July Highlights

Some of what I read in July….

Really enjoyed this book – a little different and it made me laugh out loud.

I haven’t been the best blogger this summer – sorry. Here is a quick catch up on what I’ve been reading.

Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane was discussed in our book club. Just published this year, I read it on my Kindle app because I didn’t expect it to be super good. But it was really good and I should have bought the book! May Attaway is a 40’ish gardener who lives at home with her dad. She’s not entirely happy, and she embarks on a quest to visit four of her formerly good friends. May grows and changes as a person as a result of her quest. I recommend!

Two book club friends mentioned My Year of Rest and Relaxation and said they had loved it, so I had to try it. (Thanks to Mame for lending me her copy.) The book is by Ottessa Mosfegh and was published in 2018 and is 287 pages long. I loved it but it’s not for everyone. It follows a year in which the narrator, a young woman in 2000/2001 NYC, is suffering from depression. She aims to spend time as much time sleeping as possible in order to cope with her life. It is dark but at times laugh out loud funny. Very different and I recommend it.

Published in 2008 and loosely based on Laura Bush’s life… really good!

I also continued my Curtis Sittenfeld spree with American Wife, which is a fictionalization of aspects of Laura Bush’s life. Published in 2008 and 555 pages long, it is the narrative of Alice Lindgren who becomes First Lady of the US in 2001. It’s a deep dive into the various relationships Alice has – specifically her best friend Dena and then her husband Charlie. It was very interesting and well written, and does offer a few twists. It’s a more fulfilling read than a typical beach paperback & worth the time!

My other book club read The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (published 2018, 421 pages). Set in both 1980’s Chicago and present day Paris, it chronicles the impact that the AIDS crisis had on a group of friends, and it’s reverberations a generation later. Very well written and beautiful. Recommend!

Say Nothing

But you’ll want to discuss this book!

Gripping story and it’s all true.

My friend and also-avid reader Alix Clyburn suggested this book to me recently. Thank you Alix!!!

Say Nothing A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, 2019, 348 pages of text but 441 pages including notes and index) is amazing nonfiction that reads like fiction. It tells the intricate story of the last 50 years of the conflict in Northern Ireland also known as the Troubles. Keefe explains the Troubles in a way that is informative and not boring at all.

The book is built around the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, a Belfast widow and mother of 10 children. In an interweaving fashion, Keefe introduces us to all of the key figures in the era on both sides of the conflict. We meet Brendan “Darkie” Hughes, Dolours Price and her sister Marian, Frank Kitson, and of course Gerry Adams.

Keefe explains how Gerry Adams transitioned from the ruthless leader of the IRA to the smooth politician who brokered peace. I recall the bomb killing Mountbatten and the hunger strikers… do you remember Bobby Sands? Gerry Adams… I’m going to need a lot of time to ponder and learn more about him. He goes from Mr Head Honcho of the IRA to I Was Never In the IRA in about 5 minutes flat. Though I must admit I can empathize a bit with his motivations…

So what happened to Jean McConville? Although the reader can assume her fate, the excellent story telling has us hanging on through the 350 pages. The ending is satisfying though unsettling…because…Brexit?

In any case, I learned A TON from this book. I feel like I much better understand the Troubles & what has happened in the last 50 years. I highly recommend this book, you are welcome to borrow my copy!

My New Favorite Author

Thoughtful writing, page turning plots, inspiring characters.

As most people in our book club thought the last book was a total slog, we decided to read something that promised to be faster-paced. Karla suggested The River (2019, 253 pages) by Peter Heller. After quickly googling it we all agreed to read it for the next meeting.

Wow did I love it!

What’s to love? A lot:

  • Wynn and Jack are the main characters, best friends taking time off from school to leisurely canoe a river in northern Canada. They are smart, outdoorsmen, and have a beautiful friendship. Parts of their characters are revealed as the canoe trip progresses, and their relationship evolves with the story.
  • This is not just a bromance in the wilderness. This becomes a page-turning drama as things start to get challenging for Wynn and Jack. First here is a huge forest fire they discover coming their way. There are seedy drunk guys who are oblivious to the oncoming danger. Then they hear a couple fighting in the woods….
  • Peter Heller seems to be a true outdoorsman as all of the nature and camping and canoeing details appear to be impeccable, at least to this not very outdoorsy NJ gal.
  • Peter Heller is as good a writer as he is an outdoorsman. With all the action there is still time for reflection and beautiful writing.

I’m not going to tell you the ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself!

But I will tell you that I had to hustle up and read another Peter Heller novel almost immediately. Luckily we had The Dog Stars (2012, 320 pages) on hand because Greg had read it. Although he had recommended it to me I didn’t feel compelled to read it until I had finished The River.

I loved The Dog Stars also! The same excellent writing but different scenario. The main character Hig has survived a flu that has wiped out 99% of all humankind. He lives with his dog Jasper and an old crank survivalist named Bangley. They have figured out a system of living that seems to work for them – until Hig decides he needs to venture beyond their safe zone to see if others like them are out there.

Another page turner & I loved it.

Now need to find some more Peter Heller to read!!!

The Day That Went Missing: A Family’s Story

40 years later, the author documents his own inquest to how his 9 year old brother drowned, and how his family dealt with the death.

Haunting cover, haunting book.

40 years ago off the Cornwall coast while on a family holiday, two young brothers were swimming together. The boys were suddenly in over their heads, and the younger brother drowned. The Day That Went Missing (289 pages, 2018) was written by the surviving brother in an attempt to address what happened that fateful day and the way in which the family dealt with it.

As he reached middle age, Richard Beard realized he needed to confront his brother’s death and explore why he never allowed himself to grieve. For decades Nicky’s name was not mentioned in the family, which included his two parents and two other brothers as well as grandparents. Richard felt the mystery of the details of the day and his long-stifled emotions were negatively impacting his adult relationships. He decided he needed find out what exactly happened to his brother, and how his family reacted after the tragic death.

Beard embarks on his own “inquest” into Nicky’s death, interviewing surviving family members and digging into family memorabilia and history. He returns to the Cornish coast and tries to find the exact beach on which the drowning occurred. He visits the cottage the family had been staying in, and meets one of the rescuers who were dispatched that day when the call for help went out. He pores over any information he can find out about Nicky – his report cards, his letters home from boarding school -in an attempt to better know his brother.

Ultimately Beard uncovers much about his brother, his family and their dynamics, and what actually happened that day. The family’s immediate reaction to Nicky’s death is finally explored; learning of this reaction helps make sense of their decades-long avoidance of discussing Nicky.

The book is haunting and sad yet very well-written and satisfying. I read the Kindle version so unfortunately do not have to lend out!

Revisiting Elizabeth Berg, Sue Miller, Claire Messud

Grading my spring break reads.

Nothing beats reading on the beach!

I read a few quick books in succession this week while in Florida for the kids’ spring break. I had packed a few books for the trip; I finished Andrew Yang’s book (see last post) and started A State of Freedom by Neel Mukerjee but didn’t love it (see next post yet to be written LOL). So I hit up the library at Dad & Sue’s clubhouse and picked/read these books.

I probably should have planned more diligently before the trip but hey, live and learn. I definitely firmed up opinions about the authors, all of whom I thought I had previously read!

Open House by Elizabeth Berg (2001, 272 pages)… Elizabeth Berg is an author I have read previously and enjoyed. Although I just looked up her list of books and I’m not sure which I have read (will have to check my bookshelves!) I guess her books maybe are a little interchangeable? I didn’t love this book – thought it preyed on emotions and I didn’t relate to the main character at all. Spring Break Grade: D+ I won’t be reading Elizabeth Berg again, my tastes have changed since I first read her!

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller (2008, 306 pages)… Sue Miller wrote the book The Good Mother which was a big hit way back in 1994. I recall reading it & enjoying it (though never saw the movie). I liked The Senator’s Wife because it delves into marital relationships though I didn’t buy how it ultimately ended. It was interesting and kept me reading but it wasn’t awesome. Spring Break Grade: C+: if I was on a deserted island and the only book was by Sue Miller, I would read it.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (2013, 272 pages)…I picked up this book because I knew I had enjoyed Claire Messud before but I was confusing her with Julia Glass. (Julia Glass wrote The Three Junes, A House Among Trees, The Widower’s Tail – all of which I read & liked!) OK – so this book was a little long and overly wrought with the relationship between the main character (38 year old unmarried Nora) with a family of 3 (international artist, scholar & 3rd grade son), but it surprised me with its depth of feeling, passion for creating art, and how it all ended. I will be thinking about this for a while. Spring Break Grade: B+/A-: I will definitely seek out another Claire Messud novel.

The War On Normal People

“Scarcity will not save us. Abundance will.”

Is Andrew Yang’s name familiar to you yet? If it isn’t it will be soon. He is in the large field of Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2020. I just finished his book titled The War On Normal People (2018, 244 pages) which presents his proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and human-based capitalism for our country.

It’s worth a read- it’s fast, compelling, and provides an alternate view of what the United States can look like in future years.

The first 1/3 describes his own experience as the child of immigrants and a successful entrepreneur whose focus was creating jobs. He is convinced we are in the beginning of huge economic and technologic change that has already eradicated millions of manufacturing jobs (it’s not the migrants or China, Donald!). Retail jobs are soon to disappear (how many places have self-check out now?), followed by truck driving jobs (driverless trucks are being tested), and then even white-collar jobs (computers can read radiology reports with greater precision than the human eye).

The second third describes what is happening to our society as the economy changes. We have “bubbles” in several areas in which there is thriving economy and society, but we have scarcity and poverty in cities where the manufacturing jobs have already disappeared. This part is depressing because if all the jobs are going as Yang predicts, then it’s easy to fear that our whole country will end up like Youngstown Ohio.

But don’t worry – there’s the final third which is much more optimistic and lays out Yang’s vision for our future. The bottom line need is that we need to shift from market-focused capitalism, which only values efficiency, to human-based capitalism, which values people, relationships and society.

A few of Yang’s ideas- he goes into more depth of course in the book:

  • The UBI would apply to every adult in our country and would take the strain off of regions that lose jobs as workers are displaced by automation.
  • People would earn credits for helping others that they could use for buying things or to pay others to help them.
  • The healthcare system needs to be re-vamped and should not be tied to employment.

If you don’t think these things can work please give the book a try – Yang presents studies and statistics that support his hypotheses. Happy to lend you our copy (Greg got it as a Christmas gift!)!

Beale Street: the Book, not the Movie

The book is always better than the movie!

James Baldwin is an author I’m not very familiar with. Last year I read Giovanni’s Room and enjoyed it but it didn’t “grab”me. Recently I noticed If Beale Street Could Talk at the local book store…I knew Regina King had won an Oscar for her role in the movie. Everyone knows books are better than movies, so I figured I’d go with the book.

Wow. What a book. And now I need to see the movie!

Set in the 1960’s, Beale Street is told from the perspective of Tish, a young African American girl whose fiancé Fonny is imprisoned. Tish also happens to be pregnant with their child. The story is not told in a linear fashion but it flows nicely and it is easy to follow. Maybe you’ve seen the movie & so I don’t need to re-hash it for you…. but here is what I liked about the book:

  • This is a beautiful love story. Tish and Fonny have been friends since childhood and have loved each other always. Baldwin presents it beautifully.
  • The story is set in New York City -the young couple grew up in Harlem with their families. 21 year old Fonny has found a “pad” in Greenwich Village in which he is sculpting. He and Tish consummate their love here, they hang out here, and he and Tish have found a loft in which they hope to move to. The city is a huge part of the story.
  • I am in awe of the love and support that Tish has from her parents and sister. Fonny’s mom and sisters are tougher nuts, but Fonny’s dad and Tish’s family support the two kids as they deal with Fonny’s incarceration and Tish’s pregnancy.
  • This was published in 1974 but is just as timely today as it was then. Especially pertaining to unjust incarceration of black men.

Please let me know if you’ve happen to have both read the book and seen the movie…ALSO please let me know if you’ve ever seen a movie that is better than the book it’s based upon!

Two Books to Check Out

Two New-To-Me Authors – Now I want to read everything by them!

  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld

Last week I devoured Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013, 307 pages). It has been on my to-read list and then it was selected by my book group so voila – two birds with one stone.

I loved it. It tells the story of how people living in a small town in 1961 rural Minnesota deal with life’s sorrows. Frank, the narrator, is 13 years old and the middle child of a minister. Although there is much sadness in the book, there is equal if not more love and grace.

The feeling and cadence of the author recall Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf – other authors who have written about small towns and grace. Once introduced to these authors I quickly read their other books and I plan to do the same with Mr. Krueger’s.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (2018, 223 pages) is an entertaining offering of ten short stories. I’ve not read any of her novels -mainly because Eligible was described as un updated Pride and Prejudice and who messes with the master? But I’m happy to say I will now add her novels to my To-Read list!

Ms. Sittenfeld’s characters and situations are relatable. There are embedded mysteries, there are complicated relationships, there are ordinary and unusual situations. One recurring theme is the I’m-all-alone-in-my-situation – you know – when you think you’re the only person in the world with a particular issue or problem. Another is that of the former high school dork who now has gained confidence and insight to his/her former self.

I liked all of her characters and found myself wondering how I would act or conduct myself in the situations. I also reflected upon how people put themselves in self-constructed roles and dramas. Something that’s good to think about because I haven’t yet outgrown this tendency!

Let me know if you’ve read any other books by either of these authors and which you recommend!

Embarrassing to say I Have Have Never Read These Books

So I never watched the movie ET until just a few years ago when we watched it with our kids. I guess because I was a teenager when it came out and was too cool (not really). I’ve also never seen the Princess Bride, a situation which I know needs to be rectified.

Likewise there are several books that I should have read by now that for some reason I just haven’t. So I’m adding a few of these to my to-read list for this year.

The Hobbit – Yup, have never read. I think it’s my brother Tim’s favorite all-time book. Neither have I read The Fellowship of the Ring. I haven’t seen any of the Peter Jackson movies, and so I’m really at a loss when the NYT crossword clue concerns a Tolkien character! So I’m putting The Hobbit on the list for this year & if I dig it I’ll add The Fellowship of the Ring for this or next year.

Anne of Green Gables – On the favorites list of many friends. How did I get to be a middle-aged woman without reading this book? On the list for 2019! Speaking of this – I recently (few years) only read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodges Burnett… I found and borrowed it from the Marshall School library when I was shelving books there. I don’t know how I missed that because I adored The Little Princess and read it many times.

The Harry Potter series – I’ve only read The Philosopher’s Stone.… I guess I should re-read that and move on to The Chamber of Secrets through The Deathly Hallows? That should keep me occupied for a while. We have all the books in the house but honestly I think my kids have watched the movies but not read all the books. How/why my kids are not more avid readers is a topic for another day.

Books I read in high school that I count as having read but really shouldn’t because I don’t remember them at all: 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, Lord Jim…. I’ll re-read these at some point but not sure it will be this year. I’m assuming I’ll enjoy them a ton more than I did junior year at Verona High School. (Sorry Ken Luks!)

Do you have a list of books you wish you had read by now? Please share in the comments or drop me an email!!

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Creatively told & compelling: a family on a complicated road trip searching for (among other things) lost children at the US-Mexico border.

This book was a recent gift from a friend in publishing with a note attached: “Supposed to be good”. When this friend recommends a book, I read it sooner rather than later. I was rewarded with something new, different and amazing.

Lost Children Archive (2019, 383 pages, Alfred A. Knopf) by Valeria Luiselli tells the story of a family of four on a road trip. They are leaving their life in NYC to pursue different things in Arizona. There are many uncertainties but it’s clear that their lives will be completely changed by the journey.

I’ve already been compelled to re-read parts of the book and am still thinking/processing everything, so this post will not encompass everything important about the book. But I had to start somewhere.

A few immediate things I loved:

Elements of Storytelling – The book has a few layers of stories within it. The book is mostly narrated by the woman/wife/mother (we don’t know her name). Ms. Luiselli uses photos, lists, maps, and I think made-up fictional works to enhance the narrative and make it real.

Inventory of Sounds – The husband/wife met while making an “Inventory of Sounds” in New York City. The husband is intent on getting to Apacheria, the last place the United States where native Americans were free, with the intent of capturing any remaining echoes of the free native Americans (at least that’s how I interpreted it). The idea of documenting different sounds is new to me and is presented in a way that is important to the story.

Experience of Migrant Children – The wife is focused on getting to the US/Mexican border to witness and document the removal of children (though very timely now, in 2014 Valeria Luiselli worked as a translator for children after they crossed the border). The wife is also looking in particular for 2 young sisters who were sent to meet their mother Manuela (a friend of the wife’s) but were abandoned in the desert by the “coyote” who was paid to transport them.

The story of the 2 sisters is interwoven with the family’s journey as a fictional narrative that the mom reads to her children. It becomes more and more real as the family approaches Apacheria. The details of the two sisters’ journey seems like a bad dream but it becomes clear that it is no dream nor made up cautionary tale.

Couple & Family Dynamics – What makes a family? What makes a couple? What makes them endure? Luiselli dives deeply into the relationships. I love the older brother’s care and protection of his sister. He is the book’s other narrator and you will enjoy his voice.

One very interesting comment from the wife: “we…had made the common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality … instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardian of each other’s solitude…” She attributes this notion to Rilke but I had never really heard it before and find it very interesting to think about.

OK there’s so much more in this book but will leave it at this for now. I need to read more about the author’s personal experiences, I think she also has something nonfiction about this topic also.