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. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune
by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe
Read by Anderson Cooper
8 hours, 18 minutes
Published September 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
The story of the Astors is a quintessentially American story-of ambition, invention, destruction, and reinvention. 

From 1783, when German immigrant John Jacob Astor first arrived in the United States, until 2009, when Brooke Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted of defrauding his elderly mother, the Astor name occupied a unique place in American society. 

The family fortune, first made by a beaver trapping business that grew into an empire, was then amplified by holdings in Manhattan real estate. Over the ensuing generations, Astors ruled Gilded Age New York society and inserted themselves into political and cultural life, but also suffered the most famous loss on the Titanic, one of many shocking and unexpected twists in the family's story. 

In this unconventional, page-turning historical biography, #1 New York Times bestselling authors Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe chronicle the lives of the Astors and explore what the Astor name has come to mean in America-offering a window onto the making of America itself.

My Thoughts: 
I've been meaning to read Cooper's Vanderbilt for some time. It arrived in my audiobook inbox once, but I still had too long left on the book I was listening to at the time. It arrived in my library as a hold for me recently, but I'd accidentally requested it on CD. One day I'll get to it. In the meantime, I was able to get Cooper's follow up, Astor, which was inspired by the research he'd done into his own family history. 

The Astor family name is one which I've been familiar with for a long time. I knew a little something about the first John Jacob Astor; I'd heard of John Jacob Astor IV, who sank with the Titanic; and the name Brook Astor was familiar to me, having a vague recollection of the battle over her money after she died. But, as you know, I always love a book that teaches me more about a subject I'm only passingly familiar with - especially when that book is well researched and well written. 

John Jacob Astor I, c. 1794
by Gilbert Sullivan
What I learned: 
  • John Jacob Astor started his fortune trapping and trading in beaver pelts.  He was not, as you might expect from someone who grew from modest means to immense wealth, not above playing dirty and taking advantage of people. Astor's greatest wealth came from his ability to understand how valuable land around New York City would become; he even bought up land from Aaron Burr. 
  • John Jacob Astor I wanted to create his own country, called Astoria, on the west coast. It never came to fruition; but the name Astoria became part of New York history when later family members used it, along with Waldorf (the town where JJA was born), to name hotels and a neighborhood in Queens. 
  • Most of John Astor I's fortune passed down to his son William Backhouse Astor. William bought up even more land. On these lands, slum dwellings grew, greatly increasing the Astor fortune. 
  • William's son, William Backhouse Jr, married Caroline Astor who became the arbiter of New York society for decades. I'm more familiar with William and Caroline than any other Astor due to having read books about the Vanderbilts, who had to overcome Carline to become accepted in NYC society. Junior was more interested in yachting and other women than in business. They were the parents of John "Jack" Jacob Astor IV. 
  • William's grandson, William Waldorf Astor established himself in England but, because of an division between William and his cousin, John Jacob Astor IV, he built the Waldorf Hotel next to John's house in order to dwarf it. Jack Astor convinced his mother to tear down their home and build the Astoria Hotel next to the Waldorf Hotel. Eventually the cousins reached a truce and created corridors between the hotels, creating the Waldorf-Astoria. 
  • When Jack's son, William Vincent Astor, inherited his father's wealth, he set out to change the family's image, selling off their slum housing and becaming a great philanthropist (although not necessary a great person). When he died, he left all of his money to the Vincent Astor foundation and his third wife, Brooke. Brooke's son by her first marriage, Anthony, would eventually end up in jail for trying to cheat his mother out of her money in her later years, when she was battling Alzheimer's. Brooke lived to 105 and was the last of Astor to be prominent.  
Again and again throughout the book, Cooper finds ties to people and places in American history, which made the book all that much more interesting. There are several times when Cooper and Howe veer off to explore places or events, which, while interesting, were a distraction from the family history for me. And while Cooper does a fine job reading the book, I can't help but wonder if it would have been easier to keep track of who was who if I'd been physically reading the book (there are, after all, a lot of John Jacobs and William's in the book). Overall, through, I found it fascinating. The history of a family, the history of how a great fortune became so divided and so ill-used as to become inconsequential, the history of so much of the United States. And now I need to get my hands on Vanderbilt so I can see how that family managed to do much the same thing. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Life: It Goes On - February 25

Happy Sunday! Even as it's hard to believe that February is almost over, it's also hard to believe that it's still February with weather that has been so unwinterlike (yep, just made up a word) almost all month. I have plants peeking their spears up out of ground that should still be far too cold for them to start growing; they are almost as big as they were in this photo I took a couple of years ago...well into March. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Finished Mansfield Park and then back to Saving Time by Jenny Odell. 

Watched: The penultimate episode of Ted Lasso. We have been spreading the final episodes out for weeks; we'll be so sad to be done with the series. We've both agreed that it's a series we would watch again...although there are always so many things that we've never watched that we'd like to get watched. Sort of like keeping a book that I think I'll reread and never do because there are so many other books that I haven't read yet. 

Read: Pete and Alice In Maine by Caitlyn Shetterly. This was recommend to me but I can't remember who it was that recommended it. 

Made: I'm making rice pudding as I type this. My dad has been having stomach problems for several weeks and has now grown a little afraid to eat. I'm hoping that something that he loves (but that is also easy to digest) will appeal to him. I know I'm looking forward to eating some! 

Enjoyed: Book club on Tuesday. We played a Jane Austen matching game (akin to Memory) but didn't bother to read the rules and then discovered that even the biggest Austen fans in the group couldn't remember who matched up with who in all of the books. Which turned out to be a lot of laughs, so it all worked out. 
This Week I’m:  

Another run to the Goodwill. The decluttering and 40 Bags in 40 Days continue full force. 

Thinking About: I'll also be dropping off a big bag of clothes to the high school for them to use for plays - clothes that my mom had saved for more than 60 years, things other people wore at my parents wedding, my mom's going away outfit, etc. These things meant so much to her but my siblings and I have agreed that the clothes were her memories, not ours. I've been thinking a lot about that idea and what "things" I need to say goodbye to now so that they don't become a burden for my children some day. 

Feeling: Worn down. I don't think I've been sleeping well, but I refuse to sleep with my Apple watch on because I'm a little afraid to find out just how bad it's been. 

Looking forward to: Another quiet week. We have both Miss H's and Ms. S's bdays on Friday but, sadly, won't get to be with either of them to celebrate. Trying to figure out a way to celebrate from afar. 

Question of the week: If someone had something delivered to you, what would you rather have: balloons, flowers, or a meal? 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

After Annie by Anna Quindlen

After Annie
by Anna Quindlen
304 pages
Published Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
When Annie Brown dies suddenly, her husband, her children, and her closest friend are left to find a way forward without the woman who has been the lynchpin of all their lives. Bill is overwhelmed without his beloved wife, and Annemarie wrestles with the bad habits her best friend had helped her overcome. And Ali, the eldest of Annie’s children, has to grow up overnight, to care for her younger brothers and even her father and to puzzle out for herself many of the mysteries of adult life. 

Over the course of the next year what saves them all is Annie, ever-present in their minds, loving but not sentimental, caring but nobody’s fool, a voice in their heads that is funny and sharp and remarkably clear. The power she has given to those who loved her is the power to go on without her. The lesson they learn is that no one beloved is ever truly gone. 

Written in Quindlen’s emotionally resonant voice and with her deep and generous understanding of people, After Annie is about hope, and about the unexpected power of adversity to change us in profound and indelible ways.

My Thoughts: 
Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; even when I don't love one of her books, I still find plenty to like and think about it. So when I find that she's written a new book, I jump at the chance to read it. Without even looking to see what it's about. And, clearly, without paying much attention to the title. So it came as a surprise to me when Annie drops to the kitchen floor, dead of an aneurysm. I suppose I thought that this would be a family story, which it most certainly is. But it is primarily a book about grief and loss and how each person handles both in their own way and in their own time. 

Quindlen is a master of making big themes feel intimate, personal, and real. 
"Annie Brown died right before dinner. The mashed potatoes were still in the pot on the stove, the dented pot with the loose handle, but the meatloaf and the peas were already on the table. Two of the children were in their usual seats. Jamie tried to pick a piece of bacon off the top of the meatloaf, and Ali elbowed him."

 It turns out that Annie was everyone's anchor, as women so often are. Without his anchor, Bill looks to other people, who are all too willing to step up, to help him survive. Ali turns to her only real friend, only to find that her friend doesn't have the capacity to help. Ant rebels. Annemarie finds she doesn't know how to fight her addiction without Annie holding her accountable. Fortunately, there are people who offer real solace and reasons to fight hard to make a new life, while still honoring the person they lost. 

For a short novel, Quindlen has packed a lot into this one. Not only are we dealing with death, grief, loss, parenting, marriage, and friendship, Quindlen is also addressing mental health, sexual assault, addiction, aging, and secrets. In lesser hands, it would be too much. It might be more here than Quindlen needed to include here; but, because she handles it all so well, it mostly worked for me. And I was so wrapped up in the characters, so invested in their finding their way to peace, that I was willing to overlook anything that might have been hard to forgive in a lesser work. I know there will be people who are not happy with the ending; but I was fine with it because I so badly wanted to this family to pull together and find a way forward. 


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Book of Fire by Christy Lefteri

Book of Fire
by Christy Lefteri
336 pages
Published January 2024 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
In present-day Greece, deep in an ancient forest, lives a family: Irini, a musician, who teaches children to read and play music; her husband, Tasso, who paints pictures of the forest, his greatest muse; and Chara, their young daughter, whose name means joy. On the fateful day that will forever alter the trajectory of their lives, flames chase fleeing birds across the sky. The wildfire that will consume their home, and their lives as they know it, races toward them. 

Months later, as the village tries to rebuild, Irini stumbles upon the man who started the fire, a land speculator who had intended only a small, controlled burn to clear forestland to build on but instead ignited a catastrophe. He is dying, although the cause is unclear, and in her anger at all he took from them, Irini makes a split-second decision that will haunt her. 

As the local police investigate the suspicious death, Tasso mourns his father, who has not been seen since before the fire. Tasso’s hands were burnt in the flames, leaving him unable to paint, and he struggles to cope with the overwhelming loss of his artistic voice and his beloved forest. Only his young daughter, who wants to repair the damage that’s been done, gives him hope for the future.

My Thoughts: 

I meant to get this written sooner, while the book was still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, that didn't happen; and, since Netgalley won't let me highlight any more, it's hard to go back and grab specifics or refresh my memory. These are the highlights of what I recall:
  • Lefteri utilizes dual storylines here, one first-person account of the family after the fire, the other Irini's third-person recounting of the fire and its immediate aftermath. I liked the concept but, as with so many dual storyline novels, one feels more compelling than the other. 
  • The parts describing the spread of the fire and Irini's and Chara's time in the water waiting for rescue are truly frightening. The fear, the exhaustion, the fight to survive are all vividly portrayed. 
  • The present day storyline often felt repetitive; I think things could have been cleaned up to make that storyline tighter. 
  • I always appreciate a novel where the ending is not a forgone conclusion. I did like the way this one ended, with not everything tied up neatly. 
  • I appreciated that the bad guy was given some balance. 
  • I really enjoyed learning some history of Greece, reading about Irini's family's immigrant experience, spending some time with the locals, and the way Lefteri used climate change to craft the rest of the story. 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Happy Sunday! I hope it's as sunny there as it is here this morning - my day is always better when I can see the sun. I've had a very productive weekend; I took the day off Friday and have powered through getting a lot of decluttering done, laundry washed, and cleaning done. I'm feeling much lighter as I get rid of more and more things that don't need to live in my house any more, even if not all of it will show to the outside world. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Shauna Niequist's Present Over Perfect and started Jenny Odell's Saving Time. I seem to be on a real nonfiction bend of late. 

Watched: We finished Daisy Jones and The Six and both agreed we might have liked it better if we hadn't read the book first or if they had stuck more closely to it. I've also watched some more of The Crown and last night we watched Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Maestro. I can see why they were both nominated for Academy Awards but it definitely wasn't what I was expecting in a movie about Leonard Bernstein. 

Read: I'm reading Mansfield Park for book club and Tommy Orange's Wandering Stars. I keep feeling like I'm still not reading as much as I once did, but when I logged in everything I'd read or listened to so far this year, I find that I've already finished twelve books. I'm just listening more than I'm sitting down with a book. 

Made: Homemade mac and cheese and chicken noodle soup. BG was out of town for a couple of nights and we've eaten out a couple of nights so not much cooking was going on here. 

Enjoyed: A visit from my uncle and BG and I went for a belated Valentine's Day dinner last night. We went to a place, Trini's, we've never been to before but that's been a staple in Omaha for more than forty years. It was so good - I'm really beating myself up that I've been missing it all of these years! 
This Week I’m:  

Planning: The decluttering will continue. I'll finish what Go Simplified calls the entertaining areas. In her world, all of your entertaining things are in a couple of rooms, whereas my tablecloth collection is hanging in a guest room closet so, of course, while I was in that closet, I started going through everything in it. Need to finish that part of the project today so I don't have too many things started at once. 

Thinking About: My dad. He's not progressing as well as we had hoped and we may need to make some difficult decisions in the coming weeks. At the very least, I need to get some things in place sooner than I had planned. 

Feeling: More rested, thanks to that spur-of-the-moment decision to take Friday off. 

Looking forward to: Book club this week. 

Question of the week: I am so looking forward to my leftovers from last night's dinner, but I know a lot of people don't take home the food they don't finish. What about you - do you enjoy leftovers from dinners out? 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin

California Golden
by Melanie Benjamin
352 pages
Published August 2023 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Southern California, 1960s: endless sunny days surfing in Malibu, followed by glittering neon nights at Whisky a Go Go. In an era when women are expected to be housewives, Carol Donnelly breaks the mold as a legendary female surfer struggling to compete in a male-dominated sport—and her daughters, Mindy and Ginger, bear the weight of Carol’s unconventional lifestyle. 

The Donnelly sisters grow up enduring their mother’s absence—physically, when she’s at the beach, and emotionally, the rare times she’s at home. To escape questions about Carol’s whereabouts—and to chase her elusive affection—they cut school to spend their days in the surf. From her first time on a board, Mindy is a natural, but Ginger, two years younger, feels out of place in the water. 

As they grow up and their lives diverge, Mindy and Ginger’s relationship ebbs and flows. Mindy finds herself swept up in celebrity, complete with beachside love affairs, parties at the Playboy Club, and a USO tour in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Ginger, desperate for a community of her own, is tugged into the dangerous counterculture of drugs and cults. But through it all, their sense of duty to each other survives, as the girls are forever connected by the emotional damage they carry from their unorthodox childhood.

My Thoughts: 

  • This is the 7th of Benjamin's books that I've read. What always intrigues me about her books is that she bases them on real women from the past, many of whom you'd be very familiar with, some you're only passingly familiar with, others you've never heard of but who hold an interesting place in history. California Golden is no exception - Carol Donnelly is loosely based on Marge Calhoun, considered the first female surfing champion. As always, the women are strong women, even when they aren't particularly likable. 
  • While this one didn't measure up to others of Benjamin's books (an opinion echoed by my book club), it does offer plenty to think about: sexism, trauma, drug abuse, mental and physical abuse, complicated family relationships, stereotypes and the boxes that women have traditionally been pushed into. Carol was not a good mother, but then she had never wanted to be a mother and always felt that circumstances had trapped her into being one. Both girls grew up craving love and attention, to an extent that almost destroyed them. 
  • Benjamin not only finds these interesting historical women, but she also researches the heck out of the places and time periods she writes about. Truly, I could feel the heat on my face, the sand under my feet, the chill of the water. Readers spend time in the nightclubs of the day, learn about the real history behind Gidget, travel to Hawaii and surfing tournaments, and even find themselves in Vietnam on an entertainment tour led by Johnny Grant, the one-time honorary mayor of Hollywood. 
  • A quibble I often have with Benjamin's books is that they can be repetitive and over full of similes. In this book, that stood out more than usual for me. 
  • While this wasn't a favorite for my book club, there was plenty to talk about and I'd recommend it on that basis. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Life: It Goes On - February 11

Three years. That's how long ago I realized that life really does go on. I can't believe it's been three years since I got the call that my mom had died.  It's been three years; the shock is gone, then pain is lessened. But I still think about her all of the time. This week, I saw a news story and thought that I needed to call her and make sure that she had seen it. She used to call me almost every day just after I sat down for my lunch break. Frequently, I was frustrated that I wasn't going to have some quiet time, some time to read. Occasionally, I let the call go to voice mail. One of the lessons I learned through her loss was to never, ever, let those phone calls go to voice mail. There is never anything that you're doing that is more important that taking the time to talk to the people you love. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished Anderson Cooper's Astor

Watched: Roman Holiday with Aubrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck - her first movie and only Oscar. I love this time of year when TCM is playing only movies that won Academy Awards in some way. 

Read: I finished After Annie and continued my re-read of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park for book club this month. 

Made: Honestly cannot remember a single meal we ate at home this week. Pretty sure The Big Guy prepared all of them. 

 A 24-ish hour visit to Kansas City to visit Miss H. It's the first time we've been to K.C. since the weekend she moved into her apartment three months ago. BG did all of the dad tasks that she needed done and I helped her hang some new shelves and picture frames. It was fun to just hang out and be with each other; but we did also manage to work in dinner at Waldo's Pizza. It may be my new favorite pizza place. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Wednesday is the first day of 40 Bags in 40 Days. The Go Simplified Challenge continues and February's focus is entertaining spaces so that's where I'll start with 40 Bags. 

I'm actually way behind in February as I had a vehicle full (and my Pilot holds quite a lot so that gives you an idea of how much I'm talking about) of stuff sitting in my dining room, waiting to be taken to the Goodwill. Realistically, I'd just have continued adding to the pile. But I just could not bear to put anything more in my dining room. Now that it's emptied out, I'll start filling that corner up again!

Thinking About: Spring. It's been so unseasonably warm here the past couple of weeks, with no end in sight, so garden planning has commenced. 

Feeling: Tired. We opted to sleep on an air mattress in Miss H's living room to give us more time to be together. Can someone please invent an air mattress that doesn't leak out air during the night? We weren't on the floor by this morning but we were only about 2/3 as high off the ground as we had been when we started and getting out of the bed was a challenge! 

Looking forward to: My uncle has to come to town this week so I'm looking forward to seeing him and enjoying dinner out together. 

Question of the week: Are you cheering for the Chiefs or 49'ers in the Super Bowl, just there for the ads, or couldn't care less? 

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Chenneville: A Novel Murder, Loss, and Vengeance of by Paulette Jiles

Chenneville: A Novel of Murder, Loss, and Vengeance 
by Paulette Jiles
Read by Grover Gardner
11 hours, 49 minutes
Published September 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
Union soldier John Chenneville suffered a traumatic head wound in battle. His recovery took the better part of a year as he struggled to regain his senses and mobility. By the time he returned home, the Civil War was over, but tragedy awaited. John's beloved sister and her family had been brutally murdered. 

Their killer goes by many names. He fought for the North in the late unpleasantness, and wore a badge in the name of the law. But the man John knows as A. J. Dodd is little more than a rabid animal, slaughtering without reason or remorse, needing to be put down. 

Traveling through the unforgiving landscape of a shattered nation in the midst of Reconstruction, John braves winter storms and confronts desperate people in pursuit of his quarry. Untethered, single-minded in purpose, he will not be deterred. Not by the U.S. Marshal who threatens to arrest him for murder should he succeed. And not by Victoria Reavis, the telegraphist aiding him in his death-driven quest, yet hoping he'll choose to embrace a life with her instead. 

And as he trails Dodd deep into Texas, John accepts that this final reckoning between them may cost him more than all he's already lost...

My Thoughts: 
Question for you - has Paulette Jiles ever written a bad book? If she has, it's not one of the four I've read by her. Not only have I enjoyed all four of those books, this will, undoubtedly, the previous two that I've read since I began blogging have ended on my best-of lists in the years I read them. I feel certain this one will be there as well. 

As with the other three Jiles' books I've read, this one is an odyssey. John returns from the war damaged and finds himself not caring about the land he has inherited. So when he finds out about his sister's murder, by a man named, among other things, Dodd, he determines that it will hunt down and kill her murderer, regardless of the cost to himself. As the book progresses, Dodd kills again, which puts John in the position of being both hunter and hunted. The one thing John has going for him is that he has plenty of money to buy things he needs along the way. That doesn't mean, however, that the journey will be easy - he loses his horse, is stranded in a blizzard, goes days with little to eat and almost no sleep, and falls farther and farther behind the man he is pursuing. 

While the book is about John's pursuit, the emphasis is on the characters he meets along the way. Jiles gives us vignettes along the way as John makes stops. A couple of nights with the telegrapher who saves him in a blizzard, a night in the barn of a widow who has been tasked with safeguarding a supply of Confederate clothing and supplies, an evening with a group of soldiers tasked with keeping the peace in post-war Texas, a woman telegrapher who nurses John back to health when he falls ill. I loved the quiet moments as much as I enjoyed the tension of the pursuit and John's encounters with dangers along the way. 

Jiles writing is poetic; she is a master at painting a picture, bringing her setting and time period to life. All of the books I've read have been set in Missouri and Texas; it's a part of the country and its place in history, that she is very familiar with. Her books are filled with the kinds of details that teach readers what life was like at in the 1860's without feeling as if she's merely throwing research at us. 

I'm sure I would have loved reading this book in print (and would have saved a lot of quotes for you), but I can't recommend the audiobook version strongly enough. Grover Gardner was the perfect choice for this book. Whichever you choose, print or audio, I recommend that you definitely add this one to your (I'm sure already long) list of books to read. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Children of God
by Mary Doria Russell
Read by Anna Fields
17 hours, 57 minutes
Published 1998 by Villard

Publisher's Summary: 
The only member of the original mission to the planet Rakhat to return to Earth, Father Emilio Sandoz has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Society of Jesus calls upon him for help in preparing for another mission to Alpha Centauri. Despite his objections and fear, he cannot escape his past or the future. 

Old friends, new discoveries and difficult questions await Emilio as he struggles for inner peace and understanding in a moral universe whose boundaries now extend beyond the solar system and whose future lies with children born in a faraway place.

My Thoughts: 
Children of God is Mary Doria Russell's sequel to 1996's The Sparrow, which I read in 2014 (my review here). I loved that book, it was a standout in a year of great reads. It broke my heart and I have never forgotten it. I had either never realized there was a sequel or forgotten all about it until a co-worker mentioned it a while back. I was eager to get back to find out what happened to Emilio Sandoz, who hasn't left my mind in 10 years. 

What didn't work for me: 
  • Like The SparrowChildren of God moves back and forth in time. For some reason, this time around that didn't really work for me. I felt like too much was revealed too soon. 
  • Russell asks us to forgive characters in this one that we had grown to (let's be honest here) hate in The Sparrow. As a person, I understand that people are complicated and grow and change over time. As a reader, I often struggle with that. I had a hard time forgiving Supaari (the character who sold Emilio in The Sparrow) regardless of what we learn about him in this one and never could stop hating Hlavin Kitheri. 
  • A lot of time was spent developing a relationship between Emilio and a woman on earth that he plans to marry, before he is kidnapped and returned to Rakhat. It was what helped Emilio heal but then Russell turns around and does a terrible thing to him again. Later, we're apparently meant to believe that it was God's plan that he return to Rakhat. Not a fan of a plan that causes so much pain.
  • The Sparrow was very much centered around a few central characters, a family of sorts, Children of God is a much broader novel. There are a lot of characters in this one and, when listening especially, it's difficult to keep track of them and equally difficult to care about them.  
  • Sorry, but I really didn't "get" the ending. And it felt a little bit like the whole book led to a point of "trust in God." 
What I liked: 
  • Emilio Sandoz. He's perhaps an almost too good character, but he is not without depth of character. He struggles with forgiveness, faith, trust, and an ability to open himself back up again. 
  • Although there are a lot of characters in this one and we don't necessarily get as in depth a look into them as we would with a smaller "cast," we do get to see the complexity of many of the characters. 
  • Russell really explores how our intentions, even when meant for the best, can also go terribly awry or be misinterpreted. 
  • Russell explores the universality of conflict, how important communication and compromise are, how vital forgiveness is. Even if I did have a problem with forgiveness of particular characters, I understand that, in order to find peace, forgiveness is essential. 
  • As a person who struggles with faith and long ago gave up on organized religion, I appreciate that Russell puts organized religion, its methods, and intentions under a microscope. 
Would I recommend it? I've got such mixed feelings. I'm not sure The Sparrow needed a sequel. I'm not sure I gained anything by there being one, other than that Emilio finally found some peace. 

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Life: It Goes On - February 4

Happy Sunday! It's dreary here today and not as warm has it has been. But the temperatures remain above freezing, which I'm loving. 

It's been quite a week for us. We went to visit my dad on Monday evening and discovered that he had clearly had some kind of event. We had him transported to the hospital where it was determined that he had had a mini-stroke. He was released back to the rehabilitation he had been in a couple of weeks ago. Not sure how long this stay will last. 

The week before last, the movers came to my dad's apartment and packed and moved his things into storage until he can move to his new apartment. Tuesday The Big Guy and I went and cleared out the final things the movers wouldn't move. Even though my dad hadn't lived there that long, it had become his home. I felt a little bit like Sam at the end of Cheers as I turned off the lights and locked the door for the last time. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To:
 I finished Paulette Jiles' Chenneville and started Anderson Cooper's Astor

Watched: While I worked around the house yesterday (my sister was with my dad and afforded me the ability to get my house back in order), I "watched" movies about women discovering their power - Thelma and Louise and Fried Green Tomatoes

Read: Still reading Anna Quindlen's After Annie. Wish I could get my Nook to work again because reading my Netgalley books on my phone is getting old. It's much less fun to read on such a tiny screen. 

Made: Needless to say, having not been around much this week, not much cooking has gotten done. I did make tapioca pudding for my dad yesterday and today BG is roasting a chicken. 

Enjoyed: A visit with my sister, even if the reason for her visit wasn't for fun. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Maybe this week I can get back on schedule with the decluttering. I want to start working on my dining room but it was packed with things from my dad's apartment that need to be moved to the new place, head to the Goodwill, or taken home by my sister or brother. 

Thinking About: I know BG and I raised good people but it's always nice to see that in action. Mini-him really stepped up this week to help be with my dad while he was in the hospital. He was so caring, bringing him things to eat that he would be able to have and enjoy and so loving. I was so grateful to have him helping, as was my dad. I told Mini-him that he will never regret the time he gave this week to care for someone he loves. 

This is when I'm most grateful to my parents for raising children that get along (and that we have all been on the same page regarding my dad's care since my mom died). Thursday my sister arrived to lift the load off of The Big Guy's and my shoulders for a few days and my brother will soon arrive to do those duties for a while longer. I always know I have their full support, even from afar; but sometimes I really need them to be here physically and they always show up.

Looking forward to: A friend and I are going to see My Fair Lady in the theater this afternoon! 

Question of the week: Who are the people you rely on when you most need support?