Thursday, April 28, 2022

Morality For Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Morality For Beautiful Girls
by Alexander McCall Smith
8 hours, 8 minutes
Read by Lisette Lecat

Publisher's Summary: 
In Morality for Beautiful Girls, Precious Ramotswe, founder and owner of the only detective agency for the concerns of both ladies and others, investigates the alleged poisoning of the brother of an important “Government Man,” and the moral character of the four finalists of the Miss Beauty and Integrity Contest, the winner of which will almost certainly be a contestant for the title of Miss Botswana. Yet her business is having money problems, and when other difficulties arise at her fiancé’s Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, she discovers the reliable Mr J.L.B. Matekoni is more complicated then he seems.

My Thoughts: 
My second book about morality this week! To be fair, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books all (well, at least in the three I've read so far) deal with morality to a degree. Also, to be fair, the morality of the beautiful girls is only a tiny part of this book. As with all of the series (again, this is based on only three books but I'm certain that it's a formula that will continue through the series), there is a lot going on in this book. 

When Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni (and truly, he is never called anything else in the books so I can't just give you a first name) seemingly abandons his beloved Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, leaving it in the hands of his two slacker apprentices, his fiancee, Mma Ramotswe steps in. First she needs to figure out what's ailing him and while she waits for him to get better, she also needs to keep both his business and hers afloat. Enter her secretary/assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, who is recruited to first become a secretary for the garage but soon becomes the assistant manager. Surprisingly, she is just what both businesses need. In short order she has the apprentices working hard and business thriving at the garage. Then, while Mma Ramotswe is out of town solving one case, Mma Makutsi lands a big case that will help keep the detective agency afloat. 

One thing that appeals to me about these books is that, while the cases are always solved, the resolution is not always so easy. Her Mma Ramotswe manages to uncover the poisoner but then  finds both a way to heal the family and protect the poisoner. She truly cares about people and is always looking for the way to protect those involved while also resolving the problem. 

These are the perfect books for me to read between other books - not too fluffy, not too dark, and even though I don't always know what the resolution will be to a case, I always know that things will end well for everyone.  And that's just what I need in a book every so often. I've become very fond of these characters and I'm looking forward to the next book. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

In An Instant by Suzanne Redfearn

In An Instant by Suzanne Redfearn
331 pages
Published March 2020 by Lake Union Publishing

Publisher's Summary: 
Life is over in an instant for sixteen-year-old Finn Miller when a devastating car accident tumbles her and ten others over the side of a mountain. Suspended between worlds, she watches helplessly as those she loves struggle to survive.

Impossible choices are made, decisions that leave the survivors tormented with grief and regret. Unable to let go, Finn keeps vigil as they struggle to reclaim their shattered lives. Jack, her father, who seeks vengeance against the one person he can blame other than himself; her best friend, Mo, who bravely searches for the truth as the story of their survival is rewritten; her sister Chloe, who knows Finn lingers and yearns to join her; and her mother, Ann, who saved them all but is haunted by her decisions. Finn needs to move on, but how can she with her family still in pieces?

My Thoughts: 
My bookworm coworker recommended this one to me after she read it with her bookclub. She didn't tell me much about it but her enthusiasm convinced me to pick it up without even reading the summary. Which is why I thought seriously about not giving you the summary to this one. I did not see what happened on page forty coming at all! 

The Millers are a family teetering on the brink - Jack and Ann are barely holding it together; Ann doesn't know how to handle their teenaged son, Oz; Jack has given up his job to care for Oz; Ann and Chloe are barely on speaking terms; and poor Finn feels a little invisible. Still, Jack thinks a family ski trip is just the thing to bring the family together. Along for the ride is Finn's best friend, Mo; Ann's bestfriend "Aunt" Karen and her husband "Uncle" Bob and daughter Natalie; and Chloe's boyfriend, Vance. The family has no sooner arrived in their striped down camper at their cabin in the mountains when they turn around to leave for dinner. Along the way, they pick up a young man, Kyle, whose car has broken down. He has hardly joined the group when Jack has to swerve to avoid hitting a deer in the road, sliding into a guardrail that gives way. 

How to give readers the full picture of what happens to each of the people in that camper for the next couple of days? One of them dies, allowing them to become an omniscient narrator. This allows us to follow Chloe when she follows Vance, despite her mother's protestations, who heads out to find help. It allows us to follow Ann and Kyle when they also head off for help. And it allows us to stay in the camper with the remaining family and friends. It allows us to see the choices that are made. And it allows us to make judgements that Redfearn will make us question later. 

Because although the first 100 or so pages of this book seem to be a survival tale, at its heart, this book is a morality tale. Our omniscient narrator forces us to question our opinions, making us consider if one person's choices were better or worse than another's. You think you know, as you're reading the book, what you would do given the same situation, what the morally "right" thing to do would be. But Redfearn will make you rethink that answer. Would you really do the "right" thing if it meant your own family member was more at risk? 

And what about the aftermath? How would you heal from what happened? How do you heal yourself mentally and grieve? How much of you can be spared to help everyone else heal? There is a lot to be unpacked here. My coworker's book club read this one and she said they had a great discussion, including about 20 minutes discussing the author's afterword where Redfearn discusses the personal experience that inspired the book. Does the book have flaws? Yes - there are unanswered questions that don't necessarily feel like they were meant to be unanswered, the narrator often appears wise beyond their years, and some things happen that seem entirely improbable. But it kept me racing through it, hoping for the healing and hope that Redfearn delivers on in the end. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Life: It Goes On - April 24

Happy Sunday from the windswept plains! Seriously, it's been ridiculously windy here most days for a couple of months. I understand why people literally lost their minds because of the wind when pioneers were first settling here and I don't have to listen to it whistling through the walls and windows of my house. Still, it's full on spring, at long last - things are green, we're getting much needed rain, and the yard is filled with birds and baby rabbits. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: Morality For Beautiful Girls, the third book in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Up next is Questlove's Music Is History.

Watched: We finished the latest season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel last night. I didn't realize we were on the last episode until it was done and I'm more than a little sad to not have saved it. 

Read: I finished In An Instant and started The School for Good Mothers

Made: Seriously, I might as well take this category off my weekly posts! I am, today, making broccoli soup because I accidentally ordered well more broccoli on my grocery order than I intended to order. 

 Yesterday Lincoln held something called The Big Event, whereby people can request a crew of college students to come help with things they need done around the house. We got a crew of nine young men to work at my dad's. They got straight to work and knocked out everything on my dad's list in just a couple of hours. We even took time for a cinnamon roll (my mom always served the kids cinnamon rolls so we had to keep that up) and water break, during which my dad regaled the young men with stories about the year my parents got an all-girl crew who astonished them with their hard work and his time at the university. Loved seeing those young men so attentive to my dad!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Using the inch-by-inch I learned from someone I follow on Instagram, I continue to work on my purging and organizing project, focusing now on the basement. That will continue this week. Mini-him is coming for lunch today and I'm going to put him to work going through the things he still has stored at my house to make sure what's here are all things he really wants saved. My guess is that there is a lot that I've been holding on to more because of the memories I have than those that he does. 

Thinking About: It's baptism day for my great-nephew and I'm so wishing I were there to celebrate with the family; I've been thinking about them all day. 

Feeling: Resigned to the fact that my sciatic pain won't resolve itself and frustrated that it's almost impossible to find a doctor in my network that will take a new patient. 

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. 

Question of the week: What's one of your favorite low-cal, high-flavor go-to meals? 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
212 pages
Read by Peter Francis James
Published 1958

Publisher's Summary: 
Okonkwo is born into poverty, with a wastrel for a father. Driven by ambition, he works tirelessly to gain the prosperity of many fields and wives and prestige in his village. But he is harsh as well as diligent. As he sees the traditions of his people eroded by white missionaries and government officials, he lashes out in anger. Things Fall Apart traces the growing friction between village leaders and Europeans determined to save the heathen souls of Africa. But its hero, a noble man who is driven by destructive forces, speaks a universal tongue.

My Thoughts: 
I'll be honest, I know this one is considered a classic (I know because it's on my Classics Club list) but I really struggled with understanding why for most of the book. Perhaps that has something to do with how I read it; this one turned out to be a listen/read/listen one for me when my audiobook loan expired and then I chose to check it out again. Perhaps it's because I read it through the prism of my own moral expectations, judging Okonkwo by standards that wouldn't have applied to him. As time has passed, as the lessons of the book have sunk in, I'm finding a greater appreciation for the book, especially in light of the era in which it was written. Still, because of all of this, I'm struggling with putting my thoughts into words. Instead, let me give you this from Kirkus Reviews (and if you've been here long, you know how rare it is for me to even agree with Kirkus Reviews, let alone defer to them so that will tell you something about how much I love this review):
"Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor."
That last line - wow! It makes it so clear why this book is considered so important. I do highly recommend that you listen to this one if you choose to pick it up; instead of stumbling over names I can't figure out how to pronounce (if even in my own head), the book flows smoothly and the names no longer feel foreign. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Tears of the Giraffe (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series #2) by Alexander McCall Smith

Tear of the Giraffe (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series #2)
by Alexander McCall Smith
Read by Lisette Lecat
7 Hours 49 Minutes
Published September 2002 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Precious Ramotswe is the eminently sensible and cunning proprietor of the only ladies’ detective agency in Botswana. In Tears of the Giraffe she tracks a wayward wife, uncovers an unscrupulous maid, and searches for an American man who disappeared into the plains many years ago. In the midst of resolving uncertainties, pondering her impending marriage to a good, kind man, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and the promotion of her talented secretary (a graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, with a mark of 97 per cent), she also finds her family suddenly and unexpectedly increased by two.

My Thoughts: 
After just one book in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, I already knew what to expect from the books in the series, not the least of which is that these would be detective stories that had far more to do with the lives of Precious Ramotswe, Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, and the people around them than the actual cases that the detective agency takes on. 

In Tear of the Giraffe, we pick up where we left off with Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni having recently become engaged. Now they must decide which of their homes they will move into after they are married. It becomes clear to Mma Ramotswe quickly that her place on Zebra Road is far preferable but this means that Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni's maid will need to be let go and she is not at all happy to be losing her golden goose. She's been running a side hustle in the house while her employer has been off to work and she's bound and determined to convince him that his fiancee must go. 

That's the first of Mma Ramotswe's problems in this book. Then there is Grace Makutsi, the detective agency's secretary, who wants to take on a bigger role, a couple of cases to be solved with delicacy, and an orphanage matron whose ability to manipulate people changes the lives of Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. 

Precious Ramotswe is a sensible woman whose case solving relies on intuition and observation. McCall Smith's writing is equally sensible - nothing fancy about it. Still he manages to give readers vivid pictures of the appearance of his characters and their surroundings. Where he does get lyrical is when he talks about the country of Botswana, which becomes one of the series' characters. 

These are cozy mysteries that will have readers considering morality, decency, and our ability to learn and change. I feel absolutely certain that Lisette Lecat's reading of the books is adding to my enjoyment of the books which makes them even more perfect as books to be listened to when I need something quick and not too heavy to listen to between heavier books. I've already started the next book!

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Life: It Goes On - April 17

Happy Sunday! And Happy Easter and Happy Passover to those who observe! We celebrated Easter yesterday with my dad, Mini-him and Miss H. We had most of our traditional foods - ham, hash brown casserole, lemonade "salad," and pie. The "kids" both got Easter gifts but no more Easter baskets, no Easter egg hunts, and no candy. I think I could have been disciplined if there had been Easter candy in my house, after 12 weeks of retraining my brain about food, but I decided not to tempt myself. I am pretty sad about not getting to have any Cadbury eggs or Hershey's candy-coated eggs! 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished Tears of the Giraffe and A Slow Fire Burning and started the next book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Morality for Beautiful Girls. I'm sure I've mentioned before that sometimes when I'm racing to finish a book, I'll up the speed of the audio. This week, as I was listening to A Slow Fire Burning, I realized that I had been listening to it for some time at 80% speed - no wonder it was taking so long to finish!

Watched: More of The Marvelous Life of Mrs. Maisel, some baseball, and CBS Sunday Morning, which had a marvelous piece by Steve Leder (the author of The Beauty of What Remains) this morning. I highly recommend looking it up. 

Read: Out of No Way, which I reviewed on Thursday and I started In An Instant by Suzanne Redfearn, which was recommended to me by a co-worker/fellow bookworm.

 Glazed ham, hash brown casserole, lemonade salad, and raspberry pie. It felt good to cook again! 

Enjoyed: We went out with friends last night to a new-to-us place, which is basically like a mall food court for grownups. At one place we got momos, at another lox crepes, and at another Japanese poke bowls. Capped off the night with a boozy ice cream shake at our friends' house!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: 40 Bags In 40 Days is officially over, as of yesterday, but I'm not done yet. After seeing all of the clearing out our friends have done in preparation for a move, both The Big Guy and I are inspired to really start clearing things out. I say that even as I've just said "yes, please" to more of my friend's vintage tablecloths! 

Thinking About: Spring, of course; aren't I always! I'm beginning to wonder if it's ever going to actually arrive! 

Feeling: Optimistic - as I so often am on Sundays when the week lies before me and I'm certain that I'm going to accomplish so much! 

Looking forward to: Some time off work this week, even if it is only a half day. 

Question of the week:

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Out of No Way: Madam CJ Walker & A'Lelia Walker A Poetic Drama by Roje Augustin

Out of No Way: Madam CJ Walker & A'Lelia Walker
A Poetic Drama by Roje Augustin
156 Pages
Published May 2020 by Bowker
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Poetic Book Tours - Where Readers Come to Poetry

Publisher's Summary: 
Author, producer, and emerging poet Rojé Augustin has written a groundbreaking debut collection of dramatic poems about hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia. Rojé's singular and accomplished work is presented through the intimate lens of the mother-daughter relationship via different poetic forms — from lyric to haiku, blackout to narrative. (One poem takes its inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.) Written in tribute to Walker, Out of No Way deftly and beautifully explores themes of race, motherhood, sacrifice, beauty, and the meaning of success in Jim Crow America.

My Thoughts: 
You know me I'm always up for trying something different in a book. Well, maybe not are going to have to convince me that it's worth taking a risk, especially in the past year when my reading has been on the skids. But, say you approach me with a book about a woman that I've long been interested in learning more about and then also say that you approach me about a book of poetry, something I've been trying to read more of recently and then say that you have a book that combines both of those things. Well then, you've got my attention. 

Ms. Augustin doesn't just hop right into the poetry. She kindly gives readers an introduction to the characters who will be populating her work and prefaces the book with an explanation of why she wanted to write about Sarah Breedlove, why she chose to write her poetry from the points of view of both Sarah and her daughter Lelia, and how she chose what she would write her poems about. If you've been here long, you know that I almost always skip over these kinds of introductions but I'm glad I didn't do that here. To be honest, it wasn't that much reading but it was certainly well worth the time it took to give me a good background going into the book. 

Sarah Breedlove was the first child born into freedom in her family, orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, a widow at twenty. Lelia was her only child. Breedlove would marry twice more, the third time to Charles Joseph Walker who convinced her to call herself Madam C.J. Walker when her company began. Ms. Walker died at the young age of fifty-one have risen from a working child who earned seventy cents for doing the hard work of a household to being the first self-made female millionaire in the country. 

Each chapter addresses an issue relevant to this mother and daughter - the first letters of those issues, in fact, spell out M-O-T-H-E-R and D-A-U-G-H-T-E-R. Poem styles include lyric, narrative, haiku, blackout, elegy, nursery rhyme, and villanelle. It's particularly interesting to see how the form of poem either mirrors the topic (Envy is written in blackout form) or to act as a counterpoint (Hate written in nursery rhyme). 

All of the poems serve to move the story of these two women forward as Augustin explores the relationship between the two, often alternating poems from one woman's point of view to the other. As with any book of poetry, some of these resonated more with me than others. Rare for me in a book of poetry, I even highlighted some passages. 

Some of my poems were The Voice In Her Head, in no small part because of the way Augustin then took that work and used blackout to make it several other works. She also used black out to take a dozen Madam C.J. Walker product ads and create poetry out of them that addresses envy - I found them very clever and as a whole, very effective. In the chapter titled Resilience is a work titled "Resilience: Making a Way Out of No Way" Speech by Madam C.J. Walker Given at the Anti-Lynching Conference of June 1918" that is gut wrenching and inspiring. In the chapter titled Hate is the piece titled The Prison of Racism that Hate Built, which is a poem that builds on itself and becomes more and more impactful and which is one of my favorite works in the book. I'll share one of the last stanzas.
There was the money
For the NAACP
To challenge America
That elected the president
Who headed the government
That built a system
That rewarded the white men
Who created Jim Crow, 
That angered the woman 
Who helped the people 
Lynched in the prison of racism
that hate built. 
This is a book the keeps me challenging myself to read out of my comfort zone in both genre and subject, to read diversely and, sometimes, uncomfortably. Well done, Ms. Augustin. Well done. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries
by Terese Marie Mailhot
124 pages
Published February 2018 by Catapult 

Publisher's Summary: 
Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot's mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn't exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

My Thoughts: 
This book was highly recommended by Lizzi (IG bookish_lizzi), whose book recommendations I've been following since before I began blogging. Lizzi called this a "powerful memoir of fighting to survive and thrive," and said it is "Definitely worth reading." I requested it immediately from the library and picked it up a couple of days later. Then I realized that it was maybe not the book for me just now. But I know myself and knew that if it went back unread, it would likely never be read. I'd forget about it, lost under the mental piles of books that came to my attention after I took it back. 

It is, as Lizzi said, a powerful memoir, painful to read in its rawness. Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia and her indigenous culture plays a big part in her writing in so many ways. I'll be honest - I wasn't always sure exactly what Mailhot was trying to say when she went to that place but the emotion of what she was saying was always clear. She is often filled with rage, frequently shocking, always trying to find ways to live with her pain. 

Because this maybe wasn't the right time for me to read this book, I'm not sure it impacted me as much as it might have another time in my life. It meanders and can feel disjointed; but that may have as much to do with the way it was written from her journals, begun when she was hospitalized. It is, for sure, an eye-opening account of the ways white people have damaged indigenous peoples, creating a ripple effect that carries down through the generations. 

Others have written much more eloquently about Heart Berries. The Guardian reviewer, Diana Evans, says of this book: 
"This is a slim book full of raw and ragged pain, the poisonous effects of sexual abuse, of racial cruelty, of violence and self-harm and drug addiction. But it is not without a wry, deadpan humour and clever derision. Its quiet rage is directed outwards towards the intangible yet definitive (white supremacy, male supremacy), the unjust shape of the world, while a deep tenderness and empathy are shown to those who share in the author’s vulnerability – her sons, her mother, even her father: “I don’t think he was wrong for demanding love – it was the manner in which he asked, and whom he asked that was unforgivable.” Her mother, in all her dysfunction, her societal powerlessness, is portrayed as a kind of quirky triumph of parenting against the odds, serving her children badly cooked wild rice, encouraging them to beat pillows or rugs when misbehaving, “because she wanted us to release our tensions”. The result of this wise yet flailing caring is a spiritual mother-daughter bond that continues beyond the grave."
I would certainly recommend this one - just know what you are getting in to when you begin and read it when your mood is right and you are mentally able to handle it. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Life: It Goes On - April 10

Happy Sunday! Coming to you this week from cloudy Omaha. On the plus side, as I type, I'm watching birds, squirrels, and rabbits frolic in my front yard; the trees and lilac bushes are starting to leaf out; and the grass is, finally, starting to turn green, which is all making me happy.  

Cases of the new Covid sub-variant are on the rise here in Nebraska so The Big Guy and I got our second boosters Friday. Each of the other shots has kind of knocked me out for about 24 hours but the only side effect I had from this booster was, strangely, a bit of a runny nose. Or that could have been allergies, what with the door open all day yesterday because that's the price to be paid for spring. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished Tears of the Giraffe, the second book in Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Lady's Detective Agency series and started Paula Hawkins' A Slow Fire Burning

Watched: Got BG to watch more of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I'm not loving it as much as I used to - it's starting to feel a bit like "oh look, another bad thing happened," but it's still, most of the time, so funny. 

 I finished John Banville's April in Spain and now I'm switching between Terese Marie Mailhot's Heart Berries and Jessamine Chan's The School for Good Mothers

Made: My aunt and I have been writing each other a lot about "dieting" and she was telling me about roasting garbanzo beans. So I oven roasted a pan of garbanzo beans (seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, and parsley) the other day and have been throwing those onto salads. And now I'm thinking of other ways they could be seasoned and wondering if an air fryer might give me a crunchier bean. 

Enjoyed: Happy hour with my tier ones on Tuesday and dinner at a new place with friends last night. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: It's the last official week of 40 Bags In 40 Days so I'm going to try to crank out some work on that. But, as is often then case, I'm going to try to keep myself working on that after Easter as I just haven't gotten as much done this year as I was hoping on getting done. 

Thinking About: How happy I'll be when we've made our way past the primary election in May. I'm so tired of listening to the Republican candidates' ads as they try to out conservative each other and acting as though all Nebraskans feel the same way they do. 

Feeling: Overwhelmed by all of cruelty in the world. Some days I just can't watch the news or look at social media but I know that ignoring it won't make it go away and that we all need to speak up. 

Looking forward to: Seeing Miss H next weekend, although she'll be busy attending a friend's wedding and won't even be able to stick around long enough for Easter dinner. 

Question of the week: What's one area of your house that could really use the 40 Bags treatment? Or are you a person who always works hard to keep things from accumulating too much? 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

White Houses by Amy Bloom

White Houses
by Amy Bloom
6 Hours 41 Minutes
Read by Tonya Cornelisse
Published by February 2018 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Lorena Hickok meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. Having grown up worse than poor in South Dakota and reinvented herself as the most prominent woman reporter in America, “Hick,” as she’s known to her friends and admirers, is not quite instantly charmed by the idealistic, patrician Eleanor. But then, as her connection with the future first lady deepens into intimacy, what begins as a powerful passion matures into a lasting love, and a life that Hick never expected to have. She moves into the White House, where her status as “first friend” is an open secret, as are FDR’s own lovers. After she takes a job in the Roosevelt administration, promoting and protecting both Roosevelts, she comes to know Franklin not only as a great president but as a complicated rival and an irresistible friend, capable of changing lives even after his death. Through it all, even as Hick’s bond with Eleanor is tested by forces both extraordinary and common, and as she grows as a woman and a writer, she never loses sight of the love of her life. 

From Washington, D.C. to Hyde Park, from a little white house on Long Island to an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square, Amy Bloom’s new novel moves elegantly through fascinating places and times, written in compelling prose and with emotional depth, wit, and acuity.

My Thoughts:
As Lorena "Hick" Hickock looks back, from April 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, she reflects on her past relationship with his nearly equally famous wife, Eleanor. Their relationship, as told by Bloom, began when Hick was a reporter with the Associated Press, called on to cover Roosevelt who had not yet been inaugurated as President. On one trip with the couple, the women began telling each other stories of their lives. It's in this way that we learn Hick's history - abused and misused as a child, she eventually ran off and, literally, joined the circus. But when a relationship there went sour, she was forced to leave, eventually going to school and beginning work as a reporter. In that way, the two women could not have been more different; Eleanor was raised with wealth and the expectation that she would marry well, have lots of babies, and do her duty. In other ways they were very similar, notably in their appearances.
“Eleanor and I were not conventional beauties. That’s what we’d say and we’d laugh, to underscore conventional, as if maybe we were some other kind.”
Even as Hick was forced to leave the A.P. when she became too close to the first couple, she found new work, helping her would-be rival, Franklin, gathering stories of the Depression from across the country. It's not the only way she helped the man who she admired more than she was disappointed by his philandering and aggressive ways of getting what he wanted. It kept her in the inner circle and gave her a reason to liven the White House where her relationship with Eleanor could hardly be entirely kept a secret. Even when they traveled together, Hick became aware that reporters were likely to wise up to the pairs relationship as being something more than another of Eleanor's close female friendships. In those days, though, the press had some boundaries that, apparently, wouldn't be crossed, which accounted for how the two women could travel alone, without Secret Service, and nothing untoward was reported in the press. 

Bloom's paints vivid portraits of her three main characters, not all of it flattering to any of them. The book is filled with humor and sadness. As Eleanor becomes more political, she becomes more convinced that she must leave her relationship with Hick behind, telling Hick it is for the greater good. Years later the two reunite for a "golden time," less about sex and more about two women providing each other comfort. 

There was a lot about this book that I enjoyed, particularly the two women's time alone in conversation. Some of my favorite parts were, as it turns out, entirely fiction, not historical in the least. While it's clear that Bloom did her research, it's also clear that it's much more fiction than history than many other books in the historical fiction genre. The relationship between Eleanor and Lorena is Bloom's story, the rest is background to play up that relationship, to create the characters Bloom wants these women to be. 

When the New York Times reviewed this book, they reviewed it in comparison to Kelly O'Connor McNees' Undiscovered Country. One of the reviewers issues with McNees' story of this relationship is that, in the end, Hickock ended up the lonely, old lesbian. I found it interesting because I felt the same way about this book. Bloom's Hickock remarks repeatedly on how, in their final time together, the two women are old and saggy; her Hickock's relationships after Eleanor seem to never have the same depth of emotion. She does, in fact, appear to have ended her life a lonely woman who never found the love she had once had and who could never be her authentic self. Which is, I think, the reason that I had a lukewarm reaction to this book. As much as Bloom veered toward fiction, I never for a minute expected it to end in any other way than it did in real life. And yet, I couldn't help but wish that the focus would have been less on what was lost and more on what the women had once had. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

by Karen Joy Fowler
480 Pages
Published March 2022 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley

Publisher's Summary: 
In 1822, a secret family moves into a secret cabin some thirty miles northeast of Baltimore, to farm, to hide, and to bear ten children over the course of the next sixteen years. Junius Booth—breadwinner, celebrated Shakespearean actor, and master of the house in more ways than one—is at once a mesmerizing talent and a man of terrifying instability. One by one the children arrive, as year by year, the country draws frighteningly closer to the boiling point of secession and civil war.

As the tenor of the world shifts, the Booths emerge from their hidden lives to cement their place as one of the country’s leading theatrical families. But behind the curtains of the many stages they have graced, multiple scandals, family triumphs, and criminal disasters begin to take their toll, and the solemn siblings of John Wilkes Booth are left to reckon with the truth behind the destructively specious promise of an early prophecy.

Booth is a startling portrait of a country in the throes of change and a vivid exploration of the ties that make, and break, a family.

My Thoughts:
These days it feels as though everything has become black or white - there is no grey to any situation. We imagine that this is a relatively recent development. But have you ever thought of John Wilkes Booth as anything other than "the bad guy?" I can't say that I have; he has always been, in my mind, the guy that was so pro-slavery that he was willing to kill the President of the United States because he had emancipated the slaves. It has never occurred to me to wonder what drove him to commit murder. 

Even more rarely do we wonder about the families of people who commit heinous crimes. What blame lies at their feet? What might they have done that would have prevented what happened? How did what their family member do affect the rest of the family's lives? In Booth, Karen Joy Fowler gives us the person, John Wilkes Booth, not merely the assassin, as seen through the eyes of the family who loved him.  

This is, of course, a fictionalized account of the Booth family. But Fowler has done such a tremendous job of researching the family and the times they lived in that it was often difficult to tell where fact ended and fiction began. Junius Brutus Booth was an unbalanced, renowned actor (casting a shadow his three actor sons struggled with), an alcoholic, anti-slavery vegetarian who raised his family in a way that would now be considered bohemian. After Junius and Mary (John Wilkes' mother) have had ten children, it comes out that Junius left behind a wife and son in England; he and Mary are not, in fact, married, another hurdle his children will have to overcome. Oh yeah, he also once threatened to cut the throat of old friend President Andrew Jackson. Given that, his place in the family, and the time and place he grew up in, it begins to become inevitable that John Wilkes would turn out the way he did.

Fowler also intersperses bits of Abraham Lincoln's life, drawing us to the point where John Wilkes and Abraham will come together. We learn that his stepmother encouraged young Abraham's studies, contradicting a father who had forbidden reading as a waste of time; Lincoln never, Fowler writes, credited his father with any of the things that made Lincoln a success. At another point, Fowler writes, "Lincoln has married the woman he said it would kill him to marry." In another piece, we learn that Lincoln was responsible for "the largest act of presidential clemency in United States history. Also the largest mass execution." This because of his inaction in the West, as settlers and Native Americans clashed. In these short pieces, we learn a great deal about the kind of man and the kind of leader Lincoln would become. 

I know that as I've been reading this one I've made it sound like a chore. I even told my dad, at one point, that I was "slogging" my way through it. Let me make it clear right up front - that had nothing to do with this book and everything to do with reading it on my phone, which turned a 480 page book into a 920 page book. If you'll look to my list of favorite books of 2022, though, you'll see that I've already put this book on that list. And why is that? Partly because of gems like this: 
"Maybe Mother is the one keeping Rosalie at home. Maybe, with nothing but love in her heart, his darling mother has eaten Rosalie alive. This seems to be something parents sometimes do." 
Also because each of the family members and their relationships are so well developed, so relatable. The time period and settings come alive and I felt that, while I was getting a superbly crafted story, I was also learning a tremendous amount. 

In looking back at the United States, leading up to the Civil War and, ultimately, Lincoln's murder, Fowler also reminds us that we have not come all that far in 160 years. It's a realization she came to when she realized in 2016 that Lincoln's warning about the tyrant and the mob were still pertinent. As she wrote in her introduction: 
"The Lost Cause may be temporarily mislaid, but it has never been lost. Whenever Black people exercise genuine political power in this country, the assassin appears, the mob rises. This is the history of America and there is no escaping it. Abraham Lincoln told us so."
In the book itself she write: "...both murders affect Lincoln deeply. In his speech, he warns of two possible threats to the republic. The first is found in the lawless actions of the mob, the second in the inevitable rise someday of an aspiring dictator. The gravest peril will come if the mob and the dictator unite."

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Life: It Goes On - April 3

Happy Sunday! I'm coming to you from a fancy new-to-me keyboard and mouse that Mini-him brought over the other night. It's the little things that make me feel smart these days - like figuring out how to connect a new Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to my computer without having to ask Mini-me. Figured out how to do Outlook templates at work the other day, as well. Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. She might not remember them and have to look them up on the internet again, though. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished The Mockingbird Next Door and, finally, Things Fall Apart and started the second book in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Tears of the Giraffe. When it's quiet at work, I'm also sticking in my earbuds and listening to a lot of Broadway tunes. 

Watched: We finally started watching the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The first episode had a terrifically funny scene on the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island - I would watch that scene again! Also, yeah, the Oscars. It was sort of boring...until it wasn't!

Read: I finally finished Booth. It's so good but reading on my phone has really become a grind for me. I'm now reading John Banville's April In Spain. I've been meaning to read Banville for a while and I'm definitely seeing why he is so well regarded. But it's another of those books that I picked up without reading the summary and I was certainly surprised when I read the first chapter. 

Made: It was another weird week in the kitchen but we did make burritos one night and spaghetti and meatballs another. 

Enjoyed: Dinner with Mini-him and his girlfriend Thursday night. One of the reasons they came over was so that we could get this picture taken. Our entire family have ordered t-shirts to support my dad in his battle with cancer and his wall of family pictures is now going to be a reminder that his family has his back (it's also a bit of an homage to my mom, who loved to have us all in matching outfits for special occasions). 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: I have about five book reviews to get written up so hope to get all of those done. I also continue to chip away at 40 Bags In 40 Days. I'm definitely not doing a very good job of it this year but I'm hoping to get to the basement this week and that should yield big results. 

Thinking About: Spring. Do I say that every week? I bought some new chair cushions for the patio the other day and now I'm more eager than ever to get the patio set up and start using it again. 

Feeling: My dad had a bit of a medical scare the other day (everything is, more or less, fine now), which meant a bit of a roller coaster ride of emotions this week. 

Looking forward to: Happy hour with my tier ones this week. 

Question of the week: Did you watch the Oscars? If so, what are your thoughts about what happened?