Friday, December 31, 2021

Four Mini-Reviews

Remember how I told you that, even thought my reading was way down, where I was really failing was in getting the reviews written? So in order to start the new year off with a clean slate, I'm going to have a second post on this last day of the year and do mini-reviews of the last four books I finished in 2021. 

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Read by Aoife McMahon 
Published September 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
11 Hours

Publisher's Summary:
Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

My Thoughts:
I've been meaning to get to one of Rooney's books for a long time so when this one started getting buzz, I decided it was as good a place to start as any. And it won the Good Reads Choice Award for Fiction for 2021, an award chosen by people like myself. 

I gave up on it 70% in. I never give up on a book when I'm more than half way through it but I couldn't stand any more of any of these characters or the weird way that Rooney paced her story. There were long emails between Alice and Eileen where one or the other of them opined about the state of the world and then we were treated to long passages of the minutiae of their lives. And sex. Lots of sex. It might be a good book - it wasn't for me at this time. And while Aoife McMahon did a terrific job, maybe I would have enjoyed it more in print. I'll never find out because there are too many other books I'd rather pick up. 

Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Read by Edoardo Bellerini
Published September 2021 by W. W. Norton Company 
8 Hours

Publisher's Summary:
The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while singlehandedly raising his unusual nine-year-old son, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures of the endangered animals he loves. He is also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. 

 What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his troubled son is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing visions of life beyond and its account of a father and son's ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers's most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?

My Thoughts:
This one is written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, a prize awarded not by readers like me. And I read and found enough in Powers' The Overstory to be intrigued to see how he would incorporate science into a story about interesting people this time. 

Like The Overstory, Kirkus Reviews and I agree about this one. While it can veer into planetary fantasy frequently, those pieces also serve to give readers insight into the relationship between father and son. And it's a marvelous relationship between a man who is deeply grieving the wife he adored and his challenging son who is equally lost without the person who understood him best. 

Powers makes his opinion of the previous administration, about climate change and what humans are doing to our planet, and his thoughts about our eagerness to medicate over finding better solutions clear. And yet this one did not feel quite a preachy. Maybe because I agree with him. Maybe because I cared so much about Theo and Robin. 

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Read by William DeMeritt
Published June 2021 by Hachette Book Group
12 Hours

Publisher's Summary: 
In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.

Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.

With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.

My Thoughts:
Yep, 100% agree with the publisher on this one. These characters are unforgettable and Harris does a wonderful job of balancing the terror and beauty of this time, this place, and these people. While very bad things do happen, though, Harris balances that with hope and it made all the difference for me. I'm not sure why this one didn't get more press and acclaim. 

For the second time in one post, I have to admit to agreeing with Kirkus Reviews who found this book just as moving as I did. 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
Read by Julia Whalen
Published October 2020 by Tom Dougherty Associates

Publisher's Summary: 
France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world. But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

My Thoughts: 
If you look at this one on Goodreads, you'll find that you'll see a lot of one- and two-star reviews and then a lot of five-star reviews, not much in between. Here's the thing - I get both of those reactions. It's too long and probably Schwab spends too much time in the present and not enough time following Addie through the 300 years of her life. We learn that she spent time working as a spy during WWII but we know nothing her experiences doing that. We know that she traveled over time but never to a country where the population was anything other than predominately white. And we have to buy into the idea that she could fall for the the devil to whom she has promised her soul and who appears to her in a form she conceived (the ultimate bad boy). 

This one was, perhaps, the right book at the right time for me because I was willing for forgive Schwab most of that (except maybe perhaps the length). How hard would it be to survive if no one ever remembered you - you couldn't hold a job, couldn't rent an apartment. It's impossible to survive while never bending the rules yet, when she finally does meet the man who does remember her, how to justify all she's done? And how will their relationship survive? I found myself more than willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. Julia Whelan's reading, as always, only served to enhance the experience. 

And that's a wrap for 2021 folks. No year-end statistics. Just an updated list at the top of this page of my favorite books of the year. 

Goodby 2021 - I'm So Over You

In my final post of 2020, I reflected on how tough the year had been and how happy I was to have it over. But I tried to focus on the good and look forward to a better year, certain that 2021 would be better. Then on February 11th, my mom sat down to take a nap and never woke up. 2021 became an entirely different year than I had been expecting. This year has been tough, right up to the end. But it hasn't been a year without some good and, as I close out 2021, I'm going to try to focus on that again. 

My family has, as you've probably noticed over the years, always been close. This year has brought us even closer. My sister, brother, and I text each other almost daily now, sharing what's brought us low and lifting each other up again, sharing good news and focusing on making life good for our dad. Our dad has learned to text and we're loving getting regular updates from him that often lead to long family text conversations. I think we all feel closer to my dad than ever. My husband has been a rock for me and for my dad; I don't know how I would have gotten through this year without him. Friends have shown astonishing kindness and it was a blessing to be reminded that there are so many good people in the world. 

I didn't get nearly as many projects done this year as I did in 2020 but I did complete a major project that I've been wanting to tackle for years. This desk took almost two months of work to finish but it was worth every bit of the effort. I tried the oven cleaner method on another piece and learned that not every project will be a home run. That one is going to require some more work when spring arrives!

My side of the family welcomed two babies this year. I have yet to meet either of these handsome young men but I'm looking forward to that in 2022. Thank heavens for FaceTime, social media, and texts for allowing us to watch them grow from afar. 

Although Mini-me and Ms. S moved thousands of miles away and we'll now be lucky to see them in person once a year, being so far away seems to have made both of them better at keeping in touch. We now get regular texts and calls and we are loving being taken along on their adventure. And keeping up with our rapidly growing grandpup! And both of our other kids are in really good places in their lives now as well. There's nothing more a parent could ask for. 

My reading took a hit this year and my blogging even more so. I haven't opened my blog reader in weeks and it's now been almost a month since I posted a book review. But I'm still reading and have given myself permission to give up on books and to not worry as much this year about reading the things I feel like I should read and to read the things that bring me comfort. Hence I'm ending the year with One Day In December by Josie Silver and starting the new year with Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, neither of which requires a lot of brain power and I'm good with that. 

I'd like to say I'll be a better blogger next year. I'd like to say I'll teach myself to upholster so I can get all of these chairs I've bought for that purpose done. I'd like to say I'll lose 50 pounds and start exercising regularly. And I really would like to do all of those things. But one thing I've learned in 2021 is that nothing is certain. We need to be proud of what we have gotten done, let go of the things that we haven't done, and give ourselves grace. Which may just be my word of the year for 2022. 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Life: It Goes On - December 26

Happy Sunday! For those of you who celebrate Christmas, happy day after Christmas slog. For my Canadian friends, happy Boxing Day. Trying to keep focusing on the happy here. Today is grey, the beautiful wrapped gifts are all gone from under the tree (although the cat is happy about that because she can finally sleep under there again), and I'm exhausted. But my family made it through our first Christmas without the woman who always worked so tirelessly to make it perfect and we did it without giving up on any of our traditions, it was warm enough on Christmas Eve that my dad could sit outside barefooted while the guys grilled steaks, I got all of the foods made that my family loves, everyone seemed to like their gifts and I don't have to go back to work until Tuesday. So there is much to be happy about. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I worked to try to finish Beautiful World, Where Are You but came up about an hour and a half short before it was automatically returned to the library. To be honest, I chose Christmas music over the book on more than one occasion. I don't know that I'll check it out again to finish up - I really wasn't enjoying it all that much. Maybe my mood, maybe not the right book for the season. 

It was not as warm in 
Anchorage as it was here - 
the kids took the pups for 
a hike on Christmas.

Watched: It's a Wonderful Life the other night with my kids as I cleaned up the house after present opening. I don't know how many times I've watched that movie and I still have a visceral reaction to Mr. Potter - maybe because there are all too many Mr. Potters in the world these days and far too few George Baileys. 

 As you can probably tell from two weeks with no reviews, virtually no reading has been done this month. Maybe the worst reading slump I've had in years. It's certainly not for a lack of good reading choices. Just can't make my brain focus on reading right now. 

Made: More homemade ice cream, more chocolate sauce, bavarian mints, onion dip, cheese balls, cheesy hash browns, caramel corn, sugar cookies, bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with sour cherry glaze, mashed potatoes, roasted asparagus. Last week's cooking was almost entirely focused on Christmas eating. Which we will be eating leftovers of for the next few days! 

 Time with family. I enjoyed it so much I forgot to take a single picture. My sister did snap this one of Miss H and my dad, which I absolutely love. We got to FaceTime Mini-me and Ms S yesterday which makes having them so far away just a little bit easier and we got to see the new grand puppy and watch their cat scale the inside of their tree to get to the new wooden ornaments we gave them which had been promptly hung. Apparently he wanted to chew on them!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: I'm babysitting Mini-him's cat this week so that means splitting time between floors of the house since he and my cat don't get along. We'll see if I can manage to get the decorations taken down and stored back away without letting our guest out of the basement. 

Thinking About: The gift my nephew and his wife gave me dad - they set up a scholarship in my mom's name for young people who, like her, are the first generation in their families to go to college. There were a lot of tears shed when this gift was opened and a determination to fund it annually for years to come.  

Feeling: Tired but grateful for these days off and an upcoming four-day weekend to help recharge my batteries. 

Looking forward to: A lazy week. 

Question of the week: My house is full of leftovers and we're happy to have them. I'll look for ways to reuse them - cold pork sliced onto salads, cheese ball sliced for grilled cheese sandwich, etc. Do you like having leftovers to enjoy?

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Life: It Goes On - December 19

Happy Sunday! It's been quite a week here. We had the tornado sirens go off on Wednesday for the first time all year. I can't recall us ever having tornadoes in December. Tuesday was my book club's now annual holiday party. I've spent a lot of time with my Dad helping him get ready to host the family for Christmas this year. Hence, very little reading got done and no book reviews were written. To be honest, I've only finished one book in the past few weeks and that one only because it was my book club's selection for January and I needed to return it to the library for the next person in the club to read. 

I'm ok with that. I'm not beating myself up about a reading slump for a change. There are other things that are better uses of my time right now, things that are more important to me at the moment. 

Last Week I: 

This year's tables cape was inspired
by Scotland 
 Listened To: Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You. I'm interested it and then I'm not and I've opted to listen to holiday music frequently when I'm in the car instead of a book. 

Watched: The Husker women's volleyball team play for the national championship with my dad, who is so knowledgeable about the team and the sport. It was so fun to watch this team, which is heavily made up of freshmen, take on the challenge of the tournament and knock off the number two team in the country. Sadly, last night was not their night, but they played so well against a team they haven't played well against in the past two years. So proud of them. 

Read: See above. Maybe thirty pages of My Monticello. I did read about fifty pages of Stanley Tucci's Taste, which I'm really enjoying but haven't had much time to pick up. 

Made: Chicken noodle soup, puppy chow, fudge, chocolate cookies, taco soup, chocolate sauce, homemade ice cream. I've definitely spent more time prepping for next weekend than cooking for us to eat regular meals. 

 Hosting my book club. I so enjoy these friends and it's nice to have someone else see the house that I've worked so hard to make festive. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: More food prep, some final shopping for stocking stuffers, and then it's time to enjoy my family. 

Thinking About: As we head into our first Christmas without my mom, I've been feeling pretty sorry for us. Today, though, we heard about a car accident in the town where BG's sister-in-law is principal of the house school that took the lives of two young people and left three others on life support. Our Christmas will be different and a little sad but we are so blessed in every other way. My heart breaks for those families. 

Feeling: Like I'm in pretty good shape for the holidays. Somewhere around Tuesday evening I will surely be struck with the realization that I've forgotten something important or that there's no way I'm going to get everything done without a sprint in the final days. But today, I'm feeling good. 

Looking forward to: Being with my family. 

Question of the week: How will you be celebrating the holidays?

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Life: It Goes On - December 12

Happy Sunday! Friday it snowed; within a couple of days it will all be melted - just the way I like winter. I am finally done decorating, nearly done shopping, and have almost all of the gifts wrapped already (that is a huge first for me!). Off to decorate for my dad this afternoon and then I'll start to feel like I've got this holiday under control. How are you doing this season? 

Last Week I:

 Listened To: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue which I'm still enjoying a lot. I've got three days and four hours still to go - may have to speed it up a little to get it finished as I tend not to listen much around the house. Next up Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You

There are a lot of forests going on in my house 
this season!
Watched: The Husker women's volleyball team upset long-time rival Texas last night and is headed to the Final Four. It's always nice to beat a team whose fans boo'd you when you came out to warm up. 

Read: Here's the thing that's not getting done. I'll bet I haven't read 50 pages all week. 

Made: I can't really remember beyond last night when I made a roasted tomato pasta with shrimp. 

Enjoyed: A long FaceTime call with Mini-me and Ms. S. We got a tour of the new house now that they're settled; got to see all of our grand-animals, including their 4-month old puppy; and see how happy they seem to be in their new home. It did this Mama's heart good!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On getting the Christmas cards mailed, hosting a book club holiday party, and finishing the shopping and wrapping. 

Thinking About: Christmas cooking and baking. 

Feeling: Calmer today. I was feeling overwhelmed this week, sure I could not get it all done in the next couple of weeks. One productive day and I'm feeling much better. 

Looking forward to: My book club's now annual holiday party. 

Question of the week: What's your favorite holiday treat to make? 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Fairy Tale Fridays

What's that you say? You've never heard of Fairy Tale Fridays? If you're new to the neighborhood in the past five years, you probably haven't. But I used to post something about fairy tales at least twice a month on Fridays. And then it started to feel like a job, like extra homework I was being required to do on top of my regular reading. I decided it was time for a break. And now it's been over four years since I last posted. Will this be the start of the return of regular Fairy Tale Fridays? Probably not. But maybe often enough it won't be a complete surprise. 

Recently I read and reviewed Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child, the story of a couple desperate for a child who one day build a snow child who comes to life. The story is based on the Russian fairy tale of Snegurochka in which the child built by the couple returns every winter. Ivey's story most closely resembles Arthur Ransome's version of the tale, which he called The Little Daughter of the Snow. In Ransome's version, the little girl attaches herself to a red fox, as she does in Ivey's adaptation, and is very much attuned to the forest. In Andrew Lang's version, Snowflake (from The Pink Fairy Book), the little girl becomes friends with the village children and melts suddenly when one spring while playing with the children around a bonfire. 

If you search for fairy tales about a snow child, however, you'll also find another iteration of the story which has many variations as well and seems to have been told in many countries. In it, a merchant (or sailor, or farmer) is often away on travels for months on end. One day he arrives home after a year (or years) to find a young child his wife claims is hers. Clearly the child cannot be his but the wife explains that away by saying that some time back she had fallen on ice (or played with snowballs or she swallowed a snowflake) and she became pregnant. In most of those stories, when the husband again heads off on his travels, he says he will take the boy along to teach him his ways. When he returns, the boy is not with him. When the mother asks what has become of her son, the husband answers, "he melted." Which we can be pretty sure, in this version of the story, he did not. 

One of the things that has always interested me is how fairy tales seem so universal, how the same stories appear in many different countries in their own interpretations. But this one seems unique to me in that it seems to have developed from one idea into two entirely different stories and then morphed into each countries own version. The wonder of oral story telling!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Published September 2020 by Bloomsbury USA
Pages 272

Publisher's Summary: 
Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house. 

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

My Thoughts: 
I've been reading...sort of...but I haven't been able to make myself sit down and right a book review for a few weeks. Even when I've enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed Piranesi. Clarke's first book was the door stopper Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I have never picked up for two reasons: 1) it's nearly 900 pages long and 2) the word "magic" appears in the book description. If you've been around long, you know that magic, magical realism, fantasy are book ideas that I tend to veer away from. But Piranesi won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020 so, without even reading the description, I requested it from the library. 

And, once again, it's been proven that sometimes a book that leaves reality behind can be just what I need. 

The entire book is told through Piranesi's journals, the journals of a person who lives almost entirely along in a labyrinth of halls and vestibules so expansive that he can walk for hours to reach a hall he has meticulously mapped over his time there. He has managed to figure out how to sustain himself using what the tides bring to him and the few gifts that The Other brings. Piranesi seems content with his life exploring and caring for the 13 human skeletons he has come across in his explorations. But the more he explores, the more he talks to The Other, the more questions he begins to have. And when another human appears in the halls, everything Piranesi has believed in begins to unravel. Who can he trust? Where did the stories in his earliest journals come from? 

Clarke has managed, in under 300 pages, to create a story that Kirkus Reviews calls "weird and haunting and excellent." It is every bit of that and more. While there's nothing here that we can relate to as being a part of our everyday lives, everyone of us can relate to the wonder, the fear, the sadness that Piranesi experiences. And who wouldn't like the idea of a world you could retreat to when the real world becomes too much, a world where magic still exists? This book took me away from the real world and I needed that right now. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Life: It Goes On - December 7

Happy Tuesday! If I’d written this Sunday, I could have reported that it was a sunny, warmer than normal day which was giving me the incentive to get things done (except that instead of writing this, I was actually spending the time looking for a new tree topper – but that’s a different story!). Instead, yesterday brought in winter - grey, cold, windy. Which is a good time to discover that you didn’t get your wool coat cleaned at the end of last winter and that a button is dangling from it. Add that to the to-do list! 

It didn't help me get to this sooner that my desk has been covered with Christmas bins. Even now, they are just moved to the sofa. More on that later. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, my book club pick for January. I’m really enjoying it so far but only about a third of the way through it.

Watched: I’m a little embarrassed to report that our first Christmas movie of 2021 was “Bad Santa.”

Read: Working on My Monticello. It’s very good but maybe not the book for me right now so it’s work to read.

Made: Mushroom risotto, bacon-wrapped asparagus, and a Christmas fruit salad for a potluck dinner with friends on Saturday night. Lessons learned – do not use thick cut bacon to wrap asparagus, bacon cannot be cut lengthwise not matter what the recipe claims, and stirring risotto for an hour right before you put on your face to go to a dinner is a good way to melt your makeup right back off.

Enjoyed: That dinner with friends. All day Saturday I felt like my mood was lighter, like I had more energy. As an introvert, my batteries are best charged in quiet but these friends are some of the few people who can also do that for me. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On finishing up the decorating in the next couple of days. I had all of the bins up last week and had gotten started but just wasn’t feeling it. Then the first tree I put up fought me every step of the way (seriously, that thing leaned one way and then another no matter what I did!). Note to self: do everything the same way next year and life will be much easier!

Thinking About: Finishing up my shopping this week, the soonest it's ever been finished. 

Feeling: Overwhelmed, both by life’s events and the kindness of others. An angel sent my dad, myself and each of my siblings an ornament with my mom’s picture on it. We have no idea who was so kind but I hope they know how much it touched each of us.

Looking forward to: Going to an annual Jane Austen Society tea on Saturday. Which I'd completely forgotten about because that's how my brain works these days!

Question of the week: How long does it take you to decorate your home for the holidays?