Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

by Julia Alvarez
Read by Alma Cuervo
6 hours
Published April 2020 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Publisher's Summary: 
Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words. 

Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

My Thoughts:
I'll be honest - I picked this book because it was an audiobook that was available and not very long; it was helped by the fact that it was written by an author I'd heard speak a few years ago and was really impressed with. 

Julia Alvarez books are (it seems to this reader who is only on her second Alvarez book) always full of things to think about and to discuss. Here Alvarez touches on family, sibling relationships, immigration, culture, loss, mental illness, and loss of identity. In addition to the questions the publisher's summary asks, I felt like Alvarez was asking us to consider what we owe others and what we owe ourselves and who should we put first. More than once Antonia, when trying to decide what she should do, thinks of the airline imperative to put your own mask on first in an emergency before you try to help others. 

We are often asked to consider if a book is character or plot driven. When I finished this one, I really wasn't sure what the answer was. A lot happens here but I never felt like the action was the true point of the book. Then, too, although we meet a lot of characters here, we only truly get to know Antonia. In the end, I wasn't even sure I knew where Antonia's brain was at. Or, for that matter, what was going to become of any of the characters. As much as I loved all the questions Alvarez asked, her beautiful writing, and all of the references to literature (and Cuevo's reading), I guess I just wanted some answers to what happened to the characters. There are, after all, no answers to so many of the questions the book raises.  

I'm evidently alone in that opinion, though. It was one of Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2020 and Entertainment Weekly called it a tour de force. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Life: It Goes On - September 25

Happy (again, sunny!) Sunday! It's been a roller coaster of a weather week here (maybe for you, too?). Upper 90's Tuesday, sweater weather Wednesday, hot again Saturday, perfect today. That's September in the Midwest. It's convinced me to go all in on the fall decor. And by fall decor, I mean there are now pumpkins everywhere. The Big Guy hit up the pumpkin patch for me over his lunch hour the other day and came home with a big wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and gourds. Which seemed like more than we could possibly need. And so I bought nine more of various sizes today.

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished Julia Alvarez's Afterlife and played a mixed bag of music while getting ready in the morning. 

Watched: College football and Husker volleyball. 

Read: I finished Elizabeth Strout's latest, Lucy By The Sea and started both Denise Mina's Confidence and Jodi Picoult's Mad Honey

Made: Pioneer Woman's corn cakes with avocado salsa. So much work, and what a mess, but we enjoyed them as a meal. 

Enjoyed: Breakfast with TBG's brother and sister-in-law today at a place TBG has been wanting to try to years. Nothing fancy, perfectly good food; the company was terrific and we are loving having them in Lincoln full time now so that we can enjoy time with them on the spur of the moment. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: My blog feed has not been working for several weeks. I'm planning to either get that issue resolved this week or to try to find one that is more reliable. 

Thinking About:
My mom. I have so many questions as we come across things that raise questions no one can answer. Everything I touch in my parents' home brings memories of time with her. 

Feeling: Except for an unplanned trip back to Lincoln today, it's been a very, much needed, relaxing weekend. 

Looking forward to: Dinners on the patio this week. The forecast looks like I'm going to get a lot of time out there this week and I'm all about spending as much time out there as I can before the weather gets to cold to enjoy it. 

Quote of the week: “Happiness doesn’t have just one address.” -Anonymous

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Ancestor Trouble (A Reckoning and A Reconciliation) by Maud Newton

Ancestor Trouble (A Reckoning and A Reconciliation) by Maud Newton
400 pages 
Published March 2022 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
Maud Newton’s ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother’s father, who came of age in Texas during the Great Depression, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives. Her mother’s grandfather killed a man with a hay hook and died in an institution. Mental illness and religious fanaticism percolated through Maud’s maternal lines back to an ancestor accused of being a witch in Puritan-era Massachusetts. Maud’s father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer, was an educated man who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. He tried in vain to control Maud’s mother, a whirlwind of charisma and passion given to feverish projects: thirty rescue cats, and a church in the family’s living room where she performed exorcisms. 

Her parents’ divorce, when it came, was a relief. Still, her position at the intersection of her family bloodlines inspired in Newton inspired an anxiety that she could not shake, a fear that she would replicate their damage. She saw similar anxieties in the lives of friends, in the works of writers and artists she admired. As obsessive in her own way as her parents, Newton researched her genealogy—her grandfather’s marriages, the accused witch, her ancestors’ roles in slavery and genocide—and sought family secrets through her DNA. But immersed in census archives and cousin matches, she yearned for deeper truths. Her journey took her into the realms of genetics, epigenetics, and the debates over intergenerational trauma. She mulled over modernity’s dismissal of ancestors along with psychoanalytic and spiritual traditions that center them. 

Searching, moving, and inspiring, Ancestor Trouble is one writer’s attempt to use genealogy—a once-niche hobby that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry—to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors offers all of us. 

My Thoughts: 
Had I shared with you recently that I've been thinking about taking a break from blogging and focusing that time instead to genealogy? A number of things have been driving me that direction and this books is one of them. I don't have nearly the colorful family history that Newton does (a friend once commented that my childhood was like something out of a sixties television program) but I'm yearning to learn more about the reality of our families, not just their names and dates of death. Newton, on the other hand, had some (well, a lot) of questions to be answered in her research, not the least of which was to understand why she is the person she is. 

Newton's father routinely severely punished her for things like getting a B+ (he is no longer a part of her life). Newton's mother did nothing when Newton told her mother that her stepfather had raped her. Her granny warned her to watch for signs of mental illness in herself (Granny's own sister had spent most of her life in a mental institution after having danced naked in the streets). How could she be the product of these people Newton came to wonder. 

As Newton begins to research her family history, she discovers that it's not simply enough to know about her ancestors. She needs to know the "why" of how she became the person she is because of who they were. This leads her to research epigenetics (I keep coming across that study since I read Jamie Ford's The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, which introduced me to the idea), neuroscience, genograms, and spiritual practices. Newton ties a piece of her own personal ancestry and life with her research into each of these subjects making them more understandable for the lay person. 

You know you've read a book that's important when it doesn't just inspire and educate you, but when reviews of it show up on NPR and in the New York Times (and I highly recommend looking up those reviews because they are certainly more eloquent about this book than I am). 

Newton asks a lot of questions, many of which can't be answered. But this book certainly has me asking questions and hoping to find answers of my own. Although, as Newton found out, we won't necessarily like the answers we find when we begin looking into our ancestors. 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Life: It Goes On - September 18

Happy sunny Sunday! The leaves are, happily, no where near as golden here yet. I know so many of you are all about the arrival of fall in all of it's glorious color, and I'm not against that color at all. But this year, for some reason, I can't get past the idea that fall is nothing more than a season of things dying as winter approaches. Someone send me your best ideas for living in the season!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I finished The Perfume Thief and have started Julia Alvarez' Afterlife. It's read by Alma Cuervo and she's excellent. 

Watched: The Big Guy has been out of the house a lot these past few days so I've had the television to myself. Since I've been listening to Hamilton in the mornings, when I'm getting ready for work, it was time for a rewatch of it, as well. I also watched a couple of episodes of Orange Is The New Black as I work to get through the series. I'm not loving this final season (and, also, Miss H is not here to watch it with me) so I've not been in a rush to watch it. 

Read: I'm still reading Elizabeth Strout's Lucy By The Sea. I must admit, as much as I like Lucy as a character, it's not the book for me right now so it's work to read it. I'm not really sure what is the book for me right now, as nothing seems to really grab me and pull me in. 

Made: With TBG out of the house so much lately, I've been cooking even less than normal this week. I did make a salad for a potluck dinner last night. An eight-year-old sat at dinner with me and I was so surprised to see her picking through the lettuce in that salad to try to find the purple onion! 

with Lori in Lincoln's Railyard
(yes, that's a whiskey/coke at 10 a.m. - 
don't judge!)
 We had ourselves quite the day yesterday, on the road to Lincoln at 7 am to get out ahead of game day traffic. We started at a work-related pregame party where we enjoyed a yummy breakfast. Then we met up with a friend (who I met through blogging and who know works for DYI MFA which any aspiring writer should check out) who had come up from Oklahoma for the game. We did the obligatory time in the Railyard with several hundred of our closest friends (well, they were close, anyway, once we had to squeeze under the awnings when the rain started). 

We finished our day at a potluck dinner with my dad's neighbors on the patio of neighbors who have become family over the past 46 years. Except being a little humid, it was a lovely evening highlighted by my dad singing his friends a farewell song and talking about the highlights of living in the neighborhood for 54 years. TBG and I were both so caught up talking to people that neither of us took one single picture!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: As this week will officially bring in fall, I'm planning on decorating for fall. Also, my neighbors have a dumpster in their driveway; we're hoping they'll invite us (as they have when they did this previously) to put somethings in it so I'm planning on getting rid of somethings in our basement so that things can be rearranged. 

Thinking About: We are now only about four weeks away from my dad's move so this week I will do one of my favorite things (I'm not even kidding when I say that). I've taken measurements of all of the furniture he's planning on taking and I'll cut out scale versions and plot it all out on a floor plan of each room of his apartment and think about how it will all fit best. 

Feeling: I slept nine hours last night and it was just what I needed. I have so much energy today and, now that I'm back to doing my physical therapy exercises my back is feeling so much better. 

Looking forward to: Book club this week. 

Quote of the week: “You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” – E.B. White

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The It Girl by Ruth Ware

The It Girl
by Ruth Ware
432 pages
Published July 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review, through Netgalley

Publisher's Summary: 
April Clarke-Cliveden was the first person Hannah Jones met at Oxford.

Vivacious, bright, occasionally vicious, and the ultimate It girl, she quickly pulled Hannah into her dazzling orbit. Together, they developed a group of devoted and inseparable friends—Will, Hugh, Ryan, and Emily—during their first term. By the end of the year, April was dead.

Now, a decade later, Hannah and Will are expecting their first child, and the man convicted of killing April, former Oxford porter John Neville, has died in prison. Relieved to have finally put the past behind her, Hannah’s world is rocked when a young journalist comes knocking and presents new evidence that Neville may have been innocent. As Hannah reconnects with old friends and delves deeper into the mystery of April’s death, she realizes that the friends she thought she knew all have something to hide…including a murder.

My Thoughts: 
Kirkus Reviews: "...the mystery disappoints." 
The Wall Street Journal: "...may well be her best book yet." 

Guys, I'm sad to say that I fall closer to that first comment than the second. What I've come to expect from Ware is a book with a fish out of water heroine, a constant sense of danger, and a book that keeps me spellbound from maybe 100 pages in on to the ending. 

This one has the first. 

But, I'm sad to say, I didn't feel much of a sense of danger until nearly the end and the suspense only arrived, for me, about one hundred pages before that. And, in the end, the "why" of April's murder fell flat. 

I didn't care much for April or Hannah. Oh, heck, I didn't care much for any of the characters but that just called to mind Donna Tart's The Secret History which is the predecessor of all murders/college setting thrillers. Tart pulls that off better. 

And I'm really sort of over dual timeline stories. 

And yet...

I still raced through this book. Because Ware writes terrific settings and the question of who can you trust was compelling. Every one of Hannah's friends seemed to have some potential motivation for killing April and you couldn't be too quick to write any of them off. So, for me, not Ware's best work (that still remains The Turn of the Key) but it was worth the reading and just what I needed in a book when I read it. 

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Life: It Goes On - September 11

Happy Sunday! It's a beautiful, sunny day here - just the same kind of day as it was 21 years ago on this day when we woke and everything was normal...until it wasn't. 

I meant for this day to be a productive one around Casa Shep, but I'd forgotten that I had an author event to attend in the afternoon with a friend. Then that just carried over to dinner with our guys on our patio. So...seven hours after I first left the house (and a half bottle of wine!), I cleaned up the kitchen and decided nothing much more was getting done around here. But it turns out to be just what I needed!

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I continued to listen to The Perfume Thief last week, which I'll finish tomorrow. I also listened to a couple of Glennon Doyle's podcast, We Can Do Hard Things.

Watched: Football - le big sigh. My teams did not fare well this weekend. 

Read: I finished two books last week! Both of which I also reviewed! Yeah, me - it was a good week. Seems I can read when I've discovered that I'm behind on reading that I've committed to for TLC Book Tours. This weekend I finished Maud Newton's Ancestor Trouble. Tonight I'll start Elizabeth Strout's lates, Lucy by the Sea

Made: Onion dip and bruschetta - yep, that's about as creative as I got all week. Again. <insert another big sigh>

Enjoyed: By sister and brother-in-law were down to pick up some things from my dad's house and to help get things sorted and packed before his big move. I took off Friday to give myself extra time with them. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: After a couple more days of cat sitting, we'll finally be able to leave our basement door open again which will allow us to work on cleaning up down there some more. Both The Big Guy and I need to part with some things down there (ok, a lot of things), which we're more committed to doing now more than ever. 

Thinking About: Bed. It's been a busy three days and this should have been done before it was nearly bedtime. 

Feeling: It's getting harder and harder to pack things up at my dad's house but harder yet to watch him see the home he and my mom created being dismantled. 

Looking forward to: Saturday I'm meeting up with a friend I met through blogging, maybe ten years ago. At that time, she was a college student. She's now married to a man from Nebraska and, thanks to him bringing her this way, I've gotten to met up with her a couple of times before. Can't wait to see them again!

Quote of the week: “It didn’t matter how big our house was; it mattered that there was love in it.” — Peter Buffett

Friday, September 9, 2022

Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America by Jason Reid

Rise of the Black Quarterback: What is Means for America
by Jason Reid
288 pages
Published August 2022 by Andscape
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through TLC Book Tours, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
In September 2019, ESPN's The Undefeated website (now Andscape) began a season-long series of articles on the emergence of Black quarterbacks in the NFL. The first article in the series was Jason Reid's enormously popular, "Welcome to the Year of the Black Quarterback." The series culminated with an hour-long television program in February 2020, hosted by Reid himself. The Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means for America will expand on Reid's piece—as well as the entire series—and chronicle the shameful history of the treatment of Black players in the NFL and the breakout careers of a thrilling new generation of Black quarterbacks. Intimate portraits of Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray feature prominently in the book, as well as the careers and legacy of beloved NFL players such as Doug Williams and trailblazing pioneers Marlin Briscoe and Eldridge Dickey. Reid delves deeply into the culture war ignited by Kaepernick's peaceful protest that shone a light on systemic oppression and police brutality. Fascinating and timely, this page-turning account will rivet fans of sports, cultural commentary, and Black history in America.

My Thoughts: 
You all know how much I love football. Every year, at the start of the season, I vow to myself that I'll read a book about it. I mean, I already own a couple, so it shouldn't have taken TLC Book Tours offering one up to me for me to get around to it. But it did. And then I missed my review date. <Insert emoji of shaking head> 

Fritz Pollard one of the first black players and became the first black coach of a professional football team; two years later, he became the first black quarterback. It took sixty-eight years for their to be another black coach. 

Pollard is only one of the black pioneers in professional football who Reid profiles. He also touches on George Taliaferro and Marlin Briscoe, who was pulled in as quarterback in 1968 when the Denver Bronco's quarterback was injured. He started five games and did well...then was let go at the end of the season. 

Reid also profiles black quarterbacks from historically black colleges including James Harris and Doug Williams who both went on to have illustrious careers in the NFL. Williams was the first black quarterback to start in a Super Bowl game. 

Reid moves on to look at today's group of superstar black quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson, four of the best currently playing. Even so, there remains a paucity of black quarterbacks in a league with 32 teams, especially when you take into account the percentage of black players, overall, in the NFL. Those that play still face racism, both overt and more subtle. Reid says that the unwillingness of teams to hire black quarterbacks sends a message that black men are not as intelligent, not inspiring, or not good leaders. 

Reid is a good writer (he is after all, a professional sports writer) and gives a good overall accounting of what it has taken to get to the point where the young black quarterbacks can get the respect...and money...they deserve (well, insofar as any player deserves the amount of money NFL players make). It's a good read, especially this time of year, and a fine lead in to looking deeper into the racist history of my favorite sport. 

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour (and my deep apologies for not getting this posted on time!). 

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Winter's Reckoning by Adele Holmes, M. D.

Winter's Reckoning
by Adele Holmes, M.D.
256 pages
Published August 2022 by She Write Press
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, in exchange for an honest review, through TLC Book Tours

Publisher's Summary: 
Forty-six-year-old Madeline Fairbanks has no use for ideas like "separation of the races" or "men as the superior sex." There are many in her dying Southern Appalachian town who are upset by her socially progressive views, but for years--partly due to her late husband's still-powerful influence, and partly due to her skill as a healer in a remote town with no doctor of its own--folks have been willing to turn a blind eye to her "transgressions." Even Maddie's decision to take on a Black apprentice, Ren Morgan, goes largely unchallenged by her white neighbors, though it's certainly grumbled about. But when a charismatic and power-hungry new reverend blows into town in 1917 and begins to preach about the importance of racial segregation, the long-idle local KKK chapter fires back into action--and places Maddie and her friends in Jamesville's Black community squarely in their sights. Maddie had better stop intermingling with Black folks, discontinue her herbalistic "witchcraft," and leave town immediately, they threaten, or they'll lynch Ren's father, Daniel. Faced with this decision, Maddie is terrified . . . and torn. Will she bow to their demands and walk away--or will she fight to keep the home she's built in Jamestown and protect the future of the people she loves, both Black and white?

My Thoughts: 
Remember Sunday when I was lamenting that I had missed my review date for this book? So I raced through it only to discover today that it was meant to be an Instagram post that I missed. Seriously the easiest thing to do and I missed it. Which all goes to tell you something about my state of mind. And also something about why my review is what it is. 

The notes about Adele Holmes call this book Southern gothic. According to Wikipedia, Southern Gothic includes "storytelling of deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may be involved in hoodoo, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence." Let's see how this book fits that: 

    Deeply flawed character?                                     Check
    Eccentric character?                                             Check and check
    Characters who may be involved in hoodoo?      This one does talk about hoodoo, so check
    Decayed settings?                                                 A town that's dying, so, again, check
    Events stemming from poverty?                          Check
    Events stemming from violence?                         Check 
    Events stemming from alienation?                       Check
    Sinister events?                                                    Check and check

I'd say that publisher bit is spot on, according to the Wikipedia definition. But this is also the story of strong women, so often lacking in Southern Gothic fiction. 

Maddie comes from a long line of healers; but, after not being able to save her only son, Maddie doubts she has inherited the full gifts of her ancestors. Still, she believes, despite the ignorance of so many around her, that she is called to care for all of the people of her valley and to pass along her knowledge to her granddaughter, Hannah, and her friend, Ren. And she believes that those people have come to accept her, after more than 20 years in the valley. That is until Carl Howard, the new "reverend" finds that the best way to get people (ok, the men) to follow him is to play to their deepest fears, which turn out to be "uppity" women and black people. That puts Maddie and Ren in danger, although neither of them sees Carl for exactly what he is until their friendship is torn apart. 

This book was a slow build for me, taking nearly 100 pages to really begin to draw me into it. After that, it  was nonstop action with a blizzard, a hermit, a killing, blackmail, and a murder plot. This one might have worked a little better with less going on. But most of the time while I was reading it, I couldn't help but think how much my mom would have enjoyed this book, with her ability to focus on the good and overlook the shortcomings of historical fiction that features strong female characters. The Mom Stamp of Approval is always a good thing!


Sunday, September 4, 2022

Life: It Goes On - September 4

Happy Sunday! For those of you celebrating the arrival of September and proclaiming it now autumn, will you please keep it down? I still can't get over that we're already 4 days into September. 

We are still celebrating summer at this house - we even did a dinner with friends the other night with nothing but summer dishes - although I'm happy to say goodbye to the temps in the 90's (or higher!) so that evenings on the patio are more enjoyable. And I must admit that I'm starting to add few autumn accents to my decor and even put away my seashells for the year. 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm still listening to, and enjoying, Timothy Schaffert's The Perfume Thief, in preparation for this month's book club meeting. 

Watched: Football, volleyball, the usual. Except for Friday night when we watched Serena Williams play. We don't watch tennis generally, but it seemed like we should watch the G.O.A.T. play what might be (and turned out to be) her final match. 

Read: Guys, I missed a review that I was meant to do for TLC Book Tours the week before last! So I've been racing through that and will get a review up this week. 

 Caprese pasta using roasted tomatoes - which, of course, we ate on the patio! 

Thursday we had friends to dinner. Since it was nice enough to eat on the patio, we decided to go all in on a summer menu - we made BLTs, caprese salad, cucumber and onion salad, and capped the night off with S'mores. 

Enjoyed: See above. Jeff has seen this couple at tailgate parties before Husker games but I don't go down for those so I haven't seen them in quite a few years so it was great to catch up. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: My sister and her husband are coming down this coming weekend so the plan this week will just be to get the things down around the house during the next few days that I might usually put off until the weekend. 

Thinking About: How my dad's furniture will fit in his new place, where art will hang, what new things will need to be bought. When I used to play with Barbies, I spent more time rearranging furniture and making new bedding and such than actually playing with the dolls. I feel like I was training then for these very situations!

Feeling: Frustrated. With myself. My back has gotten worse again but I'm to blame because I stopped doing my exercises as soon as I was released from physical therapy and had no one to hold me accountable. I'm back on track now and hoping to feel better again soon. 

Looking forward to: Seeing my sister and brother-in-law this coming weekend. 

Quote of the week: