Sunday, March 27, 2022

Life: It Goes On - March 27

Happy Sunday! Once again it's a sunny Sunday morning, after a week where it was overcast and rainy. This girl was happy to have the rain since I know how necessary it is to make my lawn and gardens look great this spring and you know how much I'm looking forward to spending time outside. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Marja Mill's The Mockingbird Next Door. I actually have a copy of the book on my living room bookshelves but somehow have never gotten around to it, despite being very anxious to read it. Now I'm glad I didn't because the reading of the audiobook is excellent. 

Watched: Basketball, so much basketball. We don't really watch much college basketball (other than "our" teams) but, come March, we love everything about the tournament. 

Read: Guys, I'm having so much trouble forcing myself to pick up a book. I'm still working my way through Booth, which is very good but I can only read on my phone because my Nook no longer supports Libby. On my phone, the book is over 900 pages and it makes it feel like I'm getting nowhere when I'm reading. I really need to work past this because I have so many books that I "need" to read. 

Made: Chicken al fredo pasta, tomato basil soup, reubens (yes, again). I think we are starting to work our way out of the "how do we cook while counting our calories" phase. We didn't resort one time this week to a salad because we couldn't think of anything else. 

Enjoyed: An evening with Isabel Wilkerson, virtually, through the Creighton University President's Series. She talked a lot about her latest book, Caste, which I read and learned so much from. She also talked about her book The Warmth of Other Suns and how much work it was to write and how hard it was to get the stories she wanted to include in that book. We were strictly prohibited from taking screenshots of the event so I can't even share a pic from it. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Continuing 40 Bags In 40 Days. I'm hoping to get The Big Guy on board this next couple of weeks. 

Thinking About:
Miss H drove to Nashville this weekend by herself to go to a concert with, and stay with, some people she has only known through Twitter. As a mom, that made me so nervous. But also so impressed with her fearlessness. And when I see her as happy as she is in this pic she posted yesterday, it makes me happy, too. Even if today I have to worry again for eight hours as she makes her way home. 

Feeling: Thursday we had a fire in my office. I work on the fifth floor of a building that has very tall floors and a very open stairwell that scares the heck out of me. I managed to make it down the stairs (albeit slowly) without a panic attack (which I've had before in that stairwell); and then, even more astonishingly (for this very out of shape, middle-aged woman) back up again. Now, this might seem like no big deal for most of you, but it was for me. I'm proud of myself of accomplishing that relatively small task. But I'm also counting my blessings when I think of how supportive my coworkers were, making sure I was doing ok going down, encouraging me as I went back up. Sometimes it's the little things that matter most. 

Looking forward to: Finishing taxes this week. I'm ready for that task to be done!

Question of the week: Have you already finished your taxes this year? 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

by Thrity Umrigar
336 Pages
Published January 2022 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
*my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review*

Publisher's Summary:
In this riveting and immersive novel, bestselling author Thrity Umrigar tells the story of two couples and the sometimes dangerous and heartbreaking challenges of love across a cultural divide. 

Indian American journalist Smita has returned to India to cover a story, but reluctantly: long ago she and her family left the country with no intention of ever coming back. As she follows the case of Meena—a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man—Smita comes face to face with a society where tradition carries more weight than one’s own heart, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of Smita’s own past. While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales. She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment. But the dual love stories of Honor are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves: Smita realizes she has the freedom to enter into a casual affair, knowing she can decide later how much it means to her.

My Thoughts: 
If you've been here long, you know that I'm a huge fan of Umrigar's work. In 2015 I included her on a list of authors who are on my "auto-buy" list. To say that I was excited to have the chance to read her latest early would be an understatement. 

In 2012, I wrote this about The World We Found: "India comes alive in her hands - I never fail to want to travel there after reading one of Umrigar's books. 

In 2014, this about The Story Hour: ''Umrigar just never disappoints me, always taking me out of my little white suburban bubble to look at the world in a bigger way."

In 2010 I was so in love with The Weight Between Us that my review of the book is almost entirely made up of quotes from the book. Also in 2010, I had this to say about The Space Between Us: "She is not the first person to write about class distinctions, poverty, and despair. Umrigar just does it better than most."

In 2022, I have this to say about Umrigar's writing - all of those things remain true. While it's true, of course, that our own country has more than its own share of prejudice, misogyny, and, as Isabel Wilkerson explained in Caste, our own caste system, it's always thought provoking and often heartbreaking to read about how those things play out in India. In Honor, Umrigar takes readers even deeper into the struggle that is life in a rural country divided in so many ways. There are some incredibly brutal scenes in this book that were really difficult to read; but, sadly, based on the reality that is the life of so many in India. Umrigar, as she always does, forces readers to confront uncomfortable truths and touches on so many difficult themes. Here she explores corruption, classism, religion, sexism, family, secrets, and, of course, honor. 

One of the things that I've always loved about Umrigar's books is how well she writes multi-dimensional characters. Unfortunately, that was one area where I felt this book fell a little flat for me. While Smita and Mean are well developed, other characters were less so. Perhaps it was because there were quite a few characters who had so little space to be developed. There is at least one character who I felt developed to a point and then her story got lost in the greater story; she might have been left out altogether. 

The relationship between Smita and Mohan caused me more trouble - being both too predictable and too unbelievable. I understand that Umrigar wanted the dual love stories to work against each other and I'm not sure how she might have developed Smita's and Mohan's storyline so that it would have felt less forced to me. 

This one doesn't leave as many unresolved issues as so many of Umrigar's books do and there was a part of me that wished it had. Perhaps Umrigar felt as if she'd already given us too much pain and sadness. 

Perhaps all of that gives the impression that this one didn't work for me. Let me just paraphrase what I say about Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey - even an Umrigar book that I have problems with is still better than most books. Umrigar always forces readers to face uncomfortable truths about the world in which we live and she always leaves me thinking about the characters she's created. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin
384 pages
Published 2014 by Scribner

Publisher's Summary: 
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s magnificent seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be sucked back into it. Wounded, selfish, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning insight and empathy, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.

My Thoughts: 
I picked this book to read in March because of it being Irish and Toibin having written one of my club's favorites, Brooklyn. Like Brooklyn, Toibin is again writing the story of a female and doing an admirable job of it. Unlike Brooklyn (a novel Toibin wrote and published after he'd started this one and set it aside), this one was not a hit with the club, in no small part because it was hard to get emotionally attached to Nora, a character with whom a group of women of a certain age should have been able to relate. 

It's a quiet, slow novel and Nora is not a particularly likable character. We first meet her not long after her beloved husband has died, leaving Nora with four children to raise and no idea how she will make ends meet. Other writers might have chosen to make Nora a sympathy character, one who holds her children close, relies on the kindness of others, and allows us to see her pain. Nora is not that character. 

When we first meet her, Nora is tired of people stopping by to express their condolences for her loss, some people who have never before come to the house. She understands they mean well, but Nora is a person who wants to keep her life and her loss private in a small town where everyone has known everyone else all of their lives. She struggles accepting their sympathy and their offers of kindness. 

She struggles even more dealing with her children's emotional needs but we soon learn that parenting is not necessarily something that Nora has ever excelled at. 
"It was strange, she thought, that she had never before put a single thought into whether or not they [her children] were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking."
Nora is vastly more likely to opt to do nothing, to say nothing, then to try to figure out what her children are thinking or feeling. As a mother, I found that hard to imagine and it made it harder to feel for a person who seemed so cold. 

At the time my book club met to discuss the book, I was freshly finished reading it. I was hard pressed to explain what the book was even about. But in the week since I've finished it, it has grown on me. Nora is a woman who never seemed to feel love until she met Maurice and now she's not sure how to go on without him. But she was also overshadowed by Maurice - everyone knew and loved him. Without him she's not sure what opinions she should have about things. And she struggles with how to move on. 
"So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing."

Being left in such a hard position begins to make Nora tougher and helps her find her voice. One evening, watching television with Maurice's brother, Nora finds herself able to contradict him about a political matter. 

"Jim tapped the arm of the chair with the index finger of his right hand and whistled under his breath. He was not sued to women disagreeing with him, and she smiled at the thought that he might, if he was to continue visiting her house, have to learn to tolerate it." 
Gradually Nora begins to find herself, a person, I think, she has never really known, even as she learns to appreciate what others are willing to do for her. Nora begins (not without still worrying what others will think) to color her hair, buy new clothes, find her own pastimes, and redecorate her home. And slowly, she lets go of Maurice. 

After that week of thinking about the book, I can say that I appreciated it a lot more. Still, I'm not sure that I would say that I really liked it. 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Happy Sunday! More importantly, happy first day of spring! We haven't quite reached the point where my perennials are starting to come up but we're close to that day - we're getting more warmer days than cold days now. The birds are singing in the morning, robins are eating up the dried berries off our tree in front, there are little squirrels chasing each other across the lawn. The cat is almost as excited about spring as I am. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm about to finish Amy Bloom's White Houses

Watched: We went to see the Oscar-nominated Animated shorts last night, as we have done many times. This year's crop was an entirely different breed of film from what we have largely seen in the past. A couple of them were really dark. Even the one that explored love was a downer. Still trying to figure out what that says about where the collective "we" are mentally.

 Finished Colm Toibin's Nora Webster for book club and I continue to read Karen Joy Fowler's Booth

Made: The Big Guy made a big pot of navy bean soup (he forgets that there are only two of us in the house and you can only eat navy bean soup so many times in a row!) and Thursday we had reuben sandwiches (which we will repeat again today because we have bread, meat and cheese left). 

Enjoyed: Book club Tuesday, a surprise birthday party for an old friend Friday, dinner and the movies with friends last night. So much socializing for this introvert! 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: More of 40 Bags In 40 Days, bringing out the Easter decor, trying to find more time to read. 

Thinking About: Ukraine. It's so heartbreaking and frustrating that we can't really do the only thing that might stop Russia. 

Feeling: Better. Did I tell you that I've been having trouble with sciatic pain for a few weeks? I'm finally seeing more good days than bad, thanks to exercises my physical therapist daughter-in-law sent me, making sure I move more, and being conscious of where I'm sitting. 

Looking forward to: A quieter week at work. Things have been crazy for several months and I think, fingers crossed, they may be slowing down. It will be nice not to come home mentally exhausted with work still to be done. 

Question of the week: How are you adjusting to Daylight Savings time? I love, love the longer sunshine in the evenings. 

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
9 hours 40 minutes
Read by Roslayn Lander
Published 2005 by Random House

Publisher's Summary: 

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. 

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

My Thoughts: 
I loved the movie adaptation of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and was so happy to discover that the book was everything the movie was and more. For years I've been meaning to pick up more of his work, this one in particular, expecting much the same. I've been thinking about this book for a couple of weeks now and I'm still not sure if I got much of the same or nothing of the sort. 

Both books are an exploration of morals and a longing for the past. Both are quiet, character driven and explore personal relationships. Both are beautifully written; both explore the relationship between its main character and an institution. Both Kathi H., here, and Stevens, in Remains of the Day are carers of a sort. But whereas, The Remains of the Day is a work of historical fiction, Never Let Me Go is a work of a dystopian world. They could not have felt any more different to me. 

In Never Let Me Go we learn early on that Kathi is a "carer" for "donors," some of whom are her former classmates. Slowly Kathi takes us back to life at Hailsham, which seems like a perfectly ordinary boarding school with something of an emphasis on the arts. There are sports, cliques, teenagers becoming couples. But it doesn't take long to figure out that this is not, in fact, an ordinary boarding school. These children never seem to leave the premises. There are no visits from parents, there are no funds from home or new clothes to show off. It becomes clear that these children are being raised for a purpose.
"I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves -- about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside -- but hadn't yet understood what any of it meant."

Eventually, as they transition from school to their real purpose in life, we learn what that purpose is. Which doesn't entirely come as a surprise but the truth of their existence is even uglier. As he did in The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro keeps the ugly parts of life mostly in the background. But here they are harder to hide...and harder to read. 

One reviewer said that the book has hope. I didn't see that; I felt overwhelmed by the bleakness of Kathi's life and future. This is not a book readers can relate to and these are not characters readers can relate to but every reader can feel the sadness of a life lived for the singular purpose these characters live for. Perhaps at a different time in my life I might have enjoyed such a desolate book more, might have appreciated it for its lessons about mankind. I won't give up on Ishiguro; his writing continues to impress but this was not for me - not now anyway. 


Monday, March 14, 2022

The Door-Man by Peter M. Wheelwright

The Door-Man
 by Peter M. Wheelwright
388 Pages
Published February 2022 by Fomite

Publisher's Summary: 

In 1917, during the construction of a large reservoir in the Catskill hamlet of Gilboa, New York, a young paleontologist named Winifred Goldring identified fossils from an ancient forest flooded millions of years ago when the earth’s botanical explosion of oxygen opened a path for the evolution of humankind. However, the reservoir water was needed for NYC, and the fossils were buried once again during the flooding of the doomed town.

A mix of fact and fiction, The Door-Man follows three generations of interwoven families who share a deep wound from Gilboa’s last days. The story is told by Winifred’s grandson, a disaffected NYC doorman working near the Central Park Reservoir during its decommissioning in 1993.

The brief and provisional nature of one’s life on earth – and the nested histories of the places, people and events that give it meaning – engender a reckoning within the tangled roots and fragile bonds of family.

My Thoughts:
“I am only a door-man, one of many along Central Park West. No one suspects that it is my considered choice.”
Piedmont Livingston Kinsolver calls himself the third, although his father was not Piedmont, just Livingston, and his grandfather was not really Piedmont but Bramlett. And that is just the beginning of where the family tree that Wheelwright has included comes in handy. Within the first fifty pages I'd probably referenced that tree almost as many times, trying to keep track of the players and their relationships. Which ought to give you a good idea that this book is not one that readers will race through; you'll need to pay attention - to the characters, to the movements in time, to the history and the true facts, to the science. 

The oldest fossilized trees
in the world in present-day
Besides finding myself going again and again to that family tree, I also found myself going again and again to the internet to verify which of Wheelwright's details were fact and which were fiction. Was it true that in 1917 The Star-Spangled Banner was still, more than 100 years after it was written, still largely unknown? Yes, indeed - Woodrow Wilson had only the year before signed an executive order declaring it the national anthem. Did the city of New York flood the town of Gilboa, despite having better options for moving water from the mountains to the city, covering up evidence of the earliest plants and animals on the planet? Yes, it did. And that's where Wheelwright's novel took it's beginning. 

Now how to develop a story around that that is not just a work of historical fiction. Enter the multi-generational, sweeping history of those earliest plants to the end of the reservoir that caused them to be erased from view. As I was reading I kept thinking of Richard Powers' The Overstory, with its interlaced stories and emphasis on science. As I did with that one, I did sometimes find the science (and, more specifically, the places it takes Wheelwright once it goes there) a little distracting. But it's also important to know the science to understand why what happened was such a tragedy and why the flooding of Gilboa did to it's residents echoed through the generations. 

Wheelwright slowly reveals family secrets as he covers themes including eminent domain, natural history, family, power, and atonement. His settings are vivid, his characters interesting and unique. The Door-Man isn't, as I said, a quick read, but if you're willing to take the time, you'll enjoy getting immersed in the story. 

Thanks to the ladies at TLC Book Tours for including me in this tour. For other opinions, check out the full tour here

About Peter M. Wheelwright 
Peter is a writer, architect, and educator. He is Emeritus Professor at The New School, Parsons School of Design in New York City, where he taught design and wrote on matters of environmental philosophy, design theory, and social practices in the built and natural worlds. Peter comes from a family of writers with an abiding affection for the natural world. His uncle Peter Matthiessen was a three time National Book Award winner, and his brother Jeff Wheelwright is a writer of environmental non-fiction. Educated at Trinity College where he studied painting and sculpture, he went on to receive his Master in Architecture from Princeton University. As an architect, his design work has been widely published in both the national and international press. The Kaleidoscope House, a modernist dollhouse designed in collaboration with artist Laurie Simmons is in the Collection of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art. You can find Peter on his website , Instagram, and Twitter.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Life: It Goes On - March 13

Happy sunny Sunday! And happy birthday to my daddy! This past year has not been easy for him but he has reached this day still able to charm people with his kindness, able to be in his own home, and still wearing that big smile! We are headed to Lincoln shortly to celebrate his day with my siblings, lasagna, balloons, and ice cream cake. 

I know there are a lot of you are struggling this morning with that lost hour of sleep  but this girl is so happy that we are going to have that extra hour of light in the evenings.  Daylight Savings Time's arrival is another sign for me that spring is here. It's supposed to be warm here this week, too, so I'm hoping for some March dinners on the patio.

Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished Never Let Me Go and have started Amy Bloom's White Houses, a fictionalized account of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickock. 

Watched: Some state high school championship basketball, some college conference tournament basketball, some Food Network. 

Read: I'm bouncing between books that I need to have done this week, one for a review tomorrow and one for book club on Tuesday. This week sort of snuck up on me reading wise! 

Made: It was a weird week for eating. The only meal we actually made all week was kielbasa and sauerkraut - you can't get much easier than that! 

Enjoyed: Last night we had happy hour/pizza with three other couples. We hadn't all been together in such a long time and it was great to catch up and laugh and laugh and laugh. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: I'm hoping to really get going on 40 Bags In 40 Days this week. I've been randomly working on a spot here and there but I get a lot more done if I go at it with a plan and work on an entire area/room at a time. 

Thinking About: Politics. It's not good for my mental health but there is so much going on right now that makes me so angry. 

Feeling: Hopeful. I'm sitting looking out my front windows with the sun shining and watching a fat robin eating berries that have fallen off a tree, two young squirrels chasing each other, and the prettiest little wren perched in my lilac bush. As much as I dislike winter, spring would not feel so much like a new beginning without it. 

Looking forward to: Book club this week. I think we can finally meet in person again!

Question of the week: Do you have something that you always like to have for your birthday dinner? Lasagna is always a birthday go-to in our family, as is the Asian chicken salad that my kids always want. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Life: It Goes On - March 6

Happy (late) Sunday! We made a 36-hour run to Kansas City this weekend to see Miss H. We mostly just hung out but worked in a trip to IKEA (and figured out how to get in the back way so we didn't have to go through the entire store to get to what we wanted to buy), got breakfast at a favorite place (McLain's Market), and tried a new place for burgers last night (Burg and Barrel). 

Our daughter's roommate has a little beagle who went crazy every time we walked into the house yesterday. We've been home a couple of hours and our cat is still trying to decide if she forgives us for leaving her. She's just now stopped hiding under a chair and come to sit next to me. Cats are so different from dogs!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm about two-thirds of the way through Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. He's writing is just so amazing but I'm still just blown away by the fact that this is the same guy who wrote The Remains of The Day

Watched: The Big Guy is lost without most sports now and can't seem to settle on anything to watch most evenings which means that I've been mostly tuning out the television. 

Read: I'm working on Karen Joy Fowler's Booth, which I'm really enjoying for the history, the story of the Booth family, and Fowler's writing. I've highlighted so many passages and sentences, like this one: "Maybe, with nothing but love in her heart, his darling mother has eaten Rosalie alive. This seems to be something parents do sometimes." It does, doesn't it? 

Made: Guys, I made chicken fettuccine al fredo to take to a friend and kept enough for BG and me to have for a meal. It was the most indulgent thing I've made since we started counting calories but by watching our portions, we made it work and that might have made it taste even better than usual. 

 Tuesday I joined a Zoom conversation with author Colson Whitehead. He is remarkably funny for being the person who wrote The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. He spoke about his writing process, how he decides what to write about, his love of movies and music, and revealed that he has just sent the final draft of the sequel of Harlem Shuffle to his publisher. I can't wait to read it!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: My dad is having surgery this week so there are no plans for this week, other than to be with him as much as I can. 

Thinking About: 40 Bags In 40 Bags started on Wednesday and I'm still working on my plan of attack for this year, which also means I'm thinking about how to get BG on board. 

Feeling: Nerdy. I got a new label maker and now I want to label everything. 

Looking forward to: Seeing my brother and sister this week. 

Question of the week: We live right up the street from the high school our kids went to. The other night I noticed that the lights were on at the softball field and it was another notice that spring is almost here. What are some of your signals that spring is right around the corner? 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic

Wow! It's been ages since I've done one of these posts! Since I don't have any reviews this week, it seemed like a good time to get back to it. Let's see what's in the old "saved" file, shall we?

Since we've just recently celebrated Valentine's Day, let's start with some book recommendations about love and relationships. First up is Gretchen Rubin's My 5 Favorite Novels About Relationships. I've only read two on her list but they are two of my all-time favorite books so I'm fairly certain I'll agree with Rubin about the other three. 

Also, having just finished up black history month, here are some recommendations for those of you who still wants to learn more. Penguin Random House has this list of Anti-Racist Books to Read and Reread Now; the list includes both fiction and non-fiction. I've actually read quite a few of them, including Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall; in my review of that book, I wrote this: 
"But it really wasn’t until this year that I’ve really started waking up to the fact that reading diversely sometimes means reading books that make me uncomfortable, that challenge what I have believed or wake me up to things that I had no idea were happening in this country. This is one of those books. I tend to get defensive when I start reading (I’m working on that), so it can take a bit before I stop defending and start listening."

To be honest, not getting defensive is still something I'm working on - which makes me know I need to keep reading those uncomfortable books. This list, also from Penguin Random House gives us 49 Black Authors On Their Favorite Books by Black Authors.  The list included Edwidge Danticat and Colson Whitehead, both of whom I've recently "seen" on Zoom conversations, and Isabel Wilkerson who I will be seeing on another Zoom conversation soon. 

On a lighter note, I present to you 50 Hilarious Memes You'll Relate To If You Love Books from Buzzfeed. Since you're reading this, I know that these are right up your alley. This one is definitely me! I want so many books when I get to the bookstore that I often can't make a decision on which one is the perfect one to buy and walk out without any!

I was going to close with a quiz from Buzzfeed, Can You Guess The Famous Book From The Last Line? But they don't have the answers and I assure you that you will need the answers or you won't be able to do anything else until you've looked them all up. Or is that just me? 

Back next week with some actual book reviews. I've recently knocked off a couple of books from my Classics Club list!