Thursday, September 30, 2021

We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz

We Were Never Here
by Andrea Bartz
Read by Becca Tobin
Published August 2021 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary:
Emily is having the time of her life—she’s in the mountains of Chile with her best friend, Kristen, on their annual reunion trip, and the women are feeling closer than ever. But on the last night of the trip, Emily enters their hotel suite to find blood and broken glass on the floor. Kristen says the cute backpacker she brought back to their room attacked her, and she had no choice but to kill him in self-defense. Even more shocking: The scene is horrifyingly similar to last year’s trip, when another backpacker wound up dead. Emily can’t believe it’s happened again—can lightning really strike twice? 

Back home in Wisconsin, Emily struggles to bury her trauma, diving headfirst into a new relationship and throwing herself into work. But when Kristen shows up for a surprise visit, Emily is forced to confront their violent past. The more Kristen tries to keep Emily close, the more Emily questions her motives. As Emily feels the walls closing in on their cover-ups, she must reckon with the truth about her closest friend. Can Emily outrun the secrets she shares with Kristen, or will they destroy her relationship, her freedom—even her life?

My Thoughts:
Some mystery/thriller books that hold up long after they're first published. Despite getting great reviews, I'm not sure this book will be one of those, although it's certainly a wild ride. 

Emily and Kristen become best friends in college and, because they both have families their in no rush to spend time with, they'll travel the world during breaks from school, trips that continue years after they've finished school. But as a trip to Chile devolves into burying a body in the middle of nowhere, Bartz gradually reveals that this is not the first time these two young women have found themselves getting rid of the body of a man who attacked one of them only a year earlier. And here's where I first started having problems with this book. 

If you'd found yourself hiding the body of a man because you felt certain that a foreign justice system wouldn't buy that it was self-defense, how quickly would you be willing to travel to another foreign country? Even if you're answer is a year, and even if you're not yet thirty-years-old, would you even remotely considering going to your room with a total stranger in yet another foreign country? Or even in the same city you live in, for that matter? 

The two young women head home, Emily to Milwaukee, Kristen to Australia WITH A FAIRLY LARGE PIECE OF EVIDENCE IN HER LUGGAGE!!! Ok, yeah, you don't want it lying around to implicate you. But maybe drop it in the trash in the airport? These are only a couple of the things that raised questions for me within the first 100 pages of the book. Even after the young ladies returned home, there were so many times I wanted to slap Emily to wake her up. 

Normally I'd feel bad if I gave away this much about a mystery novel, but the publisher's summary gets you well into the book before they decide they've finally given you enough to lure you in.

Here's the thing, though - even with all of the issues that I had with this book, I raced to make sure I finished it before it automatically was returned to the library because I really needed to know how Bartz was going to resolve this. Was Kristen gaslighting Emily? Had Kristen killed before? Or was Emily burying memories that would acquit Kristen? The tension ratchets up and up and there seems to be no way either of these young women is getting away with what they did in Chile. Bartz did manage to keep me wondering until the end and she managed to throw in a couple of surprises I did not see coming. 

The verdict? Despite all of the issues I had with this one, there was still enough here to keep me reading and there's certainly a lot that book clubs would find to talk about. 

Bonus for me: Emily lived in the very neighborhood that my son and his wife lived in when they were in Milwaukee, she went to a beach we'd been to, and Bartz described the city in very much the same way that I would describe the downtown. It's always good to find that kind of connection in a book. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Read by Lisette Lecat
Published 1998

Publisher's Summary:
This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

My Thoughts:
When Alexander McCall Smith first published The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency he was already a successful author, having published nine books before this one. I have no idea how successful those were; but I had the feeling, as I listened to this book, that he knew going in that there was a good chance that this might before a series. Smith gives readers the full background of Precious "Mma" Ramotswe and introduces us to a number of characters you can't help but feel you'll be seeing again. And while the book ties up all of the cases introduced here, Smith leaves readers with the impression that Mma Ramotswe is just starting to make a real success of the agency she's started and leaves her behind just as she's accepted a proposal from a man whose been pining over her for years. 

Precious has some history that makes her compassionate and interesting and a personality that can't help but appeal to readers. She's plenty smart but it's her common sense, observant nature, and quick thinking that really make her a success at the business she's used her father's inheritance to open. Even more appealing, for me, was that she was a fallible, middle-aged woman, heavy-set woman who people liked - in other words, she was relatable in a way so many mystery heroines are not. 

This book (and, I would assume, the series) leans more toward a cozy mystery while still touching on the darker side of people which makes it more appealing to me than your average cozy mystery. Smith gives readers good insight into life in Botswana, the culture, the landscape, the people. Lisette Lecat, who does a fantastic job giving each character a unique voice, also enhances the setting of the book. I can't recommend the audiobook version of this book highly enough. My coworker, who recommended this book to me, was absolutely correct on that score! Knowing that Lecat will continue reading the series, I'm certain that I will be picking up the next book in the series when next I need a break from heavier, longer books. 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Life: It Goes On - September 26

Happy Sunday! It's definitely feeling like fall in Omaha this past week but I think we're headed back to summer temps this week. I love that this time of year - the mornings are still cool and it cools back off pretty early in the evening. Plus it keeps my flowers blooming; my cosmos decided just this past week to finally start blooming and it's going to be so pretty on my patio in the coming few weeks if the weather holds. 

We're headed off to have lunch with my dad soon and there's not much to report from here so I'll be brief today!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished We Were Never Here and started Nathan Harris' The Sweetness of Water

 Football. Lots of football. Yesterday I was back to have college football on in the background all day as I got things done around the house. 

Read: Colson Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle which is so good. I need to get that finished up because I picked up a library hold Friday. 

Made: A couple of Molly Yeh's (Girl Meets Farm) recipes - Funeral Hot Dish (what a terrible name!) and a romaine salad. The hot dish was good but neither of us was a fan of the dressing on the salad. 

Enjoyed: Book club Tuesday. We had such a good conversation about the book (You'll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey) and racism. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: More laundry stripping, more deep cleaning, more putting the house back in order. 

Thinking About:
What to read for RIP XVI. It started in September but I'm always late to that party. I'm thinking it's finally time to pick up Wilke Collins' The Woman In White

Feeling: Relaxed. I got a lot done around the house yesterday so I'm feeling less weighed down by the to-do list today. 

Looking forward to: A friend who lives in Arizona is coming to town this week and I'm looking forward to seeing her for the first time in three years. 

Question of the week: Do you have any Halloween, spooky-type read recommendations for me? 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them by Sian Evans

Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean Liners and the Women Who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them
by Sian Evans
Published August 2021 by St. Martin's Press

Publisher's Summary:
During the early twentieth century, transatlantic travel was the province of the great ocean liners. It was an extraordinary undertaking made by many women, whose lives were changed forever by their journeys between the Old World and the New. Some traveled for leisure, some for work; others to reinvent themselves or find new opportunities. They were celebrities, migrants and millionaires, refugees, aristocrats and crew members whose stories have mostly remained untold—until now.

Maiden Voyages is a fascinating portrait of these women as they crossed the Atlantic. The ocean liner was a microcosm of contemporary society, divided by class: from the luxury of the upper deck, playground for the rich and famous, to the cramped conditions of steerage or third class travel. In first class you’ll meet A-listers like Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson, and Josephine Baker; the second class carried a new generation of professional and independent women, like pioneering interior designer Sibyl Colefax. Down in steerage, you’ll follow the journey of √©migr√© Maria Riffelmacher as she escapes poverty in Europe. Bustling between decks is a crew of female workers, including Violet “The Unsinkable Stewardess” Jessop, who survived the Titanic disaster.

Entertaining and informative, Maiden Voyages captures the golden age of ocean liners through the stories of the women whose transatlantic journeys changed the shape of society on both sides of the globe.

Cunard's RMS Aquitania

My Thoughts:
I made a mistake when I began reading this book. I took it to be a story primarily about the women who worked and traveled on the ocean liners that ferried people back and forth between the New World and the Old. I was expecting it to the be stories of particular women, especially those who worked on the ships, and about the ocean liners as well. 

Cunard's RMS Laconia
That's some of what I got. I got a lot of information about ships. So much information that I began to wonder if Evans was padding the book due to a lack of information about the women. Eventually, I understood that to be background to set up the period between the wars. I also got a lot of history. About World Wars and prohibition and the ways the shipping industry helped change the lives of women, from taking them across the ocean for new opportunities to providing them jobs they'd never been eligible for before during wartime. On those floating microcosms of society, we learn about the various roles the female employees of the ship lines served. In first class, one woman might work as a secretary or dresser for a single customer. In third class, there might be only one woman to ensure the welfare of all of the people desperately looking for a new beginning. One woman was so desperate that she hid in one of the ballast containers, burying herself under a layer of gravel to avoid detection during inspection and staying in that container until she estimated that the ship was more than half way to America, too far to turn back.
Marlene Dietrich

The book is loaded with who's who of famous women of the area and we learn about how hard the liners worked to make these women feel comfortable and safe, outfitting the ships to feel more like hotels than ships. Those are the kinds of stories, of course, that make readers see a summary and decide to read a book. But it's the stories of the women in third class and the women who worked tirelessly on these ship, all in a bid for a better life, such as Violet Jessop who served as a stewardess, who really caught my attention. 

Violet Jessop, who survived the Titanic

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Oh, William ! by Elizabeth Strout

Oh, William!
by Elizabeth Strout
Published October 2021 by Random House
Source: courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 

Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are. 

So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret—one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.” There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together—even after we’ve grown apart. 

At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. “This is the way of life,” Lucy says: “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”

My Thoughts:
In The New York Times' review of Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton, Claire Messud called Strout's vision of the world "Protestant and flinty." In Strout's return to Lucy Barton, Protestant and flinty are, again, apt descriptions of her writing. 
"I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is very hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say - oh, I don't know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in our house when I was growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I really do not know what I mean, except to say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world."
Despite being a successful author, Lucy Barton continues to feel invisible and to find it surprisingly difficult to put her feelings into words. Except for when it isn't:
"A tulip stem inside me snapped. This is what I felt. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back. I began to write more truthfully after that."
A childhood of poverty and abuse has led Lucy to live her life feeling "less than," a feeling that was reinforced by a mother-in-law she simultaneously loved and resented. Catherine asked Lucy to call her "Mom" when Lucy married Catherine's son, William. But she found any number of ways to make Lucy feel out of place and beneath her, from giving Lucy hand-me-down nightgowns to giving her a set of golf clubs knowing that Lucy didn't enjoy golfing. So Lucy was as surprised as William when he discovered that Catherine's childhood was not all that different from Lucy's own. 
"How is it that some people know how to do this [cross the lines in our world], and others, like me, still give off the faint smell of what we came from? I would like to know. I will never know. Catherine, with her own scent that she always wore. My point is that there is a cultural blank spot that never ever leaves, only it is not a spot, it is a huge blank canvas and it makes life very frightening."
In Oh, William! Strout explores the ways we never completely escape our upbringing and that cost that trying to do so takes. In her quiet, spare way, she also, as always, explores the lasting relationships between parents and children and spouses, even after divorce. William and Lucy have a complicated relationship that is only underscored by the wonderful relationship Lucy had with her second husband who only recently died. 

I'm a huge fan of Strout's and I love the way she comes back to characters again and again (this is her third book that includes Lucy), even working characters from other books into her stories (here characters from The Burgess Boys show up). While some readers may read this book and feel that they are missing something by not having read My Name Is Lucy Barton (and I kept wondering if I was forgetting things from that book), in looking back at my review, and others, of that book, I find that Strout left somethings to the readers' imaginations before as she does again here. You're getting all you need to have to understand Lucy. This one crept up on me and my appreciation of it grows even after I finished reading it. If you're a fan of Strout's, you'll enjoy this one. If you're new to her work, understand that this is a quiet, slow-paced book that is filled with introspection. It will make you think, if you have patience. I'm glad I did.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Life: It Goes On - September 19

Happy Sunday! I know it's almost officially fall (and I am starting to get the fall feels) but it feels like summer here this weekend. We ate breakfast on the patio and it was absolutely still and quiet out and I wondered why we haven't done that more often while it's been nice out. 

I got to work from home a couple of days this week. Since the big desk rearranging this summer, The Big Guy is now working in the room I used to work in and I had to move up to what I euphemistically call "my office." The beauty of that is that the table I set up on is positioned between two windows on the second floor and it felt a little bit like I was working in a tree house. I threw open windows, pulled a comfy chair up to the window for the cat to sleep in and thought I was going to really enjoy working from there 2-3 days a week going forward. And then my peer at work put in her notice and once she's gone, I'll have to be in the office full time. Oh well, it was good while it lasted. 

Last Week I:

Listened To:
 I finished The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency and I'm now about half way through Andrea Bartz's We Were Never Here, which is another of the Reese Witherspoon book club's recent picks. 

Watched: Football, the finale of America's Got Talent, some HGTV, and John Legend on Austin City Limits. That show's long been something we watch on Saturday nights if we're home; but, my goodness, have their lineups changed in the past couple of years. 

 I finished Jodi Picoult's latest, Wish You Were Here, and started Colson Whitehead's new book, Harlem Shuffle. I'm not always good about reading the Author's Notes at the end of books, but reading Picoult's really gave me a greater appreciation why she'd written her story the way she did. I've only just started Whitehead's book and I'm already, once again, so impressed with his storytelling.

 On Meatless Monday, we had pasta with freshly picked tomatoes and basil. Otherwise, it was bacon week for us. BG picked up some really good slab bacon and croissants so we had BLTs with those and homegrown tomatoes...twice. Another night we had fried potato casseroles with, you guessed it, bacon. Last night we went out to eat and, of course, I ordered a burger with bacon. This week - salads!

Enjoyed: Spending the day with my dad yesterday then capping the day with dinner out with friends. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: I'm picking up the "ingredients" for laundry stripping today so I'll be doing a lot of that this week. Also, I'm already playing catch up on the Fall Cleaning Challenge so I need to finish up the bathrooms and move on to the kitchen. 

Thinking About: Funerals. Yesterday my dad and I went the memorial service of a friend's mom. It's the first time either of us has been to a funeral since my mom's and I think we were both a little nervous about going. But it was the right thing to do, so we went; and we both came away with some very distinct impressions about what we do and do not want for our own services. 

Feeling: Excited - I have tomorrow off for absolutely no reason other than just to take a day off. 

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. 

Question of the week: Have you ever given any thought to your own funeral or memorial service? I was so grateful that my mom had put everything in writing long before it was needed and I've since chosen music and some readings. What music would you choose?

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

The Last Thing He Told Me
by Laura Dave
Published May 2021 by Simon and Schuster

Publisher's Summary:
Before Owen Michaels disappears, he smuggles a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her. Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers—Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered, as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss, as a US marshal and federal agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they’re also building a new future—one neither of them could have anticipated.

With its breakneck pacing, dizzying plot twists, and evocative family drama, The Last Thing He Told Me is a riveting mystery, certain to shock you with its final, heartbreaking turn.

My Thoughts:
I fell into this book and couldn't pull myself out of it until I finished it. We don't know, in the beginning, why Owen has fled. Is he also guilty of the fraud his boss has been arrested for? And where did the money he left in a bag for Bailey come from? Is the man who says he's a U.S. Marshal really a U.S. Marshal? Also, why hasn't Owen worked harder to get his daughter to like her new stepmother? Oh wait, that last one was just a niggling question as the tension and mystery built. 

Dave moves Hannah's narrative back and forth between her search for the truth and the back story of Hannah and Owen...or whatever his name really is. Owen's given Hannah a very convincing story about his past and how he and Bailey came to be living in Sausalito. But the more she thinks about what she knows about Owen, the more things Hannah recalls that don't add up. 

Bailey is just afraid enough that she's willing to hop on a plane with Hannah to follow up on a lead; she's just as eager to find out what happened to her dad and she may have long lost memories that will help solve the mystery of who Owen really is and what might have become of him. 

And now I have more questions. How is it that a sixteen-year-old suddenly recalls so much about something that happened when she couldn't have been more than three or four years old? And isn't it convenient that people who don't want it help in the beginning (and probably shouldn't even be giving away the information they are) so willing to help with a little persuasion? Again, oh wait! I don't really care because I'm all in at this point and willing to suspend disbelieve. 

And then we get to the ending. I need someone who's read this to get in touch because I need to talk about the ending. Was the book written to be made into a movie? It feels so much like it was. I'm still not sure if I liked the ending or not. It feels implausible but so do all of the other possible endings once Dave had reached a certain point in the story. 

Final question - is it worth reading? Yes! For 250 pages, I was loving this book; it was just wanted I needed without even knowing I needed it. While I may have mixed feelings about the ending, you may love it. It's not bad. It just wasn't what I was hoping for even if I'm not exactly sure what I was hoping for.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

While Justice Slept by Stacey Abrams

While Justice Slept
by Stacey Abrams
Read by Adenrele Ojo
Published May 2021 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary:
Avery Keene, a brilliant young law clerk for the legendary Justice Howard Wynn, is doing her best to hold her life together—excelling in an arduous job with the court while also dealing with a troubled family. When the shocking news breaks that Justice Wynn—the cantankerous swing vote on many current high-profile cases—has slipped into a coma, Avery’s life turns upside down. She is immediately notified that Justice Wynn has left instructions for her to serve as his legal guardian and power of attorney. Plunged into an explosive role she never anticipated, Avery finds that Justice Wynn had been secretly researching one of the most controversial cases before the court—a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, which promises to unleash breathtaking results in the medical field. She also discovers that Wynn suspected a dangerously related conspiracy that infiltrates the highest power corridors of Washington. 

As political wrangling ensues in Washington to potentially replace the ailing judge whose life and survival Avery controls, she begins to unravel a carefully constructed, chesslike sequence of clues left behind by Wynn. She comes to see that Wynn had a much more personal stake in the controversial case and realizes his complex puzzle will lead her directly into harm’s way in order to find the truth.

My Thoughts:
It's getting late, I'm reading so much I hardly have time for writing reviews, and I really, really need to get to comments so I'm going to keep this one short.

Why'd I Read It: It was recommended to me by my sister-in-law, a woman who is crazy busy but still finds time to read a lot of mysteries. When she recommends one to me, I know I'm going to like it. 

Some Backstory: You'll know the name Stacey Abrams from her run from Governor of Georgia and, more importantly, for her tremendous work in getting eligible persons signed up to vote in that state. She wrote this book many years ago but had no luck getting it published. Did her name recognition help in the end? Undoubtedly. But this isn't the first book that Abrams has had published - she's previously written and had published several romance novels and a number of nonfiction books. 

What I Liked: 
  • Adenrele Ojo does a fine job reading the book which will make you think you should pick up the audiobook if you want to read this one. Read on.
  • Abrams includes biotech, genetics, espionage, medical, legal, and political elements and makes readers pay attention to the ways she weaves these elements together. 
  • Avery comes with a background that makes her feel more real, including a drug addict mother, a history of gambling, and a educational background that had her jumping from school to school.
  • Once this book gets rolling, there's no stopping it - it feels like it's ready made to be an non-stop action movie. 
What I Didn't Like:
  • The good guys are practically wearing white, while the bad guys are in black. There's almost no grey here. I kept waiting for one of the good guys to turn out to be a bad guy but it never happened. 
  • I prefer authors to give us a sketch of their characters but not to dwell on them. Abrams gives readers every detail, often enhancing those descriptions as the book goes on. 
  • Avery's mother, Rita, is an addict and, we are given to infer, a sex worker. Abrams seems to a very little sympathy for either addicts or sex workers, painting Rita in the most negative of lights and never given the impression that either addicts or sex workers are victims. 
  • There are some pretty glaring points where Abrams has characters, particularly Avery, doing things that we've been led to believe they are too smart to do. 
About that comment I made earlier about the audiobook. There is so much going on in this book, especially in the first half as it is set up, that it's tough to keep up with all of the details when you're listening to it. I'd definitely recommend you at least have a copy of the book on hand if you're going to listen to this one, so that you can refer back to it. 

Now, you're probably thinking that even though I said that I'm bound to like any book my sister-in-law recommends, I didn't seem to like this one much. It does have its flaws. But I was all in for the story and Abrams never made solving the problem too easy for the smart group Avery surrounded herself. Was the ending a little implausible? Well, yeah. But it's the ending you want and I was happy with it. And it had me looking forward to the next two Avery Keene books which Abrams is already contracted to write for Doubleday. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Life: It Goes On - September 12

Happy Sunday from Omaha, where it can't decide if it's going to be a seasonably temperate 80 degrees or Indian summer. I've got some yard work I wanted to do this weekend but I think it will wait until later in the week...or October! And certainly I have plenty to do in the house to fill the day; I played a lot this week and it shows around here. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: On the recommendation of a coworker, I started The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. She said that the reader, Lisette Lecat, is fabulous and I concur. If the rest of the books are available through the library, this will make a nice break between longer, more difficult reads. 

Watched: Lots of football, of course. Yesterday I spent a good chunk of the day with my Dad and watched the Huskers win with him. 

 I raced through The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, which was a recent selection for Reese Witherspoon's book club. 

Made: I wasn't home for a lot of meals this week so there wasn't much cooking to be done. I did make a yummy cheesy roasted tomato pasta and some pepperoni pizza rollups. No healthy eating going on in our house this week!

 Mini-him and Miss H are seven years apart in age but have become very close and have a lot in common, including a love of music. This week, Mini-him drove down and picked up Miss H so they could go to a concert together in Wichita. I love seeing them have so much fun together!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On Instagram I follow the account of a cleaning company called GoCleanCo and, at sixty years old, I've discovered that an old dog can learn new cleaning tricks. So when Sarah announced a Fall Cleaning Challenge, I jumped on board. It was GoCleanCo that convinced me to pull off the shower doors last weekend to be able to clean them better, after all. If you're thinking about a fall deep clean, you can download the paperwork here.

Thinking About: Talking a brief break from social media. It's a time suck that brings me as much stress as it does pleasure some days. 

Feeling: When my mom died, one of my sister's friends was a rock for our family. She brought us coffee, she sat by my dad's side and shared the grief of losing her husband with him, she helped us laugh. This week her mom passed away and I am broken-hearted for her. 

Looking forward to: A quiet, normal week. As much as I like a three-day weekend and the shorter week that follows it, somehow that week ends up throwing everything off kilter. 

Question of the week: Did you watch any of the 9/11 coverage yesterday? I watched some of the ceremonies in the morning and found myself in tears without even realizing I was crying and knew I wasn't going to be able to spend much time with it this year. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

You'll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism 
by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar
Read by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar
Published January 2021 by Grand Central Publishing

Publisher's Summary:
From racist donut shops to strangers putting their whole hand in her hair, from being mistaken for a prostitute to being mistaken for Harriet Tubman, Lacey is a lightning rod for hilariously ridiculous yet all-too-real anecdotes. She's the perfect mix of polite, beautiful, petite, and Black that apparently makes people think "I can say whatever I want to this woman." And now, Amber and Lacey share these entertainingly horrifying stories through their laugh-out-loud sisterly banter. Painfully relatable or shockingly eye-opening (depending on how often you have personally been followed by security at department stores), this book tackles modern-day racism with the perfect balance of levity and gravity.

My Thoughts:
You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey is this year's Omaha Reads selection. Why you ask? (I know you didn't really ask, but let's just pretend.) Because Ruffin and Lamar are from Omaha (Lacey still lives here) and because, clearly, Omahans need to wake the heck (if you know me in person, you know that's not the word I was going to use but I'm still trying to keep it clean because my mom wouldn't have liked the word I wanted to use) up. 

When asked who she wanted to have read this book, Lamar said: 
"I would love every single white person that I’ve ever worked with to read this book—and just white people in general. And white people who maybe think, “Well, is it really that bad? Is racism really that bad?”And supervisors, people who are in charge of people. I want them to read this book and be like, “I am never doing that again. I am now going to go to work and call Linda “Linda” and not “Black Linda.”"
If you've been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you'll know that I've been working very hard to educate myself about racism and been awakened to my own racism. I'm under no illusions that Nebraska is little better than the South, too, when it comes to racism. But people, I live in a city. Of course I know that racists live in cities, too; but I thought that at least there was less overt racism here. Wrong. 

I checked out the audiobook version of this book but I also won a copy of it from the library. If you're from Omaha and want to read this book, I recommend the audiobook. It's marginally less painful because Ruffin and Lamar are funny ladies and the impression is that, while they find these examples of racism horrible, they are also able to find the humor in them. That's less the case in the print version, although you do get to see a lot of illustrations and photos. Either way, this one's an eyeopener for those of us who live in Omaha (as it should be for people who live anywhere) and it's tough to realize that we live with people who would do the kinds of things that have been done to Lamar. Including ourselves. 

About 30 years ago, my husband and I liked to watch Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam on HBO. We laughed at lot while we watched it but we didn't always get the humor. Because we were white people who lived in a suburb in the Midwest!! It wasn't meant for us but, even then, I wanted to understand more. So I turned to the only person I knew who I could ask - the only black friend I had. She was patient (I didn't realize then just how patient) but often said "you wouldn't understand." I never stuck my whole hand in her afro, I never called her "Black Linda." I thought I treated her like every other friend I had. This book reminds me that, in asking her to explain humor I didn't get or asking her why she and her mom didn't move to a "safer" neighborhood, I didn't. 

I don't think Ruffin's and Lamar's point in writing this book is to make people feel awash with guilt over the past but I do think they do want us to look at things we've done and realize the ways that might have been racist. Recognizing those things is the only way to be better. As Maya Angelou said, "when you know better, do better." 

Another of my takeaways from this book is that silence is complicity. When Lamar sat in meetings where racist things were being said, when she was in shops where racist things were being done, when she was in school and hearing racist things, there were people who could have spoken out. No one did. I imagine that leaves persons of color to wonder if everyone agrees with the act or if they are just too complacent to say anything. I'm guilty of not speaking up; I'm a person who hates conflict so it's tough for me to speak up when I know it might cause problems. Once again, Ruffin and Lamar remind white people that our discomfort is nothing compared to what persons of color go through on a daily basis and a fear of conflict is a poor excuse. Lamar has lost a lot of jobs because she spoke up. The least I can do is back her up.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace
by Miranda Cowley Heller
Published July 2021 by Penguin Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary:
“This house, this place, knows all my secrets.” 

It is a perfect July morning, and Elle, a fifty-year-old happily married mother of three, awakens at “The Paper Palace”—the family summer place which she has visited every summer of her life. But this morning is different: last night Elle and her oldest friend Jonas crept out the back door into the darkness and had sex with each other for the first time, all while their spouses chatted away inside. Now, over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the life she has made with her genuinely beloved husband, Peter, and the life she always imagined she would have had with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives. As Heller colors in the experiences that have led Elle to this day, we arrive at her ultimate decision with all its complexity. Tender yet devastating, The Paper Palace considers the tensions between desire and dignity, the legacies of abuse, and the crimes and misdemeanors of families.

My Thoughts:
Books picked by famous ladies for their book clubs are hit-and-miss for me. This one, picked by Reese Witherspoon for her book club, was one of those hits. 

Cowley Heller switches her Elle's narrative between one current day forty-eight hour period and Elle's entire past life as she contemplates what brought her to this point in her life. Although the way we are introduced to Elle's grandmothers and mother, all women who had difficult things happen to them which colored how they raised the next generation of women. 

The writing is every bit as colorful and beautiful as that cover but the subject matter is mostly much darker and grittier. Readers should be forewarned that there is a lot of adultery and sexual abuse in this novel, including abuse of children, which may make it difficult for some readers. That will probably keep me from recommending it for my book club, although there is so much to talk about in this book. Can you ever forgive yourself for doing the unforgivable? How can strong women choose a man over her children? Can love withstand the passage of time and betrayal? Is security more important than passion? Can one woman really love two men so deeply that choosing between them is nearly impossible?

This is an impressive debut that had me tearing through the pages, even though it was often difficult to read. It often broke my heart and just as often made me angry, mostly at the adults who were so derelict in their duties. But if you've read this one, will you please email me? I need to talk to someone about the ending!

Source: checked out from my local library

Monday, September 6, 2021

Life: It Goes On - September 6

Happy Labor Day! Today we made our way home from a weekend trip to see Mini-me and Ms. S, stopping for lunch at a Five Guys burger joint. We had no sooner finished our lunch when the doors of the place were locked; they were closing early in order to give their laborers time off on the day designated to celebrate them. Kudos to the management of that restaurant!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished Stacey Abrams' While Justice Sleeps today while we were driving home, completely ignoring The Big Guy for a couple of hours so I could keep track of what was going on. 
Watched: Not much. We hardly had a television on for the past five days. 

Read: I'm racing to finish up Elizabeth Strout's latest, Oh, William. Doesn't it seem like I'm saying "I'm racing to finish..." a lot these days?

Made: I made some stuff last week that I wanted to remember to tell you about but now I can't remember what it was! Mini-me whipped us up a delicious curry meal with paneer the other night. He's a terrific cook and kind enough not to make the meal too hot just for me. 

 So many things this weekend! We took a side trip to visit BG's niece, brother, and sister-in-law then yesterday my aunt and uncle came to Rochester for brunch. It was so nice to get to spend time with so much family! Of course, we loved getting to spend the long weekend with Mini-me and Ms. S. We talked a lot about Ms. S's new job, the new house, the logistics of moving a household all of the way to Alaska, lavished attention on our grand pets, helped them find a new dresser (thanks to my Facebook Marketplace skills!) and we got to go out to dinner one last time at their (and our) favorite restaurant in Rochester, Forager. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Blog work this week. See "Feeling."

Thinking About: How much I'm going to miss being able to hop in the car after work and be up to see the kids before bedtime. I'm trying to focus, though, on how exciting this is for them and what a great opportunity it is. 

Feeling: Embarrassed. I know that a lot of things have slipped since my mom died but I didn't realize that I hadn't even posted comments since then, let alone responded to them! 

Looking forward to: A short work week and a possible return to working from home some days. 

Question of the week: Were you lucky enough to get a three-day weekend? If so, how did you spend that extra day?

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Deer Season by Erin Flanagan

Deer Season
by Erin Flanagan
Published September 2021 by University of Nebraska Press

Publisher's Summary:
It’s the opening weekend of deer season in Gunthrum, Nebraska, in 1985, and Alma Costagan’s intellectually disabled farmhand, Hal Bullard, has gone hunting with some of the locals, leaving her in a huff. That same weekend, a teenage girl goes missing, and Hal returns with a flimsy story about the blood in his truck and a dent near the headlight. When the situation escalates from that of a missing girl to something more sinister, Alma and her husband are forced to confront what Hal might be capable of, as rumors fly and townspeople see Hal’s violent past in a new light. 

A drama about the complicated relationships connecting the residents of a small-town farming community, Deer Season explores troubling questions about how far people will go to safeguard the ones they love and what it means to be a family.

My Thoughts: 
You know I was one of the first people the ladies at TLC Book Tours thought of when they were asked to host a tour for a book set in Nebraska. And you know I didn't hesitate to say "yes" when they asked me if I'd review it. But after it arrived, I began to worry. What if it was one of those books that makes all of the people in Nebraska look bad? What if I really didn't care for it? I wasn't entirely sure it was the right book at the right time for me, even after I'd started it. Then I realized that the University Press had published the book and they have never steered me wrong yet. So I pressed on, convinced that this would be a book worth reading. I was so right and by page 50, I was racing through this book even though it is a slow-build of a book, focused as it is on its characters. 

Alma Costagan is right up there with Olive Kitteridge as one of my all-time favorite characters who make it hard to like them but then you find yourself so attached to them. 

Alma met Clyle in college; he'd grown up in Gunthrum but she was a city girl. When they married, they never had any intention of living on a farm. But life doesn't always give you what you're expecting. When Clyle's father dies and his mother falls ill, Clyle and Alma move back to his parents' farm to care for it while she's still alive. But after she passed, first one thing and then another kept them just a while longer. Soon Alma realized that Clyle was really happy as a farmer and she agreed to become a farmer's wife and give up her career as a social worker because she loved him that much. But life in a small town in tough for newcomers and Alma, to be honest, didn't make it any easier for people to like her. That disappointment heaped on the disappointment of not having a family began to wear on the Costagan's relationship. 

One thing they did still agree on was that they would both do whatever it took to protect Hal, who they had taken under their wing when his father was imprisoned and his mother left town. Still, when Hal comes up early from a hunting trip with blood in his truck and throughout his house, telling them that he had shot a deer but made a mess of it trying to dress it, they both had suspicions about his story. When they find out that Peggy Ahern, a girl that Hal had a crush on, had gone missing, they both defended Hal from the inevitable town gossip even as they began to wonder what Hal might be capable of doing, even accidentally and what they might be willing to do to protect him. 

That's the suspense piece of this novel. But at it's heart, this is less a suspense novel than it is a work of literary fiction. It's a book about relationships - between spouses, between parents and children, between siblings, between neighbors. It's also a book about the secrets we keep, the dreams we hold tight to our chests, communication, guilt, and, yes, what it means to live in a small town where, even if you don't know absolutely everyone, you know enough of them so that, sooner or later, everyone knows your business even if they don't really know you.
“The list of what one person would never understand about another went on and on.”

This is an impressive novel, particularly when you consider that it is Flanagan's debut. I felt like I knew these people. Of course, I especially enjoyed the references to places I'm familiar with, including the town I was born in. But living in Nebraska is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book; I highly recommend it. 

Thanks to the ladies of TLC Book Tours for thinking of me for this book. For other, less biased reviews, check out the full tour here

Purchase Links:  University of Nebraska Press | Amazon | IndieBound 

About Erin Flanagan:
 Erin Flanagan is a professor at Wright State University. She is the author of two short story collections, The Usual Mistakes (Nebraska, 2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories(Bison Books, 2013). 

Connect with Erin:  Website | Twitter