Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Guest by Emma Cline

The Guest
by Emma Cline
Read by Carlotta Brentan
8 hours, 36 minutes
Published May 2023 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
“Alex drained her wineglass, then her water glass. The ocean looked calm, a black darker than the sky. A ripple of anxiety made her palms go damp. It seemed suddenly very tenuous to believe that anything would stay hidden, that she could successfully pass from one world to another.”

Summer is coming to a close on the East End of Long Island, and Alex is no longer welcome.

A misstep at a dinner party, and the older man she's been staying with dismisses her with a ride to the train station and a ticket back to the city.

With few resources and a waterlogged phone, but gifted with an ability to navigate the desires of others, Alex stays on Long Island and drifts like a ghost through the hedged lanes, gated driveways, and sun-blasted dunes of a rarefied world that is, at first, closed to her. Propelled by desperation and a mutable sense of morality, she spends the week leading up to Labor Day moving from one place to the next, a cipher leaving destruction in her wake.

Taut, propulsive, and impossible to look away from, Emma Cline's The Guest is a spellbinding literary achievement.

My Thoughts: 
I read Emma Cline's debut, The Girls, in 2016 and was impressed with her writing and looked forward to reading more of her work. A lot of people were impressed with Cline's writing - so impressed that she was given a $2 million advance for three books. This is her third (the second was a collection of short stories). Was she worth $2 million? Hard to say; there are so many incredibly skilled authors who have earned so much less that it would seem she isn't. Unless publishers are going to start paying authors an amount of money that allows them to do nothing but write great novels. 

Still, she's absolutely a skilled author. Here she made me care about what's going to happen to Alex, a call girl who can't return to her apartment (her roommates have kicked her out, due to her not paying her rent and stealing from them), a drug addict, and there's so little to really know about her. That's intentional. Alex is a girl who lives her life pretending to be the person that she needs to be for the people she's with. We're well into the novel before we even find out that she has stolen a lot of money from Dom, a man who is incessantly reaching out to her, trying to track her down. It's hard to feel sorry for her, except that she seems to be a person who has exhausted all possibilities and who is in real trouble. 

When we meet Alex, she's with Simon, a wealthy older man who wants a Barbie on his arm. Alex knows it won't last...until he kicks her out and she is suddenly certain that he likes her well enough to take her back, if she can just wait him out and time her re-entry into his world at the right time. Meanwhile, Alex has no money, no car, only a bag of clothes, and a phone that's hardly working. But Alex is clever, more clever than the people who live in the area Simon lives in. She is able, again and again, to insinuate herself into people's lives, getting a night of sleep here, a meal there. People are slow to believe a person who seems to belong might not so they allow her into their privileged lives...until they don't. But while they're doing it, Cline gives us a window into the dark side of the lives of the rich and famous. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Life: It Goes On - April 15

I'd like to say "happy Monday;" but I've been doing taxes for several hours now and it's definitely NOT a happy Monday. On the plus side, we've had three days in the 80's and I'm loving wearing shorts and short sleeves and being warm! 

It's been a busy last six days, in fact. My brother arrived last Wednesday evening and left midday Saturday after helping so, so, so much with getting my dad's apartment sorted and ready to move to his new place. We worked so hard for three of those days, but we did find time for fun Friday night. There's still a lot to do, most of the furniture still needs to find its new home, but we'll get to that later this week and into next week. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell and The Maid by Nina Prose. This week I'll finish Poverty by America by Matthew Desmond and I'm also listening to Amy Stewart's Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions. 

Watched: The NCAA basketball finals, The Voice, and not a lot else. 

Read: The American Daughters by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. This week I started Lucky by Jane Smiley and James by Percival Everett. 

Made: Hmmm...can't say that I recall. Pretty sure I wasn't the one cooking most of the time. 

Enjoyed: Friday night my brother, The Big Guy, Mini-him and Miss C sat on the deck of a local winery/brewery and enjoyed the beautiful weather and some live music. It was the first time it's really been nice enough this spring for us to do that and we had so much fun. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On continuing to get my dad settled in his new home. 

Thinking About: How much I want to get back to decluttering my own home. Every time I've moved my dad, it reiterates to me how much I don't want to find myself with so much to sort through when it's time for us to move. 

Feeling: Exhausted. And we're supposed to get severe weather in the early hours so I'll likely be up during the night, only making the situation worse. 

Looking forward to: Book club tomorrow night. 

Question of the week: Do you do your own taxes? Do you have to do them for any other family member? 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend
by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Jesmyn Ward
8 hours, 12 minutes
Published October 2023 by Scribner

Publisher's Summary: 
Let Us Descend describes a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation. A journey that is as beautifully rendered as it is heart wrenching, the novel is “[t]he literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours” (NPR). 

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader's guide. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Annis leads readers through the descent, hers is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation. 

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this “[s]earing and lyrical...raw, transcendent, and ultimately hopeful” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land-the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward's most magnificent novel yet.

My Thoughts: 
I've been a fan of Ward's since I read Salvage The Bones, Ward's sophomore effort which I read in 2016. I've now read five of her books and I am always impressed by her writing skills, lyrical as they are, and her storytelling ability. Ward is never spares readers the brutality of her characters' lives and never allows us to turn away from them as we become attached to them against all hope. 

Despite the fact that Annis is born into slavery, we have some hope for her early on, as her mother teaches her the way of her warrior grandmother and Annis begins to learn by eavesdropping on her half sisters' lessons. But hope is not something we should expect from Ward. In fact, she goes into great detail as Annis travels south, forcing us to understand what so many enslaved people endured (and often didn't survive); it's the length of this piece that really makes us consider the horrors clearly. 

And here is where my opinion of this book, beautiful and haunting as it is, differs from others' opinions. You are all aware that I struggle with the supernatural in a book. This book is filled with the supernatural. While I can understand why Ward turned to it (why Annis would turn to believing in it), it often overwhelmed the story for me, making me question what was really happening to Annis. Perhaps that was Ward's point. Often the supernatural elements at play here appear to be doing Annis more harm than good. Perhaps precisely Ward's point - sometimes the things we cling to so desperately are harmful. As beautifully written as these parts were, and as much of a relief as they give readers from the reality of Annis' life, they didn't work for me. I know that I'm in the minority in feeling this way and wish I weren't. 

The genesis of the title is from Dante's Inferno and the descent into hell. It's an apt title, as Annis, who surely started in one hell, plunges further and further down. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Life In Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World by Gretchen Rubin

Life In Five Senses: How Exploring the Senses Got Me Out of My Head and Into the World 
by Gretchen Rubin
Read by Gretchen Rubin
7 hours, 20 minutes
Published April 2023 by Crown Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
For more than a decade, Gretchen Rubin had been studying happiness and human nature. Then, one day, a visit to her eye doctor made her realize that she'd been overlooking a key element of happiness: her five senses. She'd spent so much time stuck in her head that she'd allowed the vital sensations of life to slip away, unnoticed. This epiphany lifted her from a state of foggy preoccupation into a world rediscovered by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. 

In this journey of self-experimentation, Rubin explores the mysteries and joys of the five senses as a path to a happier, more mindful life. Drawing on cutting-edge science, philosophy, literature, and her own efforts to practice what she learns, she investigates the profound power of tuning in to the physical world. 

From the simple pleasures of appreciating the magic of ketchup and adding favorite songs to a playlist, to more adventurous efforts like creating a daily ritual of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and attending Flavor University, Rubin show us how to experience each day with depth, delight, and connection. In the rush of daily life, she finds, our five senses offer us an immediate, sustainable way to cheer up, calm down, and engage the world around us-as well as a way to glimpse the soul and touch the transcendent. 

Life in Five Senses is an absorbing, layered story of discovery filled with profound insights and practical suggestions about how to heighten our senses and use our powers of perception to live fuller, richer lives-and, ultimately, how to move through the world with more vitality and love.

My Thoughts: 
I'm a big fan of Rubin's. I regularly listen to her podcast, Happier (which gave me one of my greatest rules - if it can be done in one minute or less, do it immediately) and this is the third of her books that I've read. Every time I read one of her books, I'm inspired to follow suite. In 2017, when I read The Happiness Project, I launched my own happiness project. To be fair, I never finished it, life having intervened; but I took away the idea that I should look for happiness in life with intention. In 2020, when I read Outer Order, Inner Calm, I was reenergized to declutter my home (8 months after I read it, my mom died, upending my life and ability to work on my own home as much as I wanted). Still, I have carried with me the golden rule from that book that there should be nothing in my home that I do not find to be useful or believe to be beautiful; whenever I'm working on a space, I bear this in mind and it has allowed me to part with things I was struggling to purge. 

As I was listening to Rubin talk here about how she came to realize that she was under appreciating her five senses, I realized that I was doing the same thing. We are all aware that we can see, smell, hear, taste and touch. But how often do we really think about what we're seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting and touching? How often are we intentionally looking for ways to use our senses and to learn more about them? If you're like me, the answer is not often enough. As always, in listening to this book, I was inspired by Rubin to do better. 

Rubin always goes all in on her projects. Some of the things Rubin tried for this project were things that definitely seemed out of her wheelhouse (apparently I feel like I know her well enough to know what is and what isn't in her wheelhouse!), including a sensory deprivation tank and experiencing ayahuasca. Kudos to her for being brave enough to try them. They would definitely be a hard pass for me, as would be the three days weekend she spent in complete silence. But taking a perfumery course? I could see myself giving that a try. Has she convinced me to rethink ketchup? Maybe. 

I think that I'm pretty in tune with my senses; it's more a matter of being daily aware of them and working to expand them. For example, textures are something I'm keenly aware of and know what I like and don't like. Coconut? Might be ok as a flavor but I can't abide the texture. Microfiber cloth? Cannot stand the feel of it and refuse to use it to clean or sleep on it. Could I learn more about why I like or dislike certain things? Certainly. I love music, but not all music. What is it about some songs that I like and others that I don't? Taste - could I train myself to appreciate different spices more and to really be able to pick flavors out in foods? Probably and I'm surely willing to work on that. 

Will I start my own project to learn more about my senses? Probably not. I learned a lot about the senses from Rubin's own research, to begin with; and I don't have the bandwidth for it right now. I am going to try to be more aware, day to day, of the ways life around me impacts my senses and to go out of my way to find new ways to experience them. 

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Life: It Goes On - April 7

Happy Sunday! Anyone else feel like they're living in limbo with the weather for the past few weeks? We had such a nice jump on spring in March and then we backslide into winter and are only ever so slowly making our way back out of it. The stupid crabapples that stay on the tree in my front yard all winter (and, to be fair, are quite lovely when all else is brown and dead) are still falling off (onto my driveway - exactly the reason I told my husband, when he went to get a tree 25 years ago, NOT to get a crabapple!) so we're a few more weeks from the flowers.THAT'S my sign that spring has really arrived. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait (loving it!) and a lot of music, including Godspell (after watching it on tv on Sunday) which, naturally lead to Jesus Christ Superstar which lead to the Opening Numbers playlist on Spotify which, somehow led to the Avett Brothers. Ok that last one was a result of my Tier One sending me their latest video.

 More college basketball, including the men's 3-Point Contest, which was won by Nebraska's Keisei Tominaga. We just love him here! 

Read: The Heiress by Rachel Hawkins. I could not put it down and stayed up late Friday to finish it. 

Made: More butterscotch sauce and more cheesy hash browns to take to Miss H, who was supposed to have a couple of her wisdom teeth pulled on Wednesday. 

Enjoyed: A two-day trip to KC, ostensibly to care for Miss H after said wisdom teeth were removed. But she didn't find out that the dentist was sick until I got her to her appointment so we had some time to shop, eat out, set up her new turntable (her birthday present from The Big Guy and me), and do a lot of decluttering and organizing. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: A big decision was made on Friday. My dad will be staying at the facility that he was admitted to after his most recent hospitalization and will not be returning to the apartment he had so hoped to spend the rest of his life in. A very tough decision; but, we his children feel, the right one. So the next few weeks will be spent emptying the apartment that he got to spend all of 32 hours in. This is almost of emotionally tough as it was to move him out of his home of 50+ years was a year and a half ago. 

Thinking About: See above. 

Feeling: Also, see above. I do finally feel like, once this move is done, that my dad will be at a place where I will have to care for him far less. He will be safe, well cared for, well fed, and be able to settle in and make new friends.

Looking forward to: My brother is coming up for a few days to help get things packed up and moved. It will be a lot of work but we'll enjoy his company. 

Question of the week: Come May, I am going to get out of town. I don't where to yet, just know that I need a change of scenery for a few days. What do you like to do when you take a long-weekend road trip? 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha In The Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Published August 2011 by Knopf 
144 pages

Publisher's Summary: 
A novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as "picture brides" nearly a century ago. 

In eight unforgettable sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces the extraordinary lives of these women, from their arduous journeys by boat, to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; from their experiences raising children who would later reject their culture and language, to the deracinating arrival of war. 

Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times.

My Thoughts: 
This is one of those books that's been on my radar for years, but like so many books, it just keep sliding down the list of books to read (because, you know, shiny new books). But when I made my book club read a 500 page book in February, I knew I needed to give them a short read in March and suddenly this one popped to the top of the list. The Buddha In The Attic has everything in a novel that I want when I pick books for my book club: diversity, uncomfortable themes (and history), and timely themes. 

The Buddha In The Attic has the added advantage of being written in an entirely unique way. Told from a first-person-plural point of view, there are no characters that readers will follow throughout the book. Repeatedly Otsuka refers to "we" or "our," allowing her to tell many stories at once, in a cadence that is nearly poetic and often hypnotizing. It would have been impossible, without needing 800 pages, to tell so many stories if each option of what these women lived through had been told by a specific individual woman. These women come to the United States as "picture brides" for Japanese men who were already here. Most had been deceived into accepting the marriage but most had very little choice, regardless. Many found good lives with good men, more had very hard lives, often with very hard men. Some ended up in brothels. 
"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some o us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the oat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years...Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters o fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives." 
The women adapted. Areas developed that were strictly for the Japanese. Many became housekeepers or worked in shops, or did laundry. They farmed. They had families. Their children sometimes died, sometimes turned from their Japanese heritage, often found themselves ostracized both the whites and the Japanese. 

Only in the final section do we get the point of view of a white woman, describing the town she lives in after the Japanese have gone. Some she says, are happy to see them gone, some sorry, others wondering if they should have done more. 
"We wonder if it wasn't somehow all our fault. Perhaps we should have petitioned the Mayer. The governor. The President himself. Please let them stay. Or simply knocked on their doors and offered to help. If only, we say to ourselves, we'd known." 

"People begin to demand answers. Did the Japanese go to the reception centers voluntarily, or under duress? What is their ultimate destination? Why were we not informed of their departure in advance? Who, if anyone, will intervene on their behalf? Are they innocent? Are they guilty? Are they even really gone? Because isn't it odd that no one we know actually saw them leave." 

But how quickly the Japanese are forgotten. They're places in society taken up by others; their names blurring, their faces even more so. It feels a bit jarring to end the novel with a chapter told from the white point of view but it works as a reminder of how easy it is for those of us with power and privilege to stand by in the face of injustice, to move on with our lives, to succumb to fear mongering. It's a reminder to readers that, while this novel is a work of historical fiction, it could just as easily have been written about current events. History does, indeed, repeat itself. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro

Signal Fires
by Dani Shapiro
Read by Dani Shapiro
7 hours, 30 minutes
Published October 2022 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
An ancient majestic oak stands beneath the stars on Division Street. And under the tree sits Ben Wilf, a retired doctor, and ten-year-old Waldo Shenkman, a brilliant, lonely boy who is pointing out his favorite constellations. Waldo doesn't realize it but he and Ben have met before. And they will again, and again. Across time and space, and shared destiny. 

Division Street is full of secrets. An impulsive lie begets a secret-one which will forever haunt the Wilf family. And the Shenkmans, who move into the neighborhood many years later, bring secrets of their own.. Spanning fifty kaleidoscopic years, on a street-and in a galaxy-where stars collapse and stories collide, these two families become bound in ways they never could have imagined.

My Thoughts: 
This book opens in 1985 with a terrible car accident. Fifteen-year-old Theo Wilf is driving his sister, Sarah, and her friend home because the girls have been drinking. But Theo doesn't know how to drive and crashes the car into a giant tree in the family's front yard. When their father, Ben, rushes out of the house, Sarah tells him that she was driving. Ben, a doctor, pulls Sarah's friend out of the front seat when he sees that she is bleeding heavily from a head wound; once he gets her out of the car, though, he realizes that her neck is broken and moving her was the worst thing he could have done. 

Then we jump forward to 2010 where we begin to see how that one night has impacted the Wilf family. We find that, in some way, that night impacted Ben's career but Sarah has walked away, legally at least, unscathed. But none of them is unscathed we learn as we travel back in forth in time. And no family is without secrets, we learn as we meet the Shenkmans, who will come to play an important role in Ben's life, in particular. Through that connection, the message of the book becomes clear - everything in connected, a lesson that Waldo Shenkman teaches the Wilfs and the readers. 

Whenever I read a review of a book and the word "brilliant" is used, I will almost certainly wind up wondering why I don't "get it." It's not that I didn't find a lot to like in Signal Fires, but I've come away without the impression that it is "brilliant." Shapiro's characters are exceedingly well developed and I appreciated the movement of the book in time, the idea that people who appear to have it all can be struggling in ways that others don't see, and the way Shapiro deals with grief. But there were several points where I felt like Shapiro was expecting readers to suspend disbelief, at least one place where I felt like she dropped a detail in that contradicted what had been revealed early but never explained how that would have worked out, and, I'm sorry, but I just didn't get why Ben was so drawn to Waldo. 

I liked this one, I did. But I didn't find it brilliant. So many others did. So I can only recommend that if you think this one sounds like one you'd be interested in reading, you certainly will find plenty to like about it. And you, too, might even find it brilliant. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Life: It Goes On - March 31

Happy Easter to all who celebrate! We are having a quiet day at Chez Shep, having done what passed for our Easter celebration last weekend. Mini-him is off celebrating with Miss C's family, Miss H is working, and, of course, Mini-me and Ms S are far too far away to join us. It's just as well; there are so many things around here that need to be done, not the least of which is to finish up the taxes. Makes this grey, chilly day feel even less appealing! 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Let Us Descend and Life In Five Senses. I'm now back to The Guest which I need to finish in the next couple of days because I have both The Marriage Portrait and The Maid read to listen to in the next 14 days. 

Watched: So much college basketball. And the first episode of season one of Guy Ritchie's The Gentleman. If you've ever seen any of Ritchie's work, you'll already know that it's very violent and bloody. Not my usual thing but one of those things you end up watching because that's what your spouse turns on and you're too tired to get up and take yourself to bed. 

Read: Still American Daughters. I've spent a lot of my "reading" time listening to books because I had so many come ready at once. But now I find myself with books expiring on NetGalley and books to be returned to the library soon so I may just have to make time for both reading and listening this week. 

Made: Butterscotch cake with butterscotch syrup for dessert last night. Otherwise, I really have cooked much at all, as we've been working our way through last weekend's leftovers or eaten out. 

Enjoyed: Baseball Friday night with friends. The Omaha Stormchasers' (the Kansas City Royals' Triple A farm team) opened the season on a night that seemed like it would be relatively warm...and it was, until the wind came up and we bailed in the 10th inning. Last night, we had friends over for carryout pizza, a yummy salad they brought, and that cake. 
This Week I’m:  

Planning: Some decisions need to be made this week which will dictate on the rest of the week goes. 

Thinking About: A possible trip this summer. 

Feeling: This grey day has me battling a headache so everything I'm getting done is a real effort. 

Looking forward to: Miss H gets two of her wisdom teeth pulled on Wednesday so I'm going down to take care of her for a couple of days. Not that I'm looking forward to having her being in pain but I do love to embrace Mom mode. 

Question of the week: How's your bracket holding up? 

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal

Saturday Night At The Lakeside Supper Club
by J. Ryan Stradal
Read by Aspen Vincent
9 hours, 20 minutes
Published April 2023 by Penguin Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Mariel Prager needs a break. Her husband Ned is having an identity crisis, her spunky, beloved restaurant is bleeding money by the day, and her mother Florence is stubbornly refusing to leave the church where she's been holed up for more than a week. The Lakeside Supper Club has been in her family for decades, and while Mariel's grandmother embraced the business, seeing it as a saving grace, Florence never took to it. When Mariel inherited the restaurant, skipping Florence, it created a rift between mother and daughter that never quite healed. 

Ned is also an heir-to a chain of home-style diners-and while he doesn't have a head for business, he knows his family's chain could provide a better future than his wife's fading restaurant. In the aftermath of a devastating tragedy, Ned and Mariel lose almost everything they hold dear, and the hard-won victories of each family hang in the balance. With their dreams dashed, can one fractured family find a way to rebuild despite their losses, and will the Lakeside Supper Club be their salvation?

My Thoughts: 
This is my third book by Stradal and I've come to expect a few things from him that he, once again, delivered: 
  1. A multi-generational story.
  2. Well written female characters, always female leads which is impressive from a male writer. From Betty to Florence to Mariel to Julia, each of these women is fully developed, flaws and all. 
  3. A terrific sense of setting. Stradal knows the area, its people and its food. 
  4. Which brings me to food. Betty marries the owner of the Lakeside Supper Club, Mariel marries the son of a man who started a chain that is putting supper clubs out of business. The tradition of the foods at the supper clubs contrasts with the food of the chain; the traditional foods of the supper clubs also plays out against healthier, more current ways of eating. 
Each of Stradal's books changes in how he tells his stories. Here we move back and forth in time and in points of view. It should, in theory, help us to understand why certain characters become the people they become. It should also give us hints of things to come. It works, for the most part: but there are a couple of places where I really struggled with it. One is with Betty's character - although she seems to be a hard worker, early on, she is also constantly on the move, with morals that seem to waver. Yet, as soon as she meets Floyd, she happily settles and mends her immoral ways. We start knowing something about Mariel that makes a latter part of the book very painful to read (I can't tell you more without spoilers). Florence is an overly protective mother, to the point that she and Mariel are not close at all as adults, and yet she allows something to happen that is entirely out of character. Mariel's husband is meant to inherit the family business; but we know, early on, that he isn't the man for the job - his beloved sister, Carla is. Yet, once she takes over, she entirely disappears from Ned's life. 

I like the relationships between the generations, complicated as they were. And I appreciated that Stradal was able to surprise me, near the end, with something I never saw coming. I've been very satisfied with the endings of Stradal's other books but this one seemed rushed and not satisfying. Had it, perhaps, felt less rushed, it might have ended in the same way and not been as flat. All in all, despite author Roxane Gay called this "a perfect book," I feel like this book didn't live up to its potential. 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Life: It Goes On - March 24

Happy Sunday! Just last week I was thinking that it always seems to be sunny on Sunday when I'm typing this up. Not today. We've had grey skies and colder temps for the past couple of days. I'm not a fan but it's to be expected in March, I suppose.  

It's been another busy week. My dad was not released from the hospital until Wednesday and then he moved into a different skilled rehabilitation facility. It's a much nicer facility, lovely room, great staff...and he thinks he might be able to be happy living there for the rest of his days. So we may be emptying his new apartment back out again and settling into what will, hopefully, be his forever home. I just want him to get stable, be safe and as happy as he can be, and be well cared for and then I can relax a little. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Dani Shapiro's Signal Fires and Emma Cline's The Guest

Watched: A whole lot of college basketball. 

Read: American Daughter by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. 

Made: French silk pie, strawberry pie, cheesy hash browns, seven-layer salad, ham - yep, we celebrated Easter this weekend. 

Enjoyed: My sister and her husband arrived Thursday evening and their son and his wife arrived Friday. They've all had a busy weekend, visiting parents/grandparents. It's been a relief to have my sister take on the care of my dad for a few days. Last night Mini-him and Miss C joined all of us for an Easter dinner. We've had fun evenings of talking, laughing and a few bottles of wine. But I don't think any of us took a single picture all weekend! 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Plans are fluid these days. I don't do as well when plans are fluid and it's part of the reason I've been so exhausted. We may begin moving some things over to the new place...or we may not. 

Thinking About: How many books I have that need to be read and wishing I could just take a couple of days off of work to spend doing nothing but reading. 

Feeling: Less physically and emotionally exhausted now that we've had some backup for a few days. I even took a two-hour nap this morning.

Looking forward to: Book club on Tuesday. 

Question of the week: Our holidays have certainly changed in the past few years and I'm missing the traditions. Any tips for how to create new traditions? 

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Pete and Alice In Maine by Caitlyn Shetterly

Pete and Alice In Maine
by Caitlyn Shetterly
256 pages
Published July 2023 by HarperCollins

Publisher's Summary: 
Reeling from a painful betrayal in her marriage as the Covid pandemic takes hold in New York City, Alice packs up her family and flees to their vacation home in Maine. She hopes to find sanctuary—from the uncertainties of the exploding pandemic and her faltering marriage. 

Putting distance between herself and the stresses and troubles of the city, Alice begins to feel safe and relieved. But the locals are far from friendly. Trapped and forced into quarantine by hostile neighbors, Alice sees the imprisoning structure of her life in this new predicament. Stripped down to the bare essentials of survival and tending to the needs of her two children, she can no longer ignore all the ways in which she feels limited and lost—lost in the big city, lost as a wife, lost as a mother, lost as a daughter and lost as a person. 

As the world shifts around her and the balance in her marriage tilts, Alice and her husband, Pete, are left to consider if what keeps their family safe is the same thing as what keeps their family together.

My Thoughts:
This is one of those books that I should have reviewed as soon as I finished it, while my thoughts were still fresh in my head...and I could really remember the details. So, as so often happens these days, this review will be brief. 

What Didn't Work For Me: 
  • The kids. For me, Iris is just too precocious and Sophie is just too angry and allowed to be too rude and mean.
  • Alice...sometimes. She seems terribly unhappy in her live even before the betrayal and the pandemic, but unwilling to do anything to make things better for herself. 
  • I've, thankfully, never been in Alice's position so I can't say how I would react. Still, I found myself irritated with her back and forth in regards to her feelings about Pete. On the other hand, again, I've never been in that position so it might be exactly the way I'd react. 
  • Although the entire book is built around needing to leave NYC because of the pandemic, it never seems to touch the family in any way and Alice never seems to be particularly concerned about the ways it's affecting others. 
What I Liked: 
  • I remember hearing about how many people with second homes left the cities in the early days of the pandemic, but this is the first book I've read that tackles how that might have worked for those people. I appreciated that Alice recognized their privilege. 
  • It took me back to those days when we lived in terrible fear of dying (well, at least a good chunk of the population did). It was easy to believe that the reactions of the local in the book mirrored what a lot of locals felt when the city people began moving into their communities, possibly bringing a deadly disease they might otherwise have avoided, into their neighborhood. 
  • Pete and Alice. They felt well developed, with both a lot to like about them but also plenty of flaws. 
  • I liked the writing, the intimacy of the story. I felt as if I really got to know these characters and got into their heads. 
  • The ending. I knew how I wanted the story to end (given what happens in the book), but Shetterly throws a curveball right at the end that entirely changes what will happen next. I do, almost always, like a book that ends without a clear ending. Life happens in segments that don't always come to neat and tidy endings before the next segment begins. That's what happens here and I like it a lot. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Life: It Goes On - March 17

Happy Sunday and happy St. Patrick's Day! We went downtown for dinner last night and the crazies who celebrate by getting drunk were already getting a jump on today. There was a lot of whooping and hollering already going on at 8 p.m.! 

It's been hard to believe that we were still in March, as nice as it's been lately; but for the next week, we're going to be reminded of that, with snow in the forecast again. Still, a girl can dream and I'll be heading off to buy new cushions for the patio furniture this week and I've created a shopping list for annuals and perennials. 

Spent a lot of the week working to get my dad into his new home on Wednesday. Unfortunately, Thursday night he was admitted to the hospital, again. We're hoping that this admission is actually solving some of the problems that have been going on for a while now. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Saturday Night at the Lakeside Club by J. Ryan Stradal. Will finish this one today then I think I'll be starting Dani Shapiro's Signal Fires

Watched: A lot of college basketball, a couple of episodes of The Crown, and a lot of cooking shows. 

Read: Still bouncing between Vanderbilt and Wandering Stars

Made: Shrimp scampi pasta, BLT salad, Rueben sandwiches. 

Enjoyed: Tuesday we went to see Disney's The Lion King and were so impressed with the staging, the costumes, and the puppetry. I do love musical theater! 

Last night we went out to our new favorite Mexican restaurant (it's no lie to say that I've been dreaming about their seafood combo since we went there the first time!) and followed up with drinks, laughs and lots of kvetching with friends at a local brew pub. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Plans are, as to be expected, a little up in the air at the moment. 

Thinking About: What to tackle next for 40 Bags in 40 Days - just 14 days left! 

Feeling: Honestly? Worn out. 

Looking forward to: Already looking forward to an Easter weekend visit from my sister, her husband, their son and his wife. 

Question of the week: Are you celebrating St. Patrick's Day in any way? 

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics
by Tara Conklin
Read by Cassandra Campbell
12 hours, 14 minutes
Published February 2019 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
In the spring of 1981, the young Skinner siblings — fierce Renee, dreamy Caroline, golden-boy Joe, and watchful Fiona — lose their father to a heart attack and their mother to a paralyzing depression, events that thrust them into a period they will later call “the Pause”. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the siblings navigate the dangers and resentments of the Pause to emerge fiercely loyal and deeply connected.

Two decades later, the Skinners find themselves again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they've made and what, exactly, they will do for love.

Narrated nearly a century later by the youngest sibling, the renowned poet Fiona Skinner, The Last Romantics spans a lifetime. It's a story of sex and affection, sacrifice and selfishness, deeply held principles and dashed expectations, a lost engagement ring, a squandered baseball scholarship, unsupervised summers at the neighborhood pond, and an iconic book of love poems. But most of all, it is the story of Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona: the ways they support each other, the ways they betray each other, and the ways they knit back together bonds they have fractured.

My Thoughts: 
The Last Romantics is a book about the things that tie a family together and the things that tear them apart, which makes me very glad to have chosen it as one of this year's book club selections. There's a lot to discuss here, including both the strengths and the weaknesses (in my opinion, of course) of the book. Let's get those (again, in my opinion) weaknesses out of the way first. 

The Weaknesses: 
  • Fiona works, for most of the book, for a climate watch group, which is all very well and good. Except that the book alternates between 100+-year-old Fiona telling a group of fans about her family history while outside it's clear that climate change has, indeed made a powerful impact on the Earth. Except that's not really touched on all that much and it doesn't really impact that story in any way. It could have been left out or incorporated more. 
  • So the entire reason for Fiona to tell the audience her family's story is to explain to them who the "Luna" that appears in her most famous poem was to her family. We finally get to that point late in the book and then I felt like we got bogged down in that piece of the story. I wanted the story to be about the siblings and not veer off into Luna's story; and then I found the girls' obsession with finding Luna very strange and unlikely. 
The Strengths: 
  • I do love me a good story about siblings - about their relationships with each other and about who each of them are in their own lives. 
  • These are particularly strong characters. While Fiona is clearly the main character of the book, each of her siblings are well-developed and any one of them stands on their own. We can clearly see how the young child they were grew into the adults they became and how The Pause impacted that growth. 
  • There are a lot of themes explored in the book and they never feel forced. 
  • I very much liked the way Conklin tied up the book. You all know I enjoy a book that doesn't necessarily tie everything neatly with a bow at the end. 
I'm so looking forward to hearing what my book club members think of this one! 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen
First published in 1814
About 500 pages, depending on the edition

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle's absence in Antigua, the Crawford's arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation. Mansfield Park is considered Jane Austen's first mature work and, with its quiet heroine and subtle examination of social position and moral integrity, one of her most profound.

My Thoughts: 
I picked this for my book club's classic book for 2024. To say that it was not a hit would be a massive understatement. This is a well-read group of ladies and I have thrown a lot of different things at them over the years, but the lesson here is that 500 pages of early 19th century sensibility, with a lot of dialogue but not a lot of action, doesn't work for these ladies. But this book doesn't work for a lot of people for exactly the same reasons my book club didn't enjoy it. 

Fanny Price is not the same kind of heroine that Austen's readers are more familiar with - she is quiet, physically weak, and lets people run all over her. In her defense, she was thrown into a situation at ten-years-old where it was made clear to her that she was inferior to her cousins, entirely dependent on her uncle's largesse, likely suffered from indoor allergies, and was treated as little more than a servant by so many in her family. Her one and only true ally was cousin Edmund, a young man who grew up knowing that he would become a member of the clergy; the two of them, probably rightly so, tended to the higher ground. We do at least see Edmund nearly fall prey to Mary Crawford and Fanny finally stand up for herself when she refuses Henry Crawford, despite the risk to herself. 

Austen isn't without social commentary in Mansfield Park. Because of the Bertram's holdings in Antigua, Austen does touch on slavery. We look at the huge imbalance of wealth and the cost to all involved. Fanny's family is so poor that they must send Fanny away to live elsewhere and her brother goes into the Navy at a very young age to earn his way while the Bertram girls grow up knowing that they will be required to marry well, regardless of warmth of affection or intelligence. Fanny's aunt Bertram is indolent while her Aunt Norris is forced to prove herself worthy of Sir Bertram's continuing support. 

For me, Mansfield Park was a reread, but I will admit that it's a slow read. The satire is not as striking and there is not as much outright humor as there is in others of Austen's books. And the ending is, in my opinion, not quite up to snuff. We have spent hundreds of pages being shown what was happening in Fanny's world only to be told what happens and how we should feel about it. We are meant to dislike Henry Crawford very much in the end (although his character may have grown the most throughout the book, thanks to Fanny) and meant to believe that Fanny and Edmund were always meant to be together. But Austen could easily have let Henry become the man Fanny seemed to believe her was becoming (a man who sees a better way, much like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). But Austen, who was writing in the time of broad Gothic romance, seemed to have preferred to steer away from that. It would have made a more interesting ending. Although, let's be honest, we would not have gotten to see Maria Bertram Rushworth get the ending she deserved. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Life: It Goes On - March 10

Happy Sunday! What is it about Sundays for that past few months that they are almost always sunny as I'm typing these posts? Sunny and we're climbing back up into the warmth, after some chilly days and a little snow that reminded us that this is still Nebraska in March and we shouldn't be getting too eager for spring just yet. Of course, the arrival of daylight savings time makes it feel even more like spring is just around the corner. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Tara Conklin's The Last Romantics. Nothing I had on hold was going to be ready for a couple of more weeks, so I had to find something to listen to in the interim. In classic Lisa fashion, I've checked out three audiobooks, at least one of which is go back unread when I run out of time. The question is, which if these should I listen to first? 

 Again, lots of basketball. 

Read: Still working on Anderson Cooper's Vanderbilt. Just haven't had much time (or ability to focus) to sit down and read. 

Made: Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, the leftovers of which we've used to make Cuban sandwiches, and Monte Cristo sandwiches, the first time (but not the last!) I've ever had them. 

Enjoyed: My brother and sister-in-law made a last-minute, 36-hour trip up to see my dad and help get his things moved into his new assisted living apartment. Let me tell you, if you want something done, have my sister-in-law help. The woman is tireless, a real problem solver, and will do whatever needs to be done. There are a couple of small things still to be done and all of the things to hang on the walls, but his place otherwise went from empty on Friday at 4 p.m. to fully settled by 2 p.m. today. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: The first few days of this week will be all about getting my dad into the new place with meetings tomorrow, Tuesday and the move on Wednesday. Then it's back to continuing the decluttering of my house! I did get another load to the Goodwill on Friday. Every time I fill my car up again, I feel a weight lifted. 

Thinking About: A long weekend getaway. Or at least a quick trip to KC to see Miss H. 

Feeling: Tired - mentally and physically. Moving is not for the faint of heart, even when you have great help, a good plan, and you use movers (although they were supposed to unpack and then couldn't). 

Looking forward to: The Big Guy and I are off to see The Lion King on Tuesday. Not the best timing but it will be nice to do something that completely takes my mind off of the things that need to be done for a couple of hours. 

Question of the week: How do you feel about daylight savings time? If you hate it, is it just the change over or do you not like it for the entire time we're in it? I love the long evenings of sunshine so much, that I'm willing to have my sleep schedule disturbed a little for a few days to have those long days. 

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond Productivity Culture by Jenny Odell

Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond Productivity Culture
by Jenny Odell
Read by Kristen Sith
11 hours, 27 minutes
Published March 2023 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: In her first book, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell wrote about the importance of disconnecting from the “attention economy” to spend time in quiet contemplation. But what if you don’t have time to spend?

In order to answer this seemingly simple question, Odell took a deep dive into the fundamental structure of our society and found that the clock we live by was built for profit, not people. This is why our lives, even in leisure, have come to seem like a series of moments to be bought, sold, and processed ever more efficiently. Odell shows us how our painful relationship to time is inextricably connected not only to persisting social inequities but to the climate crisis, existential dread, and a lethal fatalism.

This dazzling, subversive, and deeply hopeful book offers us different ways to experience time—inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues, and geological timescales—that can bring within reach a more humane, responsive way of living. As planet-bound animals, we live inside shortening and lengthening days alongside gardens growing, birds migrating, and cliffs eroding; the stretchy quality of waiting and desire; the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory; the slow but sure procession of a pregnancy; the time it takes to heal from injuries. Odell urges us to become stewards of these different rhythms of life in which time is not reducible to standardized units and instead forms the very medium of possibility.

Saving Time tugs at the seams of reality as we know it—the way we experience time itself—and rearranges it, imagining a world not centered on work, the office clock, or the profit motive. If we can “save” time by imagining a life, identity, and source of meaning outside these things, time might also save us.

My Thoughts: 
We tend to think of time as a constant, an inexorable movement forward, marked by the clock or calendar as we know it and we live our lives accordingly. It's six a.m. so it's time to get out of bed, it's 5 p.m. so it's time to leave work, the show starts at 7 p.m., your appointment is at 10 a.m. It's Monday so we have to go to work, it's Sunday so some of us will be going to church. We all work on the same clock and calendar so we can agree what time we should be places, what day we'll go to dinner with friends, when our library books are due.  

Except that we are also aware that even that way to mark time isn't always exact. It's 11 a.m. as I'm writing this in Nebraska, but it's 8 a.m. where my son lives. Easter falls on a different Sunday every year; the official Memorial Day will fall on a different day of the week every sixth year but the day we observe it will be a different date from year to year; Thanksgiving will always be the last Thursday of November but the date will change. Each of us ages slightly differently, even if we were born at the exact same time, place, and date. 

Odell wants us to be aware that there are a lot of other ways to mark time, that time, as we mark it, has been largely dictated by economic factors and can impact different races differently, and that even climate change is impacting time. 

We have, in our culture, 4 seasons. But, while the official start of each of those seasons may be the same date every year, the reality is that the seasons begin at only approximately the same time every year. Other cultures have entirely different seasons; they might consider that spring has arrived here because the temperature and plant growth say it has, even though a set date has not arrived. 

We sell our time to employers, in exchange for the things we need to live. Employers have evolved ever greater ways to get more work out of us for as little cost to them as possible. In Amazon fulfillment centers, every task has a set amount of time for it to be completed and every moment of a worker's day is tracked. UPS has an exacting route for their trucks, maximizing right turns and traffic lights. Very few employers look at ways to increase productivity by creating down time within the work day.

We've been convinced, by "experts" that there are ways we can more efficiently use our time outside of work, experts Odell calls "productivity bros." If you get up at five, instead of six, you can find time to exercise, for example. Never mind that you'll have to give up something on the other end of the day in order not to lose sleep. 

Even our so-called leisure time has become more structured and work like. This blog, for example. When I began it in 2013, I did it to track my reading and to connect with others. But the longer I did it, the more I got caught up in the idea that I needed to do things that would increase traffic to my blog; I felt like I needed to read at least two books a week so that I had plenty of reviews and have a new blog post up five-six times a week. My parents recognized it for the work it had become, but I insisted it was for fun because it was something I was choosing to do. Except that it wasn't fun any more; the blog had become a second job, a job that took up time I could have been doing things I'd have preferred to be doing. 

Odell presents so many different ways to view and think about time. So many, in fact, and so in depth, that it often became difficult for me to stay focused or understand how this all tied into the larger subject. What I was looking for, more than a way to see time differently, was a way to help myself quit marking time, find ways to ignore the clock, to fully relax and quite worrying so much about what needs to be done. I learned a lot in this book, but I didn't learn that. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living
by Shauna Niequist 
Read by Shauna Niequist
4 hours, 44 minutes
Published August 2016 by Zondervan

Publisher's Summary: 
A few years ago, Shauna found herself exhausted and isolated, her soul and body sick. She was tired of being tired and burned out on busy. It seemed like almost everyone she talked to was in the same boat: longing for connection, meaning, and depth, but settling for busy.

But then something changed. She decided to trade the hustle and bustle for grace, love, stillness, and play, and it changed everything. Shauna offers an honest account of what led her to begin this journey and a compelling vision for an entirely new way to live: soaked in rest, silence, simplicity, prayer, and connection with the people who matter most to us.

As you witness Shauna's journey, you'll be inspired to embark on one of your own. She gives you the encouragement you need to:

Put an end to people-pleasing tendencies
Embrace moments of simplicity, quiet, and stillness
Accept that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy

Written in Shauna's warm and vulnerable style, this collection of essays focuses on the most important transformation in her life, and maybe yours too: leaving behind busyness and frantic living and rediscovering the person you were made to be. Present Over Perfect is a hand reaching out, pulling you free from the constant pressure to perform faster, push harder, and produce more while maintaining an exhausting image of perfection.

My Thoughts: 
One of my coworkers is going through very similar situations with some family members as I have been going through with my dad and through the same work environment. We've had a lot of conversations about the mental, and even physical, toll it has taken on us. She is also a big reader so we often exchange book recommendations. I have never disagreed with her about any book she has recommended to me (although she was not a fan of Lone Women, which she learned about from me; but, in my defense, I told her I liked it but I did not recommend it as something she might like!). So when she came into work one day, excited about this book and already putting Niequist's recommendations into practice, I immediately requested it from the library. 

One thing I immediately realized was that Niequist leaned heavily into her religious beliefs through her journey. I am no longer what I would call "religious;" rather I would say that I am "spiritual." So I did have to adapt what Niequist was suggesting regarding prayer and turning things over to God into something that I could relate to and use in my own way. In some places, that was harder to do than others. Those of you who are religious will find that Niequist recommends what so many others have done - turn your life over to your god and believe that they will create that outcomes that are right for you. For me, that means acknowledging that some things are simply out of my hands and that my higher power will be there for me regardless of the outcome. 

Niequist has a lot of famous friends, Jen Hatmaker and Glennon Doyle among them. As I'm fans of both of those folks, their praise of Niequist makes me appreciate that her ideas might just work for me. Saying "no." Cancelling when you need to do so. Making your life easier.

I'd like to tell you that, when I was finished, I stopped worrying about how clean or cluttered my house is and just decided that I would learn to live with what I could do with the time and energy that I have after I've done the things that have to be done. I haven't. But I have given myself permission to not do things simply out of guilt or a need to prove myself worthy of love and respect (ok, I'm doing that some of the time; it's a work in progress). One day that may mean the end of this blog. It's work to keep up and I'm not getting the interaction I used to get out of it (that's on me as much as anyone but it's a fact) which makes it less fun than it once was. I may even learn to say "no" to my kids one of these days.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Life: It Goes On - March 3

Happy Sunday! What is it about Sundays that so often when I sit down to type this the sun is shining? To be fair, most days lately have been sunny...and warm! We had one very cold day last week but I can handle that as we move closer and closer to spring. My mind is already thinking about how I want to arrange furniture on the patio, what pieces I may get rid of, what pieces I may paint...and the flowers I want to plant, of course! I know that I should be living in the present but thinking about spring is the only way I survive winter. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Gretchen Rubin's Life In Five Senses. As so often happens to me when I listen to Rubin's podcast or read one of her books, I learn a lot and I'm inspired. I'm now pondering a project of my own to explore the five major senses. 

Watched: A lot of college and high school basketball (it's state tournament time here) and the final episode of Ted Lasso. The Big Guy and I are both so sad to be finished with it; it's so well written. But we've agreed that it's a series we'll probably rewatch. 

 Pete and Alice In Maine by Caitlyn Shetterly. 

Made: I cleaned out the refrigerator yesterday which resulted in BG and I making turkey enchiladas, smashed potatoes, and apple crisp. BG has been doing a lot of the grocery shopping in the past few years but he tends to pick up things we regularly use without checking to see if we actually need them. Hence, we end up with more apples that we could use in the next week, potatoes that need to be used soon, and two heads of broccoli (soup coming up this week!). 

Enjoyed: Dinner out with friends to celebrate his birthday. BG and he have been friends since they were 14; they were dating when she introduced me to BG. Which is to say that we have been through a lot together and always have a lot to talk about. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: More decluttering here and getting things moving to get my dad moved into assisted living in a couple of weeks. 

Thinking About: Risking jinxing things and going ahead and taking down the winter decor and putting out the Easter things. 

Feeling: Like we might just have done a good job as parents. Last night Miss H sent me a screen shot off her phone of my three kids, Ms S, Ms C, and my nephew all having a FaceTime evening together. We may  have done a lot of things wrong, but we did raise kids that are friends as adults and I'm convinced, now more than ever, that is vital to a happier life. 

Looking forward to: My brother will be coming up some time in the next couple of weeks and my sister is coming for Easter. 

Question of the week: Are you looking forward to spring or are you a winter lover? 

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright

Madame Restell: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Old New York's Most Fabulous, Fearless, and Infamous Abortionist by Jennifer Wright
Read by Mara Wilson
14 hours, 1 minute
Published February 2023 by Hachette Books

Publisher's Summary: 
An industrious immigrant who built her business from the ground up, Madame Restell was a self-taught surgeon on the cutting edge of healthcare in pre-Gilded Age New York, and her bustling “boarding house” provided birth control, abortions, and medical assistance to thousands of women—rich and poor alike. As her practice expanded, her notoriety swelled, and Restell established her-self as a prime target for tabloids, threats, and lawsuits galore. But far from fading into the background, she defiantly flaunted her wealth, parading across the city in designer clothes, expensive jewelry, and bejeweled carriages, rubbing her success in the faces of the many politicians, publishers, fellow physicians, and religious figures determined to bring her down. 

Unfortunately for Madame Restell, her rise to the top of her field coincided with “the greatest scam you’ve never heard about”—the campaign to curtail women’s power by restricting their access to both healthcare and careers of their own. Powerful, secular men—threatened by women’s burgeoning independence—were eager to declare abortion sinful, a position endorsed by newly-minted male MDs who longed to edge out their feminine competition and turn medicine into a standardized, male-only practice. By unraveling the misogynistic and misleading lies that put women’s lives in jeopardy, Wright simultaneously restores Restell to her rightful place in history and obliterates the faulty reasoning underlying the very foundation of what has since been dubbed the “pro-life” movement.

My Thoughts: 
Thanks to my friend who shares The New York Times Book Review sections with me, which is where I first learned about this book. I had never heard of Madame Restell, a woman who rose from poverty to self-made millionaire, a woman who offered a service that polite society both frowned on but also found essential, a woman who frightened men by being unafraid of them and their rules. 

Madame Restell was born Ann Trow in 1811, becoming a maid-of-all-work, a job that instilled in Ann a sympathy for servants that resulted in her treating her own servants far better than the average servants of the age and in a desire to help those servants in trouble. Ann was married at 16 and moved to the United States with her husband and toddler when she was 20. After her husband's death, Ann was forced to find a way to support herself. With so many women skilled at sewing and unwilling to turn to prostitution, young Ann befriended a man who compounded prescriptions. He taught her how to mix medications that would end pregnancies and may also have been the one who taught her to perform surgical abortions. Ann moved on to her own business, helped by her brother and second husband, Charles Lehman. They created the character of Madame Restell. 

No one seemed to find it at all ironic that, while they scorned Madame Restell and the service she provided, they also made her a very rich woman. Riches she was all too happy to flaunt, which may have resulted in the suffragette movement not standing up in the defense of the services she provided. Restell was forced to battle not only the police and public opinion, but also others who provided the same services. She became a master at advertising and using the press to fight her enemies. But she also spent time in both jail and the penitentiary. In 1878, Restell was arrested for the last time by Anthony Comstock, a man who managed to force his own Puritanical views on an entire country. 

This one would be categorized as non-fiction, but it is by no means an unbiased work of non-fiction. To be far to Wright, it's hard not to side against male doctors who refused to adopt hand washing and fought against midwifery until they had all but wiped it out. It's hard not to side with woman being able to get a service they desperately need when they are raped by their employers, when they are impregnated by suiters who abandon them, when they simply cannot conceive of being pregnant for the eighth or ninth time. This in a day and age when "foundlings" weren't allowed in orphanages and were instead sent to almshouses where they were almost certain to die. Wright clearly admires her subject, and the work she did, while acknowledging her flaws. 

In Madame Restell, we not only learn about a forgotten woman, but we also learn a great deal about the times in which she lived - society norms, religion, medicine. As always, I was drawn in by the opportunity to dig deeper into a part of history I didn't know all that much about. Wright provides all the background and research needed without overwhelming readers and shows us that, once again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sadly, not much has changed since Madame Restell's time, other than the fact that an abortion, when legal, is a much safer procedure than it was 200 years ago.