Tuesday, June 28, 2022

French Braid by Anne Tyler

French Braid
by Anne Tyler
256 pages
Published March 2022 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley 

Publisher's Summary: 
The Garretts take their first and last family vacation in the summer of 1959. They hardly ever leave home, but in some ways they have never been farther apart. Mercy has trouble resisting the siren call of her aspirations to be a painter, which means less time keeping house for her husband, Robin. Their teenage daughters, steady Alice and boy-crazy Lily, could not have less in common. Their youngest, David, is already intent on escaping his family's orbit, for reasons none of them understand. Yet, as these lives advance across decades, the Garretts' influences on one another ripple ineffably but unmistakably through each generation. 

Full of heartbreak and hilarity, French Braid is classic Anne Tyler: a stirring, uncannily insightful novel of tremendous warmth and humor that illuminates the kindnesses and cruelties of our daily lives, the impossibility of breaking free from those who love us, and how close—yet how unknowable—every family is to itself.

My Thoughts:
I've been a fan of Tyler's since I picked up The Accidental Tourist, some time back in the 1980's. She writes terrifically believable quirky characters and always explores relationships in ways no one else does. She is particularly good at exploring family dynamics and is the queen of casual asides and writing that sounds exactly the way people actually speak. French Braid has all of that and yet, I'm sorry to say, this one just didn't work for me. 

Perhaps because right off the bat I became exasperated with Mercy who might rightly be considered a terrible mother. She seems not in the least concerned that her 15-year-old daughter spends their entire vacation with a 21-year-old man nor with what her 7-year-old son is doing, trusting that others will watch over him. She relies on her other daughter to actually get the family fed, to put meals on the table. Still, she seemed very hurt when David went off to college and never really kept in touch much after that. 

She is a prime example of "some people shouldn't be mothers." No sooner have the children flown the coop than she begins the slow process of moving out of the family home. Certainly Mercy would have felt, in the 1950's, that she must wed and have children, even though she was clearly a woman who never should have done either. Today she might have still felt that pressure but it would be so much more acceptable for her to live her life the way she wanted. 

The relationships between the children worked the best for me. Even though I am blessed to have three children who get along incredibly well, despite their differences, I know that is rare. The two sisters are so different, and were treated so differently growing up; it's understandable that they would bicker and have to tread carefully around each other. But also believable that when something happens in the family, they reach out to each other. A baby brother, who one sister has largely ignored and the other felt the weight of raising, continues to be an enigma to the family with whom he's never fit in. 

The publisher's summary says that this book is full of heartbreak and hilarity. The only heartbreak I felt was for Robin, who spent the rest of his life after Mercy left, pretending to his children that she hadn't; he was left in limbo. As to hilarity, I didn't find it here which was a disappointment because I used to make my husband listen to me read him funny bits of Tyler's books. I'm not sure what I wanted from this book; I just know that I didn't get it. 

Now, as always, this is just my opinion. And it seems that others enjoyed this much more. Check out Ron Charles', of the Washington Post, review. Or Jennifer Haigh's review in the New York Times. They both seem to have found the Anne Tyler that I always loved in this book. I wish I had. 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Life: It Goes On - June 26

Happy Sunday! How's everyone doing? It's a beautiful day here, sunny and surprisingly cool out. I've got a lot I need to get done inside today but I definitely need to get outside to play in the dirt and get some Vitamin D. We'll absolutely be grilling for dinner and eating on the patio and I may even put out all of the cushions even if it's just the two of us, just so I can enjoy how pretty the patio is when everything is out. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: Still listening to The Descendents by Kaui Hart Hemmings. I don't have another audiobook that will be available for a couple of weeks to I think I'll be listening to podcasts when I'm done with my book. Right now I'm loving Glennon Doyle's We Can Do Hard Things.

Watched: Friday night we went to see the new Baz Luhrmann movie, Elvis. Long but so good. Tom Hanks is his usual amazing and Austin Butler is incredible as Elvis. When Elvis was in his final years, I was just a teenager and thought of him as something of a joke. I can't say that I've ever entirely let that image leave me, even though I enjoy his music now. But this movie made me think again about Elvis as an artist and to understand how he became a bloated drug addict who died much too young. 

Read: I'm still reading Tracy Flick Can't Win. I'm enjoying it but I think my brain is ready to be holding a physical book. I think when I finish it, I'll grab something off my shelf. I'm thinking it's time to dip into a classic. 

Made: Well this is just getting boring because it's mostly been salads and quick easy things. I am going to grill a pork tenderloin today (and maybe some peaches) and make some mashed potatoes.

Enjoyed: A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a cup rack that my mother had given my brother and his wife many years ago. They never felt like it fit the look they wanted so it has been in storage for all these years. You know how much I love having those old piece but this one was made even more special when I realized that the little drawer in it wasn't empty. Inside was a collection of souvenirs from my parents travels, a single antique furniture wheel, some antique children's china, and  very small spoon that's etched "IRAN" on the back. I love the stories that all of these things tell.

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On switching out my spring decor to something more summery and, with the 4th of July coming up, all of the red, white, and blue stuff. Which, honestly, are the colors you'll find all over my house anyway. 

Thinking About: I have an MRI scheduled for this week and I'm trying, but not succeeding very well, not to think about what the results of that might mean going forward. 

Feeling: Like we have taken one step further into The Handmaid's Tale this week.

Looking forward to: Miss H is supposed to come up this weekend and you know how much I love her visits. 

Question of the week: 

Friday, June 24, 2022

Friday Favorites - Little Women

Now here's something I haven't done in...years, actually. But when you haven't had the time to write even one review all week, you've got to pull out some old stuff! And I remember loving doing these; although, looking back, my "reviews" of these favorites were so short! But I'm kind of impressed with the range for books I featured - children's books, classics, memoir, literary. The idea at the time was to write about books that I'd read before I started blogging; and, while I didn't read as much before blogging as I do now (pesky things like school and kids, over the years, got in the way), I still read more than most people do. 

So, I'd like to bring this feature back. Maybe not every Friday (oh, who are we kidding? We all know I'm not going to get one of these written every Friday!), but at least once a month. And I'd like to make this a little interactive - I'd love for you to comment or email me about a book that was one of your favorites from years ago. 

This week, I'm going to do things a bit differently than I have in the past. This week I'd like to tell you about how a book I read when I was eight has influenced my reading for the last *cough* fifty plus *cough, cough** years. That book was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

Now, I know that Alcott was said not to have much liked Little Women but I can never help thinking that she had written plenty of other stories that she had to have disliked more (seriously, she wrote some pretty awful stuff, by today's standards, early on). Plus, it launched her on a whole series of books that helped her support herself and her family for the rest of her life so it can't be all bad, right? 

It would be perfectly easy for me to run upstairs and snap a picture of the edition of Little Women I got when I was eight-years-old. I know exactly where it's at on my bookshelves (which is more than I can say for most books I own!). But it's late and I can't really run these days, so I was pretty excited to find a pic of the same edition I have. Although mine is in much better condition, a sign of how much I loved the book and how much I valued books, even as a little girl. 

Little Women made me want to be a writer, a teller of tales. I so wanted to be Jo (didn't we all?). But even as a young girl, I knew I was Beth - the shy girl who loved the piano (I just hoped, then, that I wasn't going to end up dying young as well!). Still, over the years, I've kept notebooks and notebooks of character sketches, story ideas, interesting names I'd like to include in a someday book, short stories, and even pieces of some novels. So maybe there's hope after all. I mean, Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was decades older than I am now. 

The other thing that Little Women did was send me down the road of read more to Alcott's works, books about Alcott and books based on her characters. It started when I was nine and received the third book in the family series, Little Men. Years later I read Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out, Eight Cousins, and A Merry Christmas. Spinoffs included Meg and Jo and March; books that got at the truth of the family included The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women

And now I want to pick up something more by or about Alcott. I know I have a copy of The Quiet Little Woman and The Glory Cloak upstairs...somewhere. 


Thursday, June 23, 2022

Throwback Thursday: Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Apples Never Fall
by Liane Moriarty
Published September 2021 by Holt, Henry and Company, Inc.
480 pages
Source: check out from my local library

Publisher's Summary: The Delaney family love one another dearly—it’s just that sometimes they want to murder each other . . .

If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father?

This is the dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings.

The Delaneys are fixtures in their community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all of their friends. They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. So why are Stan and Joy so miserable?

The four Delaney children—Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke—were tennis stars in their own right, yet as their father will tell you, none of them had what it took to go all the way. But that’s okay, now that they’re all successful grown-ups and there is the wonderful possibility of grandchildren on the horizon.
One night a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. The Delaneys are more than happy to give her the small kindness she sorely needs. If only that was all she wanted. 

Later, when Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Stan. But for someone who claims to be innocent, he, like many spouses, seems to have a lot to hide. Two of the Delaney children think their father is innocent, two are not so sure—but as the two sides square off against each other in perhaps their biggest match ever, all of the Delaneys will start to reexamine their shared family history in a very new light. 

My Thoughts: 

Because my book club just read this book, I thought I pull this review back out and remind myself what I thought of it. I can definitely tell you that it made for a great discussion!

Publisher's Weekly calls this book a psychological thriller and I suppose it is that. Which actually comes as something of a surprise to me, even though Moriarty keeps readers in suspense as to what happened to Joy Delaney. Even though she gradually reveals truths about the Delaneys and their home that begin to point to nefarious activity and an obvious suspect. 
Having read Moriarty before, though, I just knew that the obvious suspect wasn't the suspect, even as an arrest was about to be made. Because, having read Moriarty before, I've come to see a pattern in her books and (I suppose this is true of any even remotely decent thriller) the obvious suspect won't be guilty; but the guilty party will definitely be someone who's been around all along. Moriarty will skewer suburban life. Check. She'll load her book with gossip as a means of delivering the truth. Check. She'll give us perfectly ordinary families who aren't so perfect after all. Check. All of those elements are in this book. 
This book as an extra element - that stranger who shows up on the Delaneys' doorstep and, in so doing, begins to unravel the truths about the Delaneys and their relationships. 
Those truths? Those I really enjoyed, the way small cracks began to appear in the facade of a happy family. The way parental expectations can both shape and undo a child. The way those same expectations can undo a marriage. I enjoyed seeing these sibling struggle with how to or whether to support a father who they believe has, maybe, killed their mother. 
But that stranger? I have very mixed feelings about that stranger and how she came to ensconce herself in Stan's and Joy's home and their lives. Moriarty's written nine books now and been successful enough that I can't help but wonder if she's not allowed more leniency with the final product than a newer writer might be given. Would an editor have advised a less successful writer to cut back on the stranger's story? It's just a little...too much. At least it was for me.
Still, I raced through this book once I got into it. There were plenty of surprises. I liked the way Moriarty used neighbors and friends and the people who provide services for the Delaneys to drop snippets of gossip; but are those snippets the truth or merely a sliver of the full picture? And as much as I thought there was too much of that stranger, I did like that she was multi-dimensional. Oh yeah, the tennis; I liked the tennis. Even though I'm not a tennis player or a particular fan of the sport I liked the way Moriarty used it to develop her characters and her story. 
Fan of Moriarty's won't be disappointed. I wasn't. I just think it could have been just that tiny bit better.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Life: It Goes On - June 20

Happy Monday! I'd ask you if it's as hot where you are as it is here but I'm pretty sure it's hot every where right now. We talked to Mini-me on Friday and he reported temps in the low 80's in Alaska which is hot for them. And still I'd rather it be hot than winter. 

We made a whirlwind trip to my brother's this weekend to pick up my dad and bring him home. Arrived late Friday, left before noon Sunday. Still, we managed to get to spend some time with everyone in his family, hit up our favorite pizza place, enjoy cocktails at a place we've enjoyed before, and gotten in a lot of talking. It was a good, all too brief, weekend. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm about half way done with The Descendents by Kaui Hart Hemmings. You might be familiar with the book through the movie adaptation starring George Clooney. I'm enjoying it but can't help but wish Clooney were the reader. 

Watched: Lots and lots of College World Series games. 

Read: I finished Jennifer McMahon's latest, The Children On The Hill and started Tom Perrotta's latest, Tracy Flick Can't Win, the sequel to Election, which was adapted into a movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reece Witherspoon which was filmed in Omaha. 

Made: Salads, salads, and more salads. Tonight we threw together chicken nugget salads. I'm pretty excited to see that we have green tomatoes on the vine - it's almost caprese season!

The little princes. Big brother
actually brought his own money 
for the games and rides.

 So much time with our great-nieces and great-nephews. They are such funny little people and I so appreciate that their parents made time for us to get to see them. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Nothing much, other than watering my plants ever night. See below as to why.

Thinking About: Another trip south, sooner rather than later. Our friends move on Wednesday and I'm going to be wanting a D fix before too many weeks pass. We discovered this weekend that their new house is less than half a mile from my niece's house - how handy that will be! 

Feeling: So frustrated. My back/leg, which felt terrific two weeks ago when we were in Dallas, is so much worse now. My doctor hasn't followed up to schedule any other diagnostic tool after the MRI was denied, nor has he checked to see if the meds he prescribed three weeks ago are working. They were. And now they aren't. My call to their office will not be friendly. 

Looking forward to: Book club tomorrow night. Also, a new(ish) refrigerator will arrive for our garage tomorrow night. 

Question of the week: I've been reading a lot of books I'm enjoying this year but have read very few that really wow'd me. What have you read lately that you would highly recommend? 

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Kindred by Octavia Butler

by Octavia Butler
Read by Kim Staunton
10 hours 55 minutes
Published 1979

Publisher's Summary:
Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she's been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother. 

My Thoughts: 
Kindred has been on my list of book that I really should read sooner rather than later for at least a decade. Clearly that list isn't doing what it's supposed to do. When one of my book club members suggested we read this one this summer, I decided time travel was as good a link to summer travel as any other kind. 

But Kindred is most decidedly not the light summer read I would usually pick for the summer. It's definitely going to be a tough read for my book club members, including some things we usually try to avoid in books. But it's an important book for a number of reasons. 

First of all there's this (from the Barnes and Noble website): "Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was considered one of the best science fiction writers of her generation. The Patternist series (including her first novel, Patternmaster) established her among the science fiction elite. But it was Kindred, a story of a black woman who travels back in time to the antebellum South that brought her mainstream success. For years the only African-American woman writing science fiction books, like Parable of the Sower, Butler encouraged others to follow in her path." Butler was the first science fiction writer to earn a MacArthur fellowship and the first black woman to win both Hugo and Nebula awards. It's always a great idea to read the books that broke new ground and led the way for so many others. 

Then, of course, there's the issue of slavery, decades before the Civil War. Even as we're reading about horrible beatings of slaves, especially run away slaves, rape of the female slaves by the masters, and the selling off of children and husbands, Butler continually emphasizes that the Weylins were much less severe than other slave owners. Again and again, Dana is thrown through time, forced to save the life of a white man who seems determined, more and more through the years, to kill himself and it's up to her to save him to save herself. 

Along the way Dana must learn how to balance the person she is in the present day with the person she must be in the antebellum South. When she inadvertently transports her white husband back with her once, they are forced to live the lie that he is her master and she his property. She becomes desperate to get him back to the present time, fearful that life in the South in the early 19th century will change the man she loves permanently. Through the years, and the abuse she endures, Dana begins to worry that she, too, will be changed in ways that will mark her for the rest of her life. The characters in this book are not caricatures; they are individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each with their own ways to survive. 

Kindred will certainly not be my last book by Butler. Although, I'm sorry to say, it may be the last I listen to as I felt the reading lacked the gravitas the book deserves. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
272 pages
Published April 2022 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
My copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
Edwin St. Andrew is eighteen years old when he crosses the Atlantic by steamship, exiled from polite society following an ill-conceived diatribe at a dinner party. He enters the forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness, and suddenly hears the notes of a violin echoing in an airship terminal—an experience that shocks him to his core.

Two centuries later a famous writer named Olive Llewellyn is on a book tour. She’s traveling all over Earth, but her home is the second moon colony, a place of white stone, spired towers, and artificial beauty. Within the text of Olive’s best-selling pandemic novel lies a strange passage: a man plays his violin for change in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him.

When Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City, is hired to investigate an anomaly in the North American wilderness, he uncovers a series of lives upended: The exiled son of an earl driven to madness, a writer trapped far from home as a pandemic ravages Earth, and a childhood friend from the Night City who, like Gaspery himself, has glimpsed the chance to do something extraordinary that will disrupt the timeline of the universe.

My Thoughts:
This week's theme is time travel, something I'm not usually all that found of in a book. But here we're talking about Emily St. John Mandel; and if you've been here long, you'll know that I'm a huge fan. This is the fifth of Manel's books I've read; my first was her first, Last Night In Montreal, that I read before I started blogging. Everyone of them is an entirely unique story, filled with entirely unique characters, and it's been a pleasure to watch her hone her skills and expand her storytelling. 

Here, in her first foray into speculative fiction, Mandel plays with a number of time periods (most of them set in the future), time travel, lunar colonies, and the idea that we might all just be living in a simulation. I love the way she is, more and more, so cleverly and successfully dropping characters and ideas from her prior novels into her current works and not making it feel forced at all but new-to-Mandel readers will not be lost without having read the prior books. 

Once again, I'm happy not to have read the synopsis before starting the book. I was completely taken by surprise when the focus of the story moved away from Edwin St. Andrew and jumped to a new time period. Even if I had read the synopsis, though, I just would have been surprised again and again as things began to tie together. And those last thirty or so pages? Completely did not see what was coming! 

I urge you to add this to your tbr and then forget what it's about completely. Mandel is a superb storyteller and you do not want that spoiled by preconceived ideas. Do not read the synopsis when you finally pick it up. Let the surprises unfold. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Life: It Goes On - June 12

Happy Sunday! It's been a quiet week at Casa Shep (we don't really call it that; I don't know why I wrote that!). Laundry is caught up, floors are clean, furniture is dusted, book reviews got written. We have had rain, rain and more rain this month and our lawn and plants are looking marvelous but also it's been dry enough most dinner times that we've been able to eat on the patio. You know how much I love being able to do that!

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I started Kindred by Octavia Butler. I'm not enjoying the reader much. I think I would be enjoying this one more in print. 

Watched: Hmm, it's been one of those weeks when The Big Guy has the t.v. on but I'm not actually watching it. I do have Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet on this morning. It's good, but I still prefer the Franco Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet, with the beautiful Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. 

Read: I had to give up on Kate Folk's collection, Out There, because it was too appropriately titled for me. I'm now reading Jennifer McMahon's latest, The Children On The Hill

Made: Salads, so many salads. We needed a week of good eating to make up for last weekend. 

Enjoyed: My sister and her hubby stopped through on their way to her class reunion Thursday, unexpectedly. We had a lovely couple of hours eating pizza and talking on the patio before they got on the road for their final hour of travel. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: We're cat sitting this week (unexpectedly), so my plans for this week have changed as I'll need to either spend time in the basement with my son's cat or supervising the two cats when his cat is out of the basement. Still putting together a game plan of what I can do while doing either of those things. 

Thinking About: The last time my brother was up, they brought up a cup shelf that has been in my family for a long time and I finally got it picked up from my dad's yesterday. Now I'm pondering where to put it - and whether or not I refinish it, paint it, or leave it as is. You'll know me well enough by know to know that last one probably won't be my choice! 

Feeling: A little nervous. We have a new person starting at work tomorrow, who I'll be in charge of and will have to train. She may be less nervous about starting a new job than I am about having to get to know her!

Looking forward to: A trip to see my brother and his family. Let's be honest, I'm most excited to see his grandchildren and to meet my great-nephew who just turned one. 

Question of the week: I like my Sundays to be low-key productive with lots of time for relaxing before the coming week. How about you? Do you try to pack a lot into your entire weekend, make one day more productive and one more relaxing, or have you found the way to take it easy for an entire weekend?

Friday, June 10, 2022

The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

The School for Good Mothers
by Jessamine Chan
336 pages
Published January 2022 by Simon and Shuster
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

My Thoughts:
A great example of a book that you finish reading a have no idea how to feel about it. I can't say that I liked it. I'm not sure that any one would be able to say that; it's not that kind of book. The New York Times review called it "frustratingly timely." Vogue had this to say: 

“The School for Good Mothers picks up the mantle of writers like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, with their skin-crawling themes of surveillance, control, and technology; but it also stands on its own as a remarkable, propulsive novel. At a moment when state control over women’s bodies (and autonomy) feels ever more chilling, the book feels horrifyingly unbelievable and eerily prescient all at once.”

It will also make you think about what goes through your mind every time you hear news about a parent like Frida. You know when you hear stories about parents doing what Frida did, you instantly label them as "bad parents." We have very little empathy for a parent who has become overwhelmed and done a bad thing, made a bad choice. "Why didn't they ask for help?" "They have no business having children if they don't know any better than that." 

Then there are the kinds of things we so often say about our justice system. "Why do we just incarcerate people? Why don't we rehabilitate them, teach them how to do better?" That's just what happens to Frida - the state decides they will teach Frida how to be a better parent, a good mother. But it's coming from a place of thinking of all of the parents as inherently bad, essentially unredeemable even with training. And that there is only one "right" way to become better, to prove that you've been rehabilitated. Which is also a thing our justice system does. Which is the way all of us are prone to feeling, if we're being honest. 

Here the state determines, after only one brief visit with Frida and her daughter, that her daughter should be taken away and that Frida should be committed, for a year, to a new rehabilitation program for parents. At the school, each parent will be given a robotic child, which vaguely resembles their own child, and taught how to properly care for children using the dolls. Except it's almost impossible to satisfy the instructors, especially given that the robot children don't react exactly the same way that real children would, that they aren't children who already know this person. The women are repeatedly told they are bad parents, regularly have their weekly calls to their real children withheld for weeks and months on end, and are held to standards none of us could meet. Here again, there are often lessons that seem, on the surface, to be well intentioned. But the way the lessons are taught, the insistence that success can only be measured in one way, that if you can't get your "child" to react in the way that the instructors have deemed "right," then you are a failure. 

It's relentlessly frustrating and depressing and you find yourself feeling sorry for even the women who truly committed heinous crimes against their children when the other side is a state which seems bent on making the parents jump through hoops - while their on fire - ten feet off the ground - and six inches in diameter. There is no hope for these women. 

And then they meet the fathers. Who are held to entirely different standards. 

The School for Good Mothers is like nothing I've ever read before, nothing like what I was expecting. It was a struggle for me to read but also a book that has me thinking. About the way we judge parents, the standards we hold them to, and the lack of real help we offer them. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

An Education by Lynn Barber

An Education: My Life Would Have Turned Out Differently If I Had Just Said No   
by Lynn Barber
Read by Carolyn Seymour
4 hours, 45 minutes
Published 2009 by Penguin 

Publisher's Summary: 
When Lynn Barber was sixteen, a stranger in a maroon sports car pulled up beside her as she was on her way home from school and offered her a ride. It was the beginning of a long journey from innocence to a precocious experience-an affair with an older man that would change her life. Barber's seducer left her with a taste for luxury hotels, posh restaurants and trips abroad-expensive habits that she managed to support in later life as a successful London journalist whose barbed interviews both terrorized and fascinated her smart-set subjects. 

A poignant, shockingly candid account of the stages in a literary life-from promiscuity at Oxford to a stint at Penthouse to a complex marriage that endured-An Education is a classic of English memoir.

My Thoughts:
As I was looking for an available audiobook about an author, I came across An Education. I'd seen the movie adaptation, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Skarsgard but was unaware that it was adapted from a book (despite the fact that Nick Hornby was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay). I'd enjoyed the movie and thought I'd give the book a shot. 

I surprised to find the movie is, in fact, only an adaptation of the first chapter of the book. This was initially disappointing. But Barber went on to lead quite an interesting life and I soon got over my disappointment. Barber studied at St. Anne's College, Oxford, there briefly dating a drug smuggler before meeting the man she would later marry. After graduating, desperate for work as a journalist (and money), she took a job as an editorial assistant at, of all places, Penthouse magazine, which was in its early days. I must admit to having an adverse reaction to her working for this kind of publication. But Barber defends the magazine as being much classier then other smut magazine and her work there as being great experience in all kinds of journalist jobs, including interviews, which became the kind of writing she was best known for as her career continued. 

Marriage and motherhood were an education for Barber, as well. She hadn't expected to be good at either, nor to enjoy them, and was surprised to be proven wrong. In 2003, her husband of 32 years died of cancer. This part of the book felt even more honest than the rest of the book with Barber admitting that she was not the kind of person cut out to care for a dying person. 

An interesting life, well told and well read. Even if it wasn't what I expected at all, I enjoyed it. 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Life: It Goes On - June 5

Happy Sunday! After hardly leaving the house for the past two years, we hopped in the car Thursday for a trip to Dallas for the wedding of the daughter of one of The Big Guy's oldest friends. Home now and exhausted from the two ten hour drives in four days. We packed so much into just a couple of days! 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished People We Meet On Vacation and immediately took it off my book club's reading list. Just not enough to discuss in this one. On the road we listened to a lot of music and a couple of podcasts including an episode of Tooth and Claw, about a moose attack that made me even more grateful that Ms. S survived her recent encounter with a moose. Had I told you about that? 
Watched: When it was time to unwind or to get ready to head out this weekend, I watched several episodes of Gilded Age

Read: Anne Tyler's latest, French Braid, which I'm sorry to say I'm not enjoying all that much. 

Made: In my defense, we haven't been home for more than half the week and were using up things from the refrigerator before we left. So, yeah, nothing again this week. 

Enjoyed: Top row: a morning at the Dallas Museum of Art with our nephew, which included getting to see a collection which is a recreation of a home that originally belonged to Coco Chanel and which still included her furniture. Middle row: the Dallas Arboretum with our nephew and his wife - if you're ever in Dallas, I highly recommend it. Bottom row: lunch at my fave Dallas eatery (so far!), Rodeo Goat, The Big Guy all dolled up for the wedding and having fun at the reception. Not pictured, a trip to historic Grapevine and a tour of our nephew's and his wife's new home. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: It's going to be a busy week at work this week so I anticipate bringing work home most nights which means that not much will get done around her but I do need to get some work done in the yard and gardens. 

Thinking About: Our friends who were meant to also go down to the wedding but couldn't go because she got CoVid. We've been looking forward to this for months and I'm, once again, so annoyed that we are still dealing with this virus. 

Feeling: Shocked by how well my leg/back held up with all of the walking I did this weekend. I think I've finally found the right combination of medication and it allowed me to get some exercise which, in turned, helped the leg feel better. I was even able to wear heels last night!

Looking forward to: Seeing my sister this weekend. 

Question of the week: If you've ever been to, or live in Dallas, what's your favorite thing to do there? 
We both feel like there are still a lot of things we'd like to do and see there and see another trip down in our future. 

Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee
by Marja Mills
Read by Amy Lynn Stewart
8 hours 11 minutes
Published July 2014 by The Penguin Press

Publisher's Summary: 
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.

In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.

Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.

My Thoughts: 
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that I was sent this book in 2014 for review. I really, really wanted to read it then and was so excited to offered a copy. But I didn't have time when it arrived to read it so it went on the bookshelves where, as you may know, books go to die. I saw a meme today that read: "I haven't read the book, but I own a copy." So me. When I saw that my library had the audiobook, I knew it was time. Lest the publisher think I never even picked up the book that they had so kindly sent me, I made this one a read/listen combination. 

The year after this book was published, Harper Lee's original work, Go Set A Watchman, was published, with much controversy. A year later, Lee died. Three years later, I read Hillary Huber's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. Everyone of those events gave me new perspectives about Harper Lee and made reading this book now a completely different experience than it would have been had I read it eight years ago. 

The truth of the matter is that Alice opened her door to Mills; gradually Nelle came around to trust Mills as well. They were instrumental in getting the house next door for Mills when Mills needed to take a break from her reporting work. By this time, Mills was already "in" with the sisters and loved life in Monroeville. As a person with chronic disease, Mills lived a slower life that fit in perfectly with the Lee sisters' inner circle of elderly people. She became an important part of their group and incredibly close to the Lee sisters. 

The Washington Post review said that this book might have become "sycophantic" but didn't. True enough. But it can also hardly be said that Mills was entirely objective. She clearly adored these people and I can't imagine that she would have had it in her to disparage them. She doesn't entirely let Nelle off the hook, which made it all the easier for me to believe the rest of what she wrote about her. Having read those other works, I won't have been able to believe that she was just an eccentric old woman. Although she was that. 

This book makes Nelle Harper Lee human. She was a devoted sister, a woman who was lucky enough to have earned enough money to allow her to live life in a way that brought her pleasure, and, if you were lucky enough to be in her inner circle, someone that would have been fun to know. But she was also a woman who, once To Kill A Mockingbird was popular, could never fully live life entirely on her own terms. 

I'm sorry to the publisher for putting reading this book off for so long. But I'm glad that I read it after I'd read the other two works, which gave me enough background on Lee to make this feel like I was getting a finishing picture of her. The Mockingbird Next Door earned acclaim when it was published and deservedly so.