters set in interesting times and places, most often set, at least in part, in Allende's homeland, Chile. Six decades, three generations, much of the book set in Chile - in that regard, A Long Petal of the Sea is no exception. 

This is by far the most political of the books by Allende that I've read and, while I'm not opposed to that in a book, it did overwhelm the story for me. That being said, I learned so much about the Spanish Civil War and the politics of Chile and it was fascinating to compare both of those political environments with the current state of affairs in this country. Allende condemns both sides for atrocities they commit but as the child of a man who headed a socialist government, it's not surprising that the working class is portrayed more sympathetically. A warning for some - the Catholic church does not fare well in Allende's hands in this book.

You are accustomed to me saying that books would have benefited from a pruning; here, with a story this big, I felt like more would have been better. There would have been more room to include the political stories that Allende wanted to include (some for quite personal reasons - her father was the president of Chile for three years in the 1970's) while also allowing room to flesh out the stories of the families. There were characters I definitely wanted to know more about, characters I wanted to understand better. 

Mind you, this book was named as one of the best books of 2020 by a number of publications so what do I know? Perhaps they all appreciated a decades-long saga that didn't go on for 800 pages. And Allende absolutely manages, in these 314 pages, to explore so many themes, tell us so many stories, and, hopefully, have us wanting to learn more. 

Source: checked out of my local library for August's book club selection

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Life: It Goes On - August 29

One last time for my summer picture for these posts. I know that, technically, it's still summer until September 22; but, even for me, summer is over next weekend. I'm bummed that it's been such a hot summer that we haven't spent nearly as much time on the patio as I would have liked. To be honest, I'm a little bummed that we aren't forced to stay home and spend time there like we had to last year. It's my happy place and I'm so hoping that the fall is long and temperate enough that we can spend a lot more time outside. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I started Stacy Abrams' While Justice Sleeps. I had no idea that Abrams was once, among all of the other things that she has been, a writer of romance novels. Heck, I didn't know, until my sister-in-law brought it to my attention, that Abrams is a fiction writer of any kind. So far, there's a lot going on and I'm having to work to keep track of the players and the details of the plot. 

 Football, volleyball, and a ridiculous number of Instagram reels and stories. 

Read: I finished Reese Witherspoon's latest book club pick, The Paper Palace and am now reading Deer Season for an upcoming TLC Book Tours review. Of course I accepted it for review when I saw that it was set in Nebraska but I really got excited about it when I saw that it was published by the University of Nebraska Press. 

Made: More southwestern salad, caprese salad on pasta, BLT salads - if I can avoid turning the oven on, I'm doing it! Today I'm making regular and vegan versions of caprese salad and of cucumber dip. We're grilling and keeping it light and summery. 

Enjoyed: Dinner with work friends Wednesday, happy hour with friends Friday, and time with Mini-me. Mini-me is here! He got in late Friday and he and I sat up talking until 1:30 a.m. He's trying to see a lot of friends before their move, as well as spending time with my dad who will be here for dinner tomorrow. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: I'm accidentally getting Better Homes and Gardens and saw a purple and green color palette that really caught my eye. Completely unlike anything in my house except the purple stripe around the guest room that used to be Miss H's room. As I was cleaning that room before Mini-me got here, I was thinking it desperately needed a paint job and some character. That article and the purple stripe may just be my jumping off point for a room redo; the question is just how bold I'm willing to go. 

Thinking About: Cleaning. Deep cleaning. I'm putting in an order of nothing but cleaning products today. I took my shower doors off the track today and deep cleaned them. I have no idea what's come over me but I hope it lasts long enough for me to make a difference around here!

Feeling: Content. 

Looking forward to: Next weekend. 

Question of the week: As much as I'm clinging to summer, there's a part of me that must be preparing for fall if I'm starting to deep clean. I always do a deep clean in the spring and the fall. Are you a fall deep cleaner, too? 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Everybody Fights: So Why Not Get Better At It? by Kim and Penn Holderness

Everybody Fights: So Why Not Get Better At It?
by Kim and Penn Holderness
Published March 2021 by Nelson, Thomas Inc.

Publisher's Summary: 
Learn how to fight better and end your arguments with your partner feeling closer, more loved, and better understood.

We take our cars in for oil changes. We mow our lawns and pull weeds. Why don’t we do maintenance on our marriages? This relationship is the most important one we will ever have, so why not get better at it?

For the last several years, Penn and Kim Holderness of The Holderness Family have done the hard maintenance and the research to learn how to fight better. With the help of their marriage coach Dr. Christopher Edmonston, they break down their biggest (and in some cases, funniest) fights. How did a question about chicken wings turn into a bra fight (no, not a-bar-fight; a-bra-fight)? How did a roll of toilet paper lead to tears, resentment, and a stint in the guest bedroom?

With their trademark sense of humor and complete vulnerability, Penn and Kim share their 10 most common Fight Fails and how to combat them. Throughout the book, they offer scripts for how to start, continue, and successfully close hard conversations. Couples will emerge equipped to engage and understand, not do battle—and maybe laugh a little more along the way.

In Everybody Fights, couples will learn how to:

Use “magic words” for healthy conflict resolution
Address unspoken and unrealistic expectations
Banish the three Ds of unhealthy communication—distraction, denial, and delay
Carry individual baggage while helping your partner deal with theirs

Penn and Kim want you to know you’re not alone. Everybody fights. Marriage is messy. Marriage is work. But marriage is worth it. Fight for it!

My Thoughts:
I discovered Kim and Penn Holderness on Facebook and, honestly, their videos helped me survive 2020. They are funny, creative, and I may have a little more in common with Kim than I'd like to admit (let's just say that neither of us was particularly eager to have the lockdown end since it meant we'd have to return to social responsibilities). And, of course, they appear to have so much fun together and understand each others peculiarities and get along so well.

Not so fast. They want us to know that, like all of us who are married, life's not always so rosy. In fact, they readily admit that they fight a lot. To be fair, they are together almost 24 hours a day, every day, CoVid or not. Who wouldn't fight? Plus, they are two very different people. Most couples I know are - that's what draws us to one another, the balance the other brings to our lives. It can also lead to disagreements...oh, let's call them what they so often are - fights. 

Being church-going people, they turned to their minister (pastor? heck, I don't remember which he is), who is also educated in marriage counseling, for therapy. And he's had some great ideas for them, which they are happy to share with us, along with a lot of things they have learned from researching the topic. 

Every chapter starts with a fight that Kim and Penn have had. Each gets their turn to tell their side of the story (because we all know that there are always two sides to every story) and then they let us in on what they've learned about what caused that particular kind of fight and how to learn from it, make future fights like it not as harmful, and how to get past it. 

The Holderness' have been married something like 15 years. I'm not sure that what works for couple who have been married that long would work for couples like my husband and I, who have been married almost 39 years. 

One of the chapters suggests that married couples need to do a better job of thanking each other for the things that each of them do. I'm agree; that's probably one of the things that people who have been married longer need to be conscious of even more than those who are newly wed. But whilst they suggest that something like "Thanks for driving" is good, "magic words" to use might be "You drove for so long! All I did was sit here and scroll through my phone, which I desperately needed, while you stared at the boring road for three hours. I feel so much more relaxed now." First, I'm pretty sure my husband is happy just to have his work acknowledged. Second, I don't know that emphasizing how relaxed I feel is the best way to thank him. And last, I'm pretty sure we'd both start laughing if we talked like that to each other. 

Another chapter, though, is about secret contracts. "Secret contracts are the silent deals you makes with your partner by default and through routine. They are tasks we take on and identities we assume with an invisible handshake at the start of a relationship that we continue till death do us part - or until something happens that reveals the contract needs to be redlined." Now here is something I think every married couple can relate to, maybe more so then longer you've been married. Those are the things that can result in fights about who does more and that pigeon hole us into roles that we don't always want to be in. Recognizing that these things exist is the first step in understanding how to revise them and the book helps readers go on from there. 

Will all of the solutions to helping readers resolve marital conflicts be easy or comfortable? No. If you don't already sit down periodically to have discussions about your relationship, it's going to feel very strange. In fact, one of the chapters discusses the idea that we need to just sit down and look each other eye to eye, which is bound to make most couple uncomfortable. The Holdernesses want readers to understand that the discomfort of those conversations is much easier than the pain of the fights and the damage it can do to the individuals in the marriage and the marriage itself. Look at that second paragraph of the publisher's summary - why don't we make the time to maintain our marriages? 

Like everything they do, Penn and Kim fill the book with humor. But they tackle the big issues head on - money, marital roles, and sex. It's worth a read for any couple but I think it's one that might be particularly useful for young couples to set them off on the right foot. Now I'm off to put together a plan about how we're going to work these things into our lives - starting with those secret contracts!

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

The Maidens
by Alex Michaelides
Read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Louise Brealey
Published June 2021 by Celadon Books

Publisher's Summary:
Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens. 

Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge. 

Mariana, who was once herself a student at the university, quickly suspects that behind the idyllic beauty of the spires and turrets, and beneath the ancient traditions, lies something sinister. And she becomes convinced that, despite his alibi, Edward Fosca is guilty of the murder. But why would the professor target one of his students? And why does he keep returning to the rites of Persephone, the maiden, and her journey to the underworld? 

When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything—including her own life.

My Thoughts:
Kirkus Reviews compares this one to a gothic thriller and I'd have to agree (you don't hear me say that very often about Kirkus Reviews, do ya?). Michaelides takes full advantage of his more than 800-year-old setting, throwing fog, deserted streets, men following Mariana who are shrouded in darkness, a lot of bodies, a stalker, and a story line that relies heavily on ancient Greek myths.

Part of what makes this feel more Gothic than current is the university's hesitance to step in when a professor is accused of having inappropriate relations with his female students and their slowness to consider shutting down the campus, even after three students have been murdered. What makes it feel even more a book set 100 years ago is that fact that its heroine is, despite her willingness to step in and try to solve a murder, more or less helpless. Yes, Mariana is deeply grieving the accidental death of her beloved husband and overwhelmed with memories of their time together on the Cambridge campus, so maybe not operating at her highest level. But she's also a Cambridge-educated psychotherapist, hardly the kind of woman readers might expect to find wringing her hands, let alone continuously putting herself into dangerous situations.

I very much liked all of the Greek mythology, the art, the setting, even the outline of the story. But I did find myself wanting to grab ahold of Mariana and shake some sense into her and she wasn't the only character I wanted to shake. 

Still, Michaelides got me with this one. As in "gotcha!" Suddenly a book that I was thinking had an interesting premise but wasn't a very good mystery (because, let's be honest, if I can figure out who done it, it's not a very good mystery) throws a curve ball at me I never saw coming. That might not work for everyone - some might not care for an ending that comes so unexpectedly. But it redeemed the book for me. In the end, I recalled plenty of clues that asked me to look deeper and that was enough for me to come away from this book contented. It had done what it needed to do for me - take my mind away from the heavier things in life for a few hours. 

Source: Audiobook checked out from my local library.  

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Life: It Goes On - August 22

Happy Sunday! Hope all of you who are on in the path of these endless hurricanes are staying safe and those of you on the west coast are safe from the fires. If only there were a way to direct the rain where it is so badly needed!

It's been a quiet week around here. I missed a day of work (well, to be fair, I missed a half day because I worked a half day from home - goodness, it's nice to be able to do that!) and a bookclub meeting thanks to my allergies. You know how much I missed spending an evening with my friends!

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished listening to You'll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey, by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar, which is the Omaha Reads book this year and my bookclubs selection for September. It's an eye opener. Nothing else coming up soon for the books I have on hold so I decided to listen to podcasts until one does, rather than look for something that's available. 

Watched: The tv blathers on but the only things I've really watched are some preseason football; Home Town, Cheap Houses, and No Demo Reno on HGTV; and some of yesterday's TCM Katherine Hepburn marathon. 

 I bouncing between The Paper Palace, Reese Witherspoon's latest book club selection, and Oh, William, Elizabeth Strout's latest, which is more of Lucy Barton's story. 

Made: Mini-him and I grilled burgers one night and I made a southwestern salad to go with them, one night we had pasta with homemade sauce and meatballs, and Friday night I decided at nine o'clock to make a loaf of Bushman's bread. 

Enjoyed: Dinner with Mini-him one night and dinner with my dad last night - two of my favorite guys!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On doing some Christmas shopping this week. Yeah, I know it's early, but I'd love to have Mini-me's and Ms. S's gifts ready for them to have shipped to Alaska with the rest of their household stuff instead of me paying $100 to ship them in December. 

Thinking About: I stumbled across a YouTube video the other day and the host was talking about minimizing what's in your kitchen. I don't think I'd want to take it to anywhere her extreme (she has one plate, one bowl, one glass for each family member - what does she do when she has company??). But when she talked about plastic storage containers, that hit home. I got rid of enough to fill a recycling bin. And now I'm fired up to work my way around the kitchen. What else do I keep because I have room for but don't really use? 

Feeling: Tired. I went to bed earlier than my usual weekend bedtime but woke up before I'd even gotten as much sleep as I usually do during the week. Thinking a nap will be needed to keep me productive the rest of the day.

Looking forward to: A visit from Mini-me this weekend!

Question of the week: How are you holding up? Between the weather, CoVid, kids moving away from home for a number of reasons, and politics, it's tough to keep it together, isn't it?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis 
by J.D. Vance
Read by J. D. Vance
Published June 2016 by HarperCollins
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library 

Publisher's Summary:
J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

My Thoughts:
This book is on my Nook, where it has been for four years. Initially I was eager to read it. And then I began hearing some backlash about it. So I put it off. When I found it available on audio, I decided it was time to make my own decision about this book. More than a week after finishing the book, I'm still trying to decide how I feel about it. 

On the one hand, it's hard to discount Vance's perception of what life has been like in the Appalachia region for the past few decades. It's been his life; they are his people. He has watched the region turn from one that was overwhelmingly Democratic to one that is deeply conservative Republican. Economics have failed them. Business has failed them. The policies that were meant to help these people have failed them. But Vance is also willing to admit that some of what has happened to these people has to do with the kind of people they are - a people where the idea that being a "real" man is much more valued than being an educated one, a people prone to stay close to their own even when there are no opportunities for them. 


Last year, I read a book (I wish I could remember which one it was) that theorized that Barack Obama's election as President may have harmed black people more than it helped them. The theory is that, rather than laud him as an exception of a person who was able to pull himself up, he became the guy who people used as the "if he can do it, anyone can do it and if you can't, then it's on you" shining example. 

Vance, while quick to admit that he is a rarity amongst his people, does seem to see that he may well be that kind of person for the Appalachian people. If a guy whose addict mother went from one man to another, who was poor for all of his life, who grew up in an area where education was not valued could pull himself up to become a Yale-education lawyer, well then, why couldn't the others? Is it their own fault  that they can't raise themselves up? 

Here's the thing about both of these guys - they both had a tremendous support system. While Vance's mother might have moved him from house to house as she brought "father" after "father" into his life, he had the stability of grandparents who were always there for him, who wanted more for him, and who took him in when life got too dangerous with his mother. His older sister and her husband and an aunt and her husband were also tremendous support and encouragement. He knows that he is blessed to have had that and might not be where he is today without it. He was also smart enough to know that he was not ready for college straight out of high school, took the lessons from the Marines that he needed to have to succeed beyond them, and a tremendous work ethic. 

Vance talks about "a broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach." If, for example, family is so important, then why are alcoholism and domestic violence so common and so expected? If they are such hardworking people, then why do so many of them choose not to work? Vance clearly loves these people and has a deep understanding of where they came from and what has happened to them from outside sources. But he is not entirely sympathetic and doesn't make excuses for them. 

And yet...
Despite the title's reference to a culture in crisis and Vance's exploration of the area he grew up in, this is primarily his memoir, the story of his family, his life, and how he pulled himself out of poverty. He loves his hillbilly roots and feels them keenly, even when he is trying to hide them. In that respect, I appreciated this book. And I appreciated that Vance doesn't look on these people with rose-colored glasses. But then, in some ways, I came away wishing that he did, if only just a little bit. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert

The Perfume Thief
by Timothy Schaffert
Source: courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:

Clementine is a seventy-two year-old reformed con artist with a penchant for impeccably tailored suits. Her life of crime has led her from the uber-wealthy perfume junkies of belle epoque Manhattan, to the scented butterflies of Costa Rica, to the spice markets of Marrakech, and finally the bordellos of Paris, where she settles down in 1930 and opens a shop bottling her favorite extracts for the ladies of the cabarets.

Now it's 1941 and Clem's favorite haunt, Madame Boulette's, is crawling with Nazis, while Clem's people—the outsiders, the artists, and the hustlers who used to call it home—are disappearing. Clem's first instinct is to go to ground—it's a frigid Paris winter and she's too old to put up a fight. But when the cabaret's prize songbird, Zoe St. Angel, recruits Clem to steal the recipe book of a now-missing famous Parisian perfumer, she can't say no. Her mark is Oskar Voss, a Francophile Nazi bureaucrat, who wants the book and Clem's expertise to himself. Hoping to buy the time and trust she needs to pull off her scheme, Clem settles on a novel strategy: Telling Voss the truth about the life and loves she came to Paris to escape.

Complete with romance, espionage, champagne towers, and haute couture, this full-tilt sensory experience is a dazzling portrait of the underground resistance of twentieth-century Paris and a passionate love letter to the power of beauty and community in the face of insidious hate.

My Thoughts:
I've read all but one of Schaffert's books (and it's sitting on my bookshelf) so it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's read my reviews of his books (The Swan Gondola, The Coffins of Little Hope, Devils In The Sugar Shop, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters) that this is one of my favorite books of the year. Clearly I'm biased. But I'm not alone in my praise. 
  • "Other authors have had clever takes on World War II spy novels, but none has created a voice like Clem’s..." - Los Angeles Times
  • "The Perfume Thief is a pulse-pounding thriller and a sensuous experience you’ll want to savor." - Oprah Daily
  • "Schaffert concocts a memorable work that oozes atmosphere and originality. . . It boasts beguiling characters who gain depth with each unveiled layer." - Book List
Kirkus Reviews is not so nice. They complain that the bad guys are not menacing enough and that the terrors are mostly offstage. To the first point, I disagree. There is a constant low hum of unease in this book because we understand what these men are capable of doing. To the second point, yes, terrors are mostly offstage; for that I was grateful. We've all read enough books about World War II and the Nazis to know that they did terrible, unspeakable things to people. We understand that trust is a hard thing to come by in an occupied city, where some people will do whatever they have to do to save themselves and others may well agree with the occupiers. There are an abundance of characters here Schaffert doesn't need to make that the focus of his book. 

Voss and Clem are playing a cat-and-mouse game and we're never quite sure who is the cat and who is the mouse. Schaffert could have crafted a book wherein his hero never made a misstep, where her plan worked perfectly and they were always one step ahead of the Nazis. But that's not this book. While Clem understands exactly what might happen to her and the people she cares about, she still believes that she is clever enough to outsmart Voss...until she isn't. I never once felt entirely comfortable. Kirkus Reviews is wrong - I spent this entire book worried that Voss was on to Clem, that Lutz would kill Zoe, that Day would push her luck just a bit too far. 

What Kirkus Review should have focused on was Schaffert's amazing (as always) characters. Clem is a character unlike any you've read before, with a story you've never heard before. Day, Blue, and even Voss have stories that could stand on their own. Or, instead of writing off the beauty of Schaffert's writing, they could have focused on his amazing descriptions and his beautiful writing.
"And the fields of war are full of ghosts who wish they could go back to that one split second that separates them from life and death. There've been so many lives undone by a misstep, a wrong turn, a hair trigger."
"Paris, our village, has fallen victim to a fairy-tale curse. The sun rises; the moon drops. The cogs of the clockworks tick-tock north-south, or east-west, in whatever direction they've always turned but time itself has turned to fog. The days: they don't seem short. They don't seem long. What day even is it?"
And, despite what Kirkus says, Schaffert does make us see what life in occupied Paris was like.
"The other night, we got our hands on a roasted chicken that was more likely some songbird, a back-alley jackdaw dropped by a slingshots. nWe cut into his plump breast and found it mostly empty, like he's died with his lung puffed up with a half-whistled melody. We ate the little bird like tender wolves, stripping it down to its skeleton, going so far as to break off bones to suck. Food is scarce in Paris, but the Nazis eat fine."
I recently said that a book was 100 pages too long, in no small part because it was overflowing with descriptions. But here Schaffert awakens every sense here and it never seemed to much. 
"My building has become a factory, a distillery, cellar to attic, a gasworks of copper pipes corkscrewing through the parlor's ceiling and up through the kitchen floor, winding around the bedposts, whistling like snakes with a lisp. The building's strange acoustics, and all the perfumery's pipes and vents, warp and bend our voices. Sometimes you can whisper in someone's ear from another room." 

"I suggest the ballet dancer (the scent o talc, sweat, leather, the sharp sour-sweet of roses turning to mold), and she says no. I suggest the journalist (typewriter ribbon, a struck match, the tart ash in the bowl of a hasish pipe) and she says no to that too."

"The tapestries and wallpapers, the sofas and chairs, are all in powder blues and rose pinks and sea greens, like dusty meringues in a pastry-shop window. Zoe grew up among antiques, probably tiptoeing across the Aubusson carpets women with portraits of unicorns in the fields of thistle. She sat in the walled-in rose garden behind the house hosting tea parties of her own, with dolls with human-hair pompadours and sait ball gowns, with felt mice in bow ties infesting her paper macarons and glass candy. Such a life."

 This is a book to delight the senses. It is also a book of truths and lies, love and hate, deceit, romance, secrets, forbidden love, and friendships. I loved it. It's the book I've been waiting months for. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Life: It Goes On - August 15

Happy Sunday! What a beautiful weekend we've had here. We spent both evenings sitting outside and it was absolutely perfect. I feel like I've been waiting all summer for a weekend like this - I can't help but wonder if I appreciate them more because of all the weekends when it's too hot or it's raining or it's winter. 

I've had such a productive week and it feels so good so have gotten so much done after months of not having the energy or the mental capacity to get much done. I've gotten some deep cleaning done, rearranged things in the backyard and inside, and cooked real meals. I did not solve my blog problems. You know that seems like an overwhelming prospect when I'd rather scrub out my refrigerator than tackle that project!

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Alex Michaelides' The Maidens and then spent the rest of the week listening to podcasts, including several episodes of Glennon Doyle's We Can Do Hard Things

Watched: Preseason football; HGTV's latest show, Cheap Old Houses; and the Field of Dreams baseball game. 

Read: Kim and Penn Holderness' Everybody Fights: So Why Not Get Better At It? - definitely some things I cannot seem The Big Guy and I doing but a lot that is good food for thought. 

Made: Shrimp and roasted tomato pasta, BLTs, cucumber dip, chicken breasts with tomatoes and purple onion, super nachos, and s'mores. 

Enjoyed: Dinner with friends on the patio last night. One of my friends brought a charcuterie board, the other brought potato salad and cookies - I "made" absolutely nothing! We grilled hot dogs and burgers with the fixings, had watermelon, chips, and I bought dessert. So easy, so summer fresh - it was nice to get to dinner time and not be tired from all the prep. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Here's what I am not planning on doing this week - decorating for fall. I know that once the kids go back to school, it starts to feel like fall to a lot of people and the "influencers" on Instagram are all about the change of seasons (a lot are already talking about Halloween!). Let's enjoy these last few weeks of summer. Why are we always in such a rush to move on from one thing to another?

Thinking About: Mini-me and Ms. S's move to Alaska. They have a move date and have bought a house. They will walk out of the house, look right and see a mountain. They will be less than four hours from Denali. Ms. S's job will be a wonderful challenge and Mini-me will get to try farming in a whole new environment. I'm happy for them - what a wonderful adventure - and trying not to focus on how far away they'll be. 

Feeling: This week marked six months since my mom passed away. The shock has worn off and the reality has set in; and yet, I am constantly still thinking that I need to pick up the phone to ask her something or share news with her. My mom loved daffodils so my sister sent me two of these little pressed glass pieces in her memory. It's just the kind of thing my mom would have given me and it's yet another way that my siblings and I have worked to keep her alive.

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. I so appreciate that these ladies are all vaccinated so that, even as Covid numbers increase again, I feel safe with this group.

Question of the week: Are you Team Let's Move On To Fall or Team Let's Hold On To Summer? 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before The War
by Helen Simonson
Published March 2016 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:

East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.

But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

My Thoughts:
This was my book club's selection for July, chosen because it was a book about a teacher and because I was a huge fan of Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, a book I found charming but also appreciated for it's look at society and prejudices. Here Simonson is again looking at society and prejudices, although this time the prejudices are almost exclusively aimed at women, but also at refugees, Gypsies, and homosexuals. 

Beatrice is a young woman who, at all of 23 years of age, is already considered a spinster, which is fine with her because she has no intention of marrying. Despite the way society already seems to consider her unmarrigeable, though, it also looks down on her for considering that to be a choice she gets to make. And it's all well and good for her to be a teacher, just not in certain subjects which are the purview of men. Agatha and the other women of the village understand that the only real power they have is in figuring out how to manipulate the men in their lives. A young refugee girl is looked down on for being pregnant, despite the circumstances that put in that place. Two suffragettes are looked down upon by the very people they are trying to help. 

But Rye is going to have to come to grips with the changes in the status of women...and so many other changes in the world around them and war changes their lives forever. 

At 461 pages, this book is maybe 100 pages too long. But what ever would you take out? The descriptions that make the people, the setting, the time period come alive? Absolutely not. Beatrice's relationship with her now deceased father? Can't do that - it says so much about why she is who she is. The exploration of the various ways women were kept down 100 years ago? Nope. The war scenes? They seem essential to get to the end place. Maybe the answer is that each of those areas could have been trimmed up without losing any of what makes this book charming, witty, and interesting. Because as much as it was work to get through the book, it was, for me, also all of those things. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Guest List by Lucy Foley
Published June 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
The bride – The plus one – The best man – The wedding planner – The bridesmaid – The body

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

My Thoughts:
While I was reading this book, I was balancing it with two others - all needed to be read within about a two week period and all were good. But this was the book that I kept wishing I was reading when I was reading the others. 

Foley alternates the chapters between five characters - the bride, the plus one, the best man, the wedding planner, and the bridesmaid - and between the days leading up to the wedding and the wedding itself. It's an interesting way to reveal pieces of each character and to slowly reveal what happens at the wedding. We know early on that something terrible has happened but we don't know until nearly the end that there actually is a dead body nor who it is. As the chapters reveal more and more about the characters, we find ourselves thinking that any one of the characters might end up being a victim and that there are any number of reasons that each of them might be killed. Almost all of the characters in the book, major and minor, are unlikable, from the bride and groom to her parents and every last one of his groomsmen. Even the wedding guests themselves, most of whom remain nameless, are nothing more than a bunch of thoughtless drunks. 

Each of the characters, of course, has his or her own secrets that are revealed throughout the book but the biggest surprises for me were in how some of the characters tied in with each other, making the victim more obvious but the killer even less so. At least that's the way it worked for me. The setting provides the perfect set up - isolated, posing the possibility of secrets the island might reveal and dangers from the setting itself. I liked the way Foley handled the reveal of the murderer and the fallout from the murder but the closing of the book fell flat for me. Still, it was just the kind of book that I'm enjoying right now - the kind of book that pulls me through it and takes me completely away from my own reality. 

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Life: It Goes On - August 8

Happy Sunday from sodden Omaha! We had very, very heavy rain last night and parts of Omaha flooded that I have never seen flood in the almost 36 years we've lived here. Water was rushing downhill so fast that it was pushing parked cars up against each other. Can't imagine coming out from a dinner out only to find that you couldn't get into your car because it was pressed up against another car! Glad that we did our carryout/picnic dinner earlier and that we had kept an eye on the forecast and not decided to spend the evening in downtown Omaha...or run to the grocery store about a mile from us! Definitely not our usual very dry August. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: The Maidens, by Alex Michaelides, after I finished J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. I'm really enjoying the readers of The Maidens

Watched: Pretty much only the Olympics. I stayed up until after 1 a.m. last night to watch the women's volleyball gold medal match. Three former Huskers play on the team, including Jordan Larson (who is from a small town in Nebraska), who was named MVP, and Justine Wong-Orantes, who was named best libero of the tournament. 

Read: Timothy Schaffert's latest, The Perfume Thief, which is now my favorite of his books. Or maybe tied for favorite because I still think about Coffins of Little Hope (it's one of the books that lives on my might-read-it-again-someday bookshelf - which holds very few books). 

Made: Pretty much everything we ate last week had tomatoes in it - it's that time of year! BLT salad, tomato and basil pasta, BLTs. If we couldn't work the tomatoes into the main course, I sliced them and ate them with a little salt. 

Enjoyed: Dinner with two of The Big Guy's siblings and their spouses Friday evening. It's the first time the six of us have been able to be together since before CoVid and it was so nice!

The Old Market district in 
downtown Omaha Saturday night
This Week I’m:

Planning: Last week I started working on my office "inch by inch." Turns out that project is going to take a whole lot of smaller projects. I spent the better part of the week working with the proofs from our wedding photographer; for 38 years I haven't been sure what to do with them. Suddenly this week I figured it out. But, as with all of the projects I start, it took more work than I expected. I finally finished it this morning. The proofs included pics of almost everyone who came to the wedding going through the receiving line so it was fun to remember all of those people. This week I'm planning on a new inch-by-inch project in the office - it will also have to do with organizing pictures. 

Thinking About: A nap. I've been battling headaches all week and they are exhausting me. I need those hot, dry August days we usually have!

Feeling: Unproductive (see above), which is frustrating when there are so many things I'd like to be doing. 

Looking forward to: A quieter work week. My boss is on vacation this week so no visits to my desk with questions or "deliverables" she needs from me. Love my job and really like my boss but it's been crazy and I'm hoping this week is quieter. 

Question of the week: I'm told viewership for the Olympics is way down because young people don't have cable tv. Have you been watching? If so, what's been your favorite moment?

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic

Well, here's some bad news, for me anyway. Thanks to Google, some of the functionality of Blogger has been deleted. This makes editing things in my sidebar all but impossible. For the time being, I'm looking to see if there's a work around that doesn't require me to spend money on a platform that continues to become more and more archaic. I may have to delete and re-add some of the buttons every time something changes in them which will be a massive pain and not likely to be something I'll do for long. More than likely, I'll need to change the sidebar. And then, after 12 years of blogging on Blogger, it may be time to decide if it's worth my time to move this baby to Wordpress. Can I just say that I wish I'd done that nine or so years ago when I spent a lot more time working on the blog and had a lot less information to transfer?!

Enough about me. Here's the good news:
  • We still have six weeks to finish reading all of the books on the Booker Prize long list before the short list is announced on September 14th. If you're like me, that means you have 13 books to read between now and then. Yeah, that's not going to happen. Maybe one? 
  • On the other hand, I have read two of five of the finalists for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But there's only three days to read the rest before the prize is announced on September 8th. Oh, well.
  • Now here is something I am succeeding at: tsundoku - the practice of buying more books than you can read (Treehugger). 

"Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity." – A. Edward Newton, author, publisher, and collector of 10,000 books.

There now - I've given you some things to think about, calmed down some about my blog, and successfully put off writing a review that I don't really want to write off for another day. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel
by Daphne du Maurier
Read by Jonathan Pryce 
Published in 1951
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries - and there he dies suddenly. Jealous of his marriage, racked by suspicion at the hints in Ambrose's letters, and grief-stricken by his death, Philip prepares to meet his cousin's widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious Rachel like a moth to the flame. And yet... might she have had a hand in Ambrose's death?

My Thoughts: 
Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca has long been a favorite, one of the few books I've read more than once; I've both wanted to read more of her work and been afraid that nothing could live up to that book. My Cousin Rachel doesn't. Which isn't to say that this isn't a terrific book. It is, made all the better by Jonathan Pryce's reading of the book (he may be my new favorite book reader). 

Did she or didn't she? 

Philip has been raised on an estate that women rarely breach and Philip has spent his life being the lone person to whom Ambrose shows real affection. So it comes as no surprise that Philip is jealous when Ambrose announces that he has married their cousin, Rachel and no surprise that Philip suspects foul play on Rachel's part when Ambrose dies suddenly. But Philip seems to be the only person who suspects Rachel of causing Ambrose's death; others mostly tut-tutting him because of his youth and jealousy. 

But letters that Philip has received from Ambrose that more than hint of Rachel's hand in the decline of his health and discoveries Philip makes when he arrives, too late to help Ambrose, in Florence reinforce his certainty that Ambrose did not die from natural causes. Philip isn't the only one who has doubts - du Maurier makes certain that readers do as well. Rachel's friend, Rainaldi, practically twirls the ends of his mustache as he looks down his nose at Philip (and Ambrose) and anytime he appears in the picture, we are convinced that he is involved. But is he manipulating Rachel or is he her partner? Or is he, while maybe trying to help Rachel benefit from her marriage to Ambrose, entirely innocent of complicity in Amrose's death? 

When Rachel arrives unexpectedly in England, she quickly wins over the staff of the estate, Philip's guardian, and, before long, Philip himself who falls in love with Rachel. Philip is set to inherit Ambrose's estate on his 25th birthday. But when he discovers a letter from Ambrose that reveals the existence of a will that had never been signed leaving everything to Rachel during her lifetime, Philip becomes determined that he should do the same. Blindly, he overlooks all signs that Rachel is not the person he thinks she is and refuses to listen to the one person who suggests otherwise. 

But did she or didn't she? 

du Maurier keeps readers wondering throughout the book. I never trusted her but then I'd read Rebecca and had some idea the kinds of characters du Maurier created. I wanted to slap Philip again and again for being so quick to be taken in by Rachel and so stubborn about seeing the truth. But was it the truth or perfectly innocent coincidences? Just how long can someone keep up the act of being kind and caring if she's not, in fact, kind and caring? Who just who is the most cold-hearted person here?

If you like tidy endings, du Maurier is not for you. Those last twenty-five or so pages are the payoff for the patience readers have shown. In the end, du Maurier circles back to where the book started. Yet the question remains. 

Did she or didn't she? 

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Last Chance Library by Freya Sampson

The Last Chance Library
by Freya Sampson
Published August 2021 by Berkley Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Lonely librarian June Jones has never left the sleepy English village where she grew up. Shy and reclusive, the thirty-year-old would rather spend her time buried in books than venture out into the world. But when her library is threatened with closure, June is forced to emerge from behind the shelves to save the heart of her community and the place that holds the dearest memories of her mother.

Joining a band of eccentric yet dedicated locals in a campaign to keep the library, June opens herself up to other people for the first time since her mother died. It just so happens that her old school friend Alex Chen is back in town and willing to lend a helping hand. The kindhearted lawyer's feelings for her are obvious to everyone but June, who won't believe that anyone could ever care for her in that way.

To save the place and the books that mean so much to her, June must finally make some changes to her life. For once, she's determined not to go down without a fight. And maybe, in fighting for her cherished library, June can save herself, too.

My Thoughts:
Poor June has lived most of her life hidden away from the world, maybe not literally, but most definitely figuratively, although she once had dreams of a bigger life. She has always been bookish, withdrawn and not like the other girls. She's grown up feeling like her mother was her only real ally and when her mother died, June was left adrift and with paralyzing grief. Years after her mother's death, June has not changed a single thing in the home they shared. She goes to work, she gets carryout from the Chen's takeout, and she spends her evenings at home alone, apart from her books and a dog who doesn't really like her. 

Let's see if you recognize June: she's the girl that goes to a hen party (aka bachelorette party) dressed as Hermoine Granger while all of the other young women are dressed up as sexy characters. When they play "never have I ever," June never has to take a drink, not even when one of the ladies cruelly throws in "never have I ever had sex." But she's also the person who helps an elderly gentleman sign into his email account every single day because he can't remember his password; she steers a bright young boy to the books that will challenge and entertain him; she treats the patron who complains about every single book she checks out with the same kindness as she does every other patron. You cannot help but cheer for her; she's a good person who deserves good things. 

You and I both know that a book that begins like that is going to end up with June finding her voice and her own life by the end of the book, probably a boyfriend and maybe even the family she didn't even know she'd had all along. Knowing that is one of the reasons I picked up this book - I needed a book that was going to give me exactly the ending I expected. Well, maybe not exactly the ending I was expecting. Sampson gave me just enough sadness to save the book from being too syrupy and threw in a couple of twists that kept things from becoming too predictable. It's light fare, to be sure; but sometimes light fare is just what you need.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Life: It Goes On - August 1

Happy Sunday! I'm moving slow this morning which won't do - my list of things that need to get done today is much too long for me to lounge around. And yet, if my body is telling me to rest, I should probably pick up a book and listen to it, right?

I moved my desk a couple of weeks ago and now, instead of looking at a wall while I'm working here, I'm looking out the windows that flank it. It's quite lovely right now - I wonder how I'm going to feel about it when the lilac branches are bare and the winter winds are blowing. But let's not jump to that just yet and enjoy these last few weeks of summer. Seriously. Stop trying to make it fall or start talking about Christmas already!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished My Cousin Rachel and started J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, which, of course, will have me watching the movie adaptation of both as soon as the Olympics are done consuming my every television moment. 

Watched: See above. Sad that the swimming is over - by far and away my favorite events of the summer Olympics. But you all know that I'll watch any sport that's part of the Olympics!

Read: Timothy Schaffer's latest, The Perfume Thief, which I am loving. 

Made: A new pasta recipe with roasted tomatoes, shrimp and a creamy cheese sauce; Asian chicken salad; red velvet cake; homemade ice cream. 

 So many things this week: pizza and summer beer on the patio (before the heat wave hit), our first real Friday happy hour since before the pandemic, a weekend with my girl here, getting to meet our dear friends' grandson, my niece's baby shower. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On knocking out several small projects using the "inch by inch, life's a cinch" method. My "office" has turned into a dumping ground and needs to get pulled back together, for example. 

Thinking About: The amount of "stuff" we have. As I talked to my niece's mother-in-law yesterday, who recently moved from the home she's lived in for a very long time, I thought about what it would take to pack up and move our home. It's more than a little terrifying to contemplate!

Feeling: Like the summer is flying by much too quickly. I love these long days!

Looking forward to: Going to my first book event in a year and a half. 

Question of the week: What are your plans for the week?