Review of Books – Summer 2022 – Part Two

This is Part Two of my summer review of books – see last week for Part One. Welcome to my virtual bookstore – Happy Browsing!

Anne Tyler was typical Anne Tyler – French Braid was a quirky family saga – it opens with a long-ago family vacation with three teenagers who have nothing in common and their peculiar parents, including a mother who put her aspirations to be a painter ahead of her children and gradually moved out of the family home over the years to a studio.  Perhaps she thought they wouldn’t notice?  I don’t often read Anne Tyler as I just don’t get her – sure it’s readable, but what was the point of it all?  I actually had to google this one to refresh my memory as I read it last spring, it was that forgettable. 

Our House won a 2019 British mystery award, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I loved Louise Candlish’s last book, The Other Passenger, but this lacked by comparison.  I guess you could call it a domestic drama.  A woman arrives home to find another couple moving into their house, which her estranged husband has sold without her knowledge and then vanished.  You could tell it was going to be a train wreck, so it wasn’t very suspenseful.  

The Personal Librarian –   Historical tale about the life of Belle da Costa Green – a black woman who passed for white in the 1920’s, she was employed as JP Morgan’s personal assistant and helped him assemble the vast treasures of the Morgan Library and Museum.  Something about the writing was off – perhaps because it was co-written.  She led a fascinating life, so it should have been a better book, but then I’m generally not a big fan of first-person narrative…especially by two different people.

I really enjoyed The Lost Chapter even though I tend to avoid multi-generational/female friendship sagas.  Partially set at a finishing school in Lyon France in 1957, a friendship between a proper British girl and an independent brash American, ends badly.  Decades later, 80 year old Flo discovers that her friend has written a fictional book about their time there.  An artist, she befriends Alice a troubled teen, and along with her mother Carla, they impart on a road trip to France to confront her past.  Well done – I would like to read more by Carolyn Bishop.  As for the finishing school and the rules for female behaviour – how the world has changed.

The Long Weekend – another one I had to google to refresh my memory.  Three women go away for a long weekend in a remote corner of England, (without cell service of course) only to find a note waiting for them saying that one of their husbands will be murdered.  Suspenseful, from what I remember.

Verity – The librarian said this book was popular, but I am not familiar with the author, probably because I don’t read romance novels.  She also wrote It Ends With Us.  Billed as a romantic thriller, I abandoned it about fifty pages in and googled the ending on Goodreads, which justified my decision not to waste any more time on it.  A struggling young writer is hired by a charming man to finish a book his injured wife was writing.  If you want to read graphic details about two people having an affair while the wife is lying comatose upstairs, then I guess this is the book for you.  It was reissued recently with an exclusive new chapter after the author did a reading of it somewhere.  I think it was supposed to clarify the shocking ending?  Or perhaps it was a money grab?     

Iona Iversons’ Rules – charming tale about a group of people who ride the same London subway car every day, and how they meet, as the first rule of commuting is don’t talk to strangers.  A cheery read – I find I’m reading more light fiction by British novelists these days. It might have to do with the sad state of the world – they’re always good for a cuppa tea and a keep calm and carry on reading mentality. I was so impressed with this, I ordered Clare Pooley’s second book, The Authenticity Project, which was also a selection of my library book club. 

A lonely elderly patron leaves a green notebook in a local café with his life story in it, and urges others to write down the truth about their lives. The cafe owner finds it, adds her story and passes it along. Very good for light fiction, but in real life does a recovering cocaine addict who called you a bad name ever turn into the man of your dreams?    

Bloomsbury Girls – I loved this book and blogged about it in my literary salon (see link) – combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and bookstores. Three women working in a London bookstore during the 1950’s – the times they are a changing….

The Family Remains is a stand-alone sequel to Lisa Jewell’s, The Family Upstairs from several years ago, which was about two families sharing a cult-like existence in an old Chelsea mansion, until 3 of the adults turn up dead.   The author said her readers wondered what happened to the four teenagers in the house, so she felt the need to write a sequel.  I found The Family Upstairs to be a disturbing story, but this was better, except for that little unnecessary twist at the end.    

The Last to Vanish –  a mystery about a North Carolina inn set in a small town near the Appalachian trail, named the most dangerous town in the country. Six hikers have disappeared from the area in the past ten years.  Heavy on atmosphere (how much rustling in the woods can there be), and a fairly slow plot, but a nice ending. 

The Couple at Number Nine – British murder mystery about a young couple who are gifted a cottage when her grandmother develops Alzheimer’s and is placed in a care home.  They uncover two bodies while digging for an extension, and a crime investigation ensues.  This is more of a family drama/saga than a true suspense thriller, but the characters are well developed, and I enjoyed it.  I would order more books by this author. 

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – a short novella (120 pages) about a British char woman (cleaning lady) who scrimps and saves to buy a Dior dress. Written in 1958, I found the style dated and the Cockney slang/dialogue, difficult to read. A lot of repetitive description of Mrs. Harris being twinkly eyed and apple cheeked although wrinkly, gray-haired and middle aged but I found the tone of the book somewhat disparaging when she was described as a grotesque sight upon donning the vision of her dreams, a long frothy tulle and velvet concoction suitable for a jeune femme. I guess views on aging have changed. I love vintage fashion from the 50’s and am curious to see what they have done with the movie, which had fairly good reviews. The book was written by a male author I had never heard of, and I was astonished by his extensive list of books, 50 according to the flyleaf, including Thomasina the Cat, which I remember as a 1963 Disney movie and The Poisideon Adventure, from 1972. He must have been popular in his day. The second part of this book, was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, which I did not read as I had to return to the library, and I just couldn’t handle any more of the accent and the description. There are four books in the series, including Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow……not likely.

Out of Her Depth – was like the The Great Gatsby only set in a Tuscan villa a hundred years later – the young and beautiful and then the outsider. (Yes, the rich are different than you and me.) A young protagonist from an unfashionable part of London can’t believe her luck in landing a summer job at a Tuscan villa, where she meets a group of rich British college students on vacation. Even though I’m not the demographic for this type of psychological thriller I ordered it because it was a murder mystery set in Italy, although there was so little description of the country and the food (other than a few plates of pasta) that the novel could just as easily have been set anywhere. More character than plot driven, the story is told partially in flashback twenty years later when one of the group has just been released from jail for a murder he didn’t commit. There was some bad language, (it was young people and they tend to talk that way) but the characters were so mesmerizing and the plot-line so suspenseful, I managed to ignore it, although I was disappointed in the ending.

The other book, The Lost Ticket, was another heartwarming light British read – strangers aboard a London bus unite to help an elderly man with dementia find his missed love connection in this new novel from the author of The Last Chance Library. He lost the bus ticket with her phone number on it back in 1962. It sounded promising but I had to return it to the library as I had too many books out. (Two or three is comfortable, as I read about book a week, but seven is way too many and then I start to feel stressed…..I know, I know…..but such is retirement stress….that and medical appointments.)

A beverage on a tray on a bed is a recipe for disaster.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a decorating book, but I saw this mentioned on another blog. It was okay to browse through, but the print was so small (is this a trend, and no I don’t have cataracts yet) but as I’m not a fan of the serene staged minimalist look, I didn’t find it too inspiring, although I did like all the white/cream backgrounds and some of the photos were pretty. There are four sections on how to beautify your home according to the seasons. I vote for fall – bring on the scented candles.

And last but not least, Between Two Kingdoms – a memoir of a life interrupted – a riveting but depressing account of a 22 year old college graduate who is diagnosed with leukemia with a poor prognosis shortly after she moves to Paris, and her grueling three year battle to survive.  The last third of the book deals with her cross-country road trip, after she is declared in remission, to visit some of the people who had written her letters during her ordeal. (She had a blog and syndicated newspaper column.)  This book was also my library book club selection and the consensus was, it was a good read but not for everyone.  Certainly not for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis as it was heavy on horrible details.  (While the treatment for leukemia can be notoriously long, I’ve known some cancer patients who were well enough to work throughout their treatment, and one treated for lymphoma who didn’t even lose his hair.) There was lots to discuss about this book, as in A) Why did it take so long to diagnosis her?  B) I can’t believe her boyfriend/fiance stuck around as long as he did, he must have been a saint. Two years without a day off?  And C) The whole road trip thing at the end just seemed like such a foolhardy decision – to put her life at risk like that when she wasn’t fully recovered, especially for a person with very little driving experience.  She left New York in a borrowed car, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, not even knowing how to merge into expressway traffic, not to mention she was alone, camping, mostly in winter, staying in isolated places and sketchy motels.  I wondered if she embarked on the trip to have something to write about?  Really I was horrified by it, and worried about her having a relapse. Having fought her way out of a such an excruciating ordeal, you’d think she would have been a bit kinder to her body, although she admitted she has had to learn to accept the limitations of her immune system.  Very well written though.  (pg. 274 – “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you – whether through illness or some other catastrophe – you don’t assume structural stability.  You must learn to live on fault lines.”) Sadly, this past year her cancer returned after a six year remission, and she underwent a second bone marrow transplant.

To recover from that read, I switched to TV for light entertainment. 

I’m sure this will be the last Downton Abbey movie.  While it was nice to see the old gang again, the story-line was thin, the fashions and scenery frumpy, except for the bit in the south of France, and don’t get me started on the ending…. it will be forever how I remember them. 

Hotel Portofino – I missed the first two episodes of this Masterpiece mini-series set at in hotel along the Italian Riviera in the 1920’s during the fascist/Mussolini period, so I ordered the DVD from the library.  The setting was gorgeous and the fashions lovely, but the storyline wasn’t that good, and some of the characters seemed miscast. I found the main character, Bella, the hotel proprietress, particularly annoying.  It’s no Downton Abbey, but worth tuning in for the scenery – maybe Season Two will be better.  It’s set in the same area as Enchanted April, a movie and book I loved. 

And finally, I was excited to read that our library headquarters was holding their annual book sale of redundant copies – these would be excess copies from book club kits, once popular bestsellers, generally fairly good stuff unlike most book sales which are often the dregs from someone’s basement. I’ve never gone as it’s always early on a Saturday morning, and the location is out of the way, but because it was from 1-8pm and well advertised and there would be three years of books on sale, over a thousand people showed up in the first TWO hours.  By the time I got there around 3 pm, (it rained, so I dawdled, plus I knew there would be parking issues as it was at the fairgrounds), there was NOTHING left but empty tables.  The organizers were surprised at the turnout, as it usually only attracts a couple of hundred people.  It was so disappointing, as I’m still trying to accumulate books for my little library, but also encouraging in a way, as it tells us the pandemic has made so many of us into READERS!   

This week’s puzzle.

Review of Books – Summer 2022 – Part One

     My quarterly review of books has morphed into six months again – I guess I must have been too busy reading.   Since I last posted a general review in February (see link Review of books Winter 2022) I’ve read so many books that I can’t remember what some of the earlier ones were about, other than the vaguest impression, so I’ll just try to hit the highs (and lows) of my reading list.  While I read many excellent books last winter, this selection was more mixed, (although all are rated a 4 or 5 star on Goodreads), not necessarily an issue when nicer weather prevails.  Sometimes you just want a book you can pick up and put down, without staying up too late.  So pretend you are in a bookstore browsing, and perhaps there will be something to tempt you when those chilly days arrive. 

Squirreling away books – from a circulating Facebook post

 (Note: these are not necessarily in the order in which I read them. This is Part One of a two Part post….because you know….it was long.

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors – I’ve enjoyed her novels, (State of Wonder, Commonwealth) so when her book of essays – on home, friendships, family and writing – came out I ordered it.   I loved the first half of the book, about growing up wanting to be a writer, and having her three dads at her wedding, her difficulty in getting rid of her old typewriter, her decision years ago not to have children. I felt like I had found a new friend, but then I came to a very long piece which comprised the latter third of the book, about her relationship with Tom Hanks publicist, Sooki, who was diagnosed and eventually died of pancreatic cancer.  Ann Patchett owns an independent bookstore in Nashville, and their acquaintance came about when she scheduled an in-store reading of Tom Hank’s book of short stories, (Ordinary Type) many of which were about typewriters.  (That book is a whole other topic, and while I love Tom Hanks he should stick to acting as struggling writers in garrets all over the world could have done better given the opportunity.  Maybe it was a pandemic project but he is now working on a novel about the movie industry due out next year, which is being billed as an ambitious project.)   Ann Patchett and her physician husband helped Sooki find an oncologist for experimental treatment and even invited her to stay with them in their home for six months while she was undergoing treatment during the pandemic.  She warns that the downside of staying with a writer is that you get written about but perhaps she thought she was memorializing her? Sooki, being a very private person, and fighting for her life, mostly kept to the basement flat.  She was probably too sick to socialize, but the author seemed somewhat obsessed with the idea that their friendship should have been closer. That’s the problem with memoir – you can unknowingly reveal some less attractive aspects to your personality.  Otherwise, the book was good, and the writing lovely, but that last essay just spoiled the whole thing for me. Sometimes when something about a book really bothers me I’ll hop over to Goodreads and read the reviews – all five star and glowing, so it must just be me.  

I’m a big fan of British mystery writers, including Ruth Ware, so I really enjoyed this, her sixth and best book so far – a who-done-it about a group of six first year students at Oxford.  She’s come a long way since her first book, In A Dark Dark Wood.  (Others are The Woman in Cabin 10, The Turn of the Key, One by One)  Although the two female room-mates have nothing in common, they strike up a friendship, until one night the popular one, The It Girl, is found murdered in her room.  The creepy dorm porter is charged and found guilty, but ten years later, after he dies in jail still pleading his innocence , a journalist starts snooping around. The book is told, partially in flashback, by the other room-mate who is by then married to the It Girl’s old boyfriend.   It was very well done and very suspenseful, and fairly long at 400 pages.  It took me back to my university days, where the friendships you made were often forged during the first few weeks, although our porter was a kind elderly gentleman, whose job seemed to be sorting the mail into the mail slots (yes, those were the days my friends, you got mail), while keeping an eye on the front door, although he could certainly glare with disappointment when you came creeping in in the wee small hours of the morning, so I totally understand why the protagonist chose to climb over the stone wall near the back entrance.  This was easily my favorite suspense novel of the year so far.    

The other book, Local Gone Missing, is about a female British detective on medical leave in a small seaside town when a local man disappears on the night of a music festival.  A good read – this was my first book by this author. 

I was a big fan of Grantchester, the Masterpiece series set in 1950’s Cambridge about a whiskey-swilling, jazz-loving young vicar and his crime-solving detective friend Geordie, at least I was until the storyline descended into repetitive dross, probably inevitable given it is currently in season seven.  While there is always a murder in each episode, and a moral of sorts, I find the secondary characters are often the best part.  The TV series was based on a series of books by the author James Runcie, whose father was a vicar in that era.  I read the first book in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, (it sounds like a Hardy Boys title) more out of curiosity, and then the second, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night.  The books are composed of self-contained chapters of some of the murders in season one and two, but as I already knew the outcome from the tv show I didn’t find it too suspenseful, although it was well written and sometimes insightful.  At the end of book two, they married him off to that simpering Hildegarde, and that was it for me, although his snobby friend Amanda was an equally annoying choice.  Poor Sidney, such terrible taste in women.  There are six books in the series, including the prequel in the war years.

The Tenth Nerve – a brain surgeon’s stories of the patients who changed him – was a memoir written by a Vancouver doctor, with each chapter about one of his more memorable cases.  I love a good medical book and the brain is such an interesting thing.  The tenth nerve refers to a new cranial nerve he discovered while operating on several patients with the same painful throat condition.  I found it well written and very interesting, if you like that kind of thing.

I love Frances Mayes so I was anticipating a travelogue in the vein of her usual Under the Tuscan Sun format, but this was more of a National Geographic guidebook, with sections on different parts of Italy – perfect if you were traveling there and wanted some background info on what to see and do in each region.  Unfortunately, the print was so tiny that I didn’t even skim through it.  There being no Italy in my foreseeable future, I returned it to the library, where the librarian, who has been to Italy five times (pause while I recover from turning green with envy) devoured it and pronounced it very good.   

I abandoned the Carl Bernstein book, which deals with his early years in the news industry in the 50’s and 60’s, after about fifty pages as I just didn’t find it interesting. 

The Truth About Melody Jones – is early Lisa Jewell,  2009, and yes she wrote about dysfunctional families even then.  A single mother has no memories of her life before age nine and seeks to uncover the truth behind her early life.   This was a paperback with very tiny print, but I persisted as I didn’t have anything else to read at the time.   

Bittersweet – How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole –  Susan Cain is the same author who brought us the wonderful 2012 non-fiction book, Quiet – a gift for introverts everywhere.  I was expecting an equally fascinating read.  I can’t even describe what this book was about, as the concept was so vague and shifting, that the book left me baffled and disappointed.  Not recommended – unless you want to wade through 300 pages looking for a few insights.   Billed as a masterpiece on the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, I would pass….and pass the dark chocolate.

This Agatha Christie autobiography was easily my favorite biography of the year, even though it was written in the 1960’s and published in 1977, a few years after the authors death.  I knew next to nothing about this elusive author, who led such a fascinating life.   See blogs – Agatha Christie – An Autobiography and Some Thoughts on Writing.

When I was growing up short stories were to be found in every periodical, even fashion bibles like Seventeen, and women’s magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal.  (I used to devour my mother’s copies and not for the recipes.)  I vaguely remember short story collections coming back in favor for a brief moment in the 1980’s, but other than a few authors like Alice Munroe (who may be Canadian but I have never understood the exultation of, ditto for Margaret Atwood), they seem to have become extinct in popular fiction.  So I was surprised to see these two selections under New Releases. Maybe Tom Hanks started a trend?  Unfortunately, I abandoned both after skimming a few of the stories as they just didn’t grab me, although I admit I didn’t give the Lily King one much of a chance.  As for the Brooker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle, it was set in Dublin in the early days of the pandemic.  The first story involved a middle aged man who is diagnosed with coronary heart disease – yes, the 60’s is the decade when things start to fall apart –  and faces his own mortality.   I don’t get why he is a Brooker prize winner – when his command of English includes so much unnecessary profanity.   

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s long neglected sister, Cassandra.  Excellent – blogged about it – see link. A first novel from this promising author.

Classic Elin Hilderbrand beach read about the restoration of an old Nantucket Hotel. The usual flawed characters, with too much bed-hopping, alcohol and food, but I did like the bit about the ghost.  She keeps saying she’s going to retire, but I don’t see any sign of it as she has a book of short stores coming out soon, Endless Summer. 

Sparring Partners – a novella and two short stories, one of which is about a prisoner who receives a visitor in his final hours on death row.  Sparring Partners is about two brothers who loathe each other and inherit their father’s once prosperous law firm.  I devoured these, but then anything by John Grisham is immensely readable.  His annual legal thriller, Biloxi Blues is due out soon.  I recently read an older novel of his, The Broker, (in large print, which pleasantly passed the time while waiting seven hours in ER for a CAT scan – only in Canada, folks), which was about a DC white-collar criminal jailed over secret documents who is issued a last minute pardon during the waning days of a corrupt US presidency.  (How prescient of him, given it was written in 2005) He is provided with a new identity by the CIA and set down in the middle of Italy where he must learn to blend in and learn the language with the help of a tutor. (Ah, the food, wine and scenery, such a hardship)  The aim –  to see which foreign government will pick him off – the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians or the Israelis?  A good read and satisfying ending.  I think back then he took more care with his endings.  

Speaking of endings, I’ll wrap this up. See you next week for Part Two.

PS. The squirrel above squirreling away books instead of nuts, reminds me that my 2018 blog, How To Make A Chestnut Wreath, is trending again. It’s my second most popular post.

Wintering

If wintering is a verb then we all need to learn to winter – to rest and recharge, especially in difficult times.  Wintering can be a season to survive, a respite from the busyness of the rest of the year, or a state of mind such as a feeling sad or depressed. 

Winter is often a time for retreat – never more so than this year.  Usually I don’t mind the month of January, and enjoy the excuse to stay home when the weather turns nasty, but this year it just seems like more of the same.  So it was with interest that I saw a review on someone’s blog of a non-fiction book called Wintering, by Katherine May.   As I sometimes enjoy a light philosophical read, I ordered it from the library, but found it so interesting and well written that it might go on my purchase list.  (I usually only buy books I intend to re-read.)

The crazy quilt behind the book is perfect for winter slumbering

Here’s the Publishers Blurb:  Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered.

A moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world, May’s story offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. Illumination emerges from many sources: solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas.

Ultimately Wintering invites us to change how we relate to our own fallow times. May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear. A secular mystic, May forms a guiding philosophy for transforming the hardships that arise before the ushering in of a new season.

About the Author:

Katherine May is a freelance writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and previous creative writing teacher.  Her journalism and essays have appeared in a number of publications, including The Times, Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.  In the book she reveals she has Asperger’s Syndrome.  “I learned to winter young. As one of the many girls of my age whose autism went undiagnosed, I spent a childhood permanently out in the cold.” (page 11)

Discussion: 

As we’ve just passed the winter solstice, this is a book to curl up with and enjoy in the deep dark depths of January.

The book is a series of personal essays, divided into chapters, from September to March, with further sub-titles such as Slumber, Light, Midwinter, Snow, Cold Water, and Thaw.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on hibernation, (who knew dormice and bees could be so interesting), slumber (isn’t it always easier to sleep in the winter), and light (seeking out the northern lights in Norway).  As the author lives by the sea in England, and has not experienced the full force of a brutal snow-filled winter, she journeyed north to seek the cold and snow and to view the Northern Lights.         

Northern Lights over the Farm

She also visited Stonehenge during the Winter Solstice. There’s a chapter on light (the festival of St. Lucia), on cold water (taking the polar bear plunge) and snow (winter walks in nature are much easier on a British beach than trudging through snowdrifts).

Our beach in winter (December) before the snow.

Here’s a Goodreads link to some quotes from the book for a sample of her writing. The prose is so lovely, I would recommend it for that reason alone, even if you weren’t interested in the topic.   No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert praised it as “a truly beautiful book.”

She also mentions a poem by Syliva Path titled “Wintering” which I was not familiar with, but I imagine inspired the title of the book.   

It’s difficult to sum up what this book is actually about, it’s not advice, or self-help, but more meditative reflections on a season we all must go through. 

Winter! Bah Humbug!

A Reading Sabbatical

I once read about a woman who took a reading sabbatical.   She packed up a whole load of books and escaped to an isolated cottage in another country and read….and read….and read.   Sounds like the ideal vacation to me, and having a whole year to do nothing but read would be like heaven…..and so it has been during the pandemic. Not that there haven’t been other things to do while stuck at home, but there’s certainly been plenty of time for my favorite activity.

quote by Jane Austen

When I was younger and in the habit of escaping the Canadian winter for a week down south, I would always tote a pile of books in my suitcase (this was in the days before e-Readers) and spend at least half of the time poolside with a good book, the other days being devoted to exploring whatever tropical destination we happened to be in.  One vacation sticks out in my mind, a week on Turks and Caicos, long before it was developed, with five boring books and no way to buy more. The only shopping centre was a strip mall of offshore companies and one souvenir shop devoid of even a rack of paperbacks. For a reader, there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a tropical island with a bad selection of books. I don’t scuba dive/snorkel/can’t even swim, so after my daily walk on the lovely and pristine beach I was bored to tears.

I find other people’s bookshelves fascinating. When they’re interviewing some expert on TV about some matter of vital importance, I’m usually studying the bookshelves behind them and wondering what’s on them, and being envious if they are the nice floor-to-ceiling ones, preferably in white, which I can not install as I have hot water heat rads.

I average about one book a week, and start to feel antsy if I don’t have several in reserve, but this past year my intake has increased dramatically. I spent the first few months of the first lockdown working my way through my stash (18) of mostly non-fiction volumes from bookoutlet, but when the library reopened last summer for curbside pickup it was like Christmas in July!

I keep a book journal where I sporadically list the books I’ve read, usually just tossing the library slips in for later recording. I had intended to do a quarterly review here on the blog, but other topics got in the way, so while I’m not going to list or link to all the books I’ve read during the past year, or even make a best of the best list, here’s a sampling of some of them, with some (honest) observations.  

I should note that when I used to do book reviews on Goodreads, before I started blogging, I rated everything a 4, with an occasional 3 or 5, because I only reviewed books I liked. If the book was boring or not to my taste I would not finish it and so left the skewering to other folks. This was partly in an effort to be kind, keeping in mind that the author had poured much time and effort into something which after all did get published, and partly because reading is so subjective. Just because I didn’t like it, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t enjoy it. But every once in awhile a book, usually a much-hyped bestseller, would annoy me so much that I would pen a fairly blunt review…..so expect things to be a bit more judgmental here. I haven’t had the best selection this past year, not being able to browse the shelves of my local library or bookstore so I was more reliant on the publishers PR, which sometimes can be disappointing.

I love vintage fashion so I thought The Grace Kelly Dress would be an interesting read.  Years ago, I read a historical fiction book about the designers behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink boucle suit so I thought this would be something similar, but more of a three generational saga.   It was not – it was a whole lot of drama about saying yes to the dress, and the lavender-haired multi-tattooed tech CEO millennial granddaughter eventually said no to her grandmother’s historic couture gown and had it cut down into a pair of trousers.  (There I just saved you from a painful read).  I don’t think the author intended to make a statement about the difference between the generations but that’s what came across.  The 50’s were a much classier era, people had manners.

Separation Anxiety was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – it was on a recommended list but I found the plot so stupid (middle-aged woman facing empty nest “wears” her dog by carrying it around in a sling? – see cover photo) that I never even got past the first ten pages, other than to skim the ending and see she if she stayed with her lazy weed smoking husband. It was supposed to be hilarious and heart-breaking – it was neither. Sad, when the author hadn’t written anything in over a decade, that this is the best she could come up with.    

Sophie Hannah had been recommended to me as a good mystery writer and as she has been appointed the heir apparent to carry on Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot series (I read the Killings at Kingfisher Hall) but not being a big AG or HP fan, I decided to try one of her own books.  Perfect Little Children was a long disappointing read – you simply cannot have a murder mystery with only one suspect.   I kept waiting for the twist at the end but there wasn’t one.

I enjoyed the two non-fiction books so much I blogged about them – see The Library Book post and Secondhand – Travel in the new Global Garage Sale.

Every year I swear I’m done with Elin Hilderbrand and yet I find myself ordering her latest.  Her characters are now middle-aged and they need to grow up and stop drinking, and driving, and she needs to stop killing them off in the last chapter.  Troubles in Paradise was was the last of her winter Caribbean trilogy, but I’m long past the age where living in a tropical paradise would have any appeal to me.

In A Time for Mercy – John Grisham revisits the small southern town of his first book (which I’ve never read), 25 years later.  This was a captivating read, but I find sometimes his endings just dwindle away – it’s like he’s done with it, reached his word count, and that’s that. I also read his Camino Winds – a murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. Good descriptions of the hurricane, but again the ending kind of trailed off. The last scene was the middle aged protagonist celebrating in a bar with his buddies. (Female version of Elin Hilderbrand)

I’m a big fan of Lisa Jewell, but her novels can sometimes be disturbing.  Invisible Girl was a good read, more like a murder mystery.   She really knows how to pull you into the story. 

The Talented Miss Farwell – about a small town bookkeeper who collects big time art – was an interesting book, unique in topic and plot line. It was certainly readable, but I’m not quite sure what the point was, and I expected a better ending. I enjoyed it for the view into the elite New York art world.

Elin Hilderbrand – 28 Summers – her annual Nantucket beach read.  (see above) Corny premise – star crossed Lovers meet on Nantucket the same weekend every year for three decades? But they can’t be together the other 51 weeks because he’s married and his wife is running for President. It was such an unrealistic plot it was funny, and not in a good way. If it wasn’t for Nantucket I wouldn’t bother with her, but I’ve always wanted to go there.

The Guest List – murder at a fancy resort wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland – good characterization and suspense.   A Reese Witherspoonl bookclub selection. I enjoyed this one so much I read her previous book The Hunting Party – set in Scotland.

Stranger in the Lake – murder mystery – Kimberly Belle was a new author to me, but I tried her other books and could not get into them.  (see Pretty Little Wife comment) 

I used to love Joanna Trollope, but she’s been more miss than hit the past decade – Mum and Dad was not one of her best.  Drama about a British couple who are vineyard owners in Spain and their millennial aged children. Poor character development, stilted and repetitive dialogue (Are you okay Mum?) and really the parents were only in their early 70’s, not even old enough to really worry about yet.   A lot of stuff about sibling rivalry and not much of a plot.

Hidden Valley Road – non-fiction book about a family of twelve children in the 60/70’s and six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Decades later, the two youngest, both girls, collaborate with a journalist investigating a genetic link to the disease.  An Oprah Book club selection, which I normally avoid like the plague, but this was totally fascinating. But then I like a good medical book and have had some exposure to schizophrenics through my work. Be grateful for a sound mind. The research was interesting, particularly the preventative angle. Not sure why they kept having kids when advised not to, but it must have been a nightmare living in that house. Both parents had died, so we do not get their POV.  

Dear Edward was a library bookclub selection which I skimmed but decided I did not want to read, as it was about a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash which killed 183 people, including his parents.  The world is depressing enough….

Mary Higgins Clark was the Queen of Suspense, and I blogged about her passing last year at the age of 93. (link) Piece of My Heart is the last in the series she co-wrote with Alafair Burke.  It’s clear that even at her advanced age MHClark was the mastermind of the duo. This was so unlike the previous works that Ms. Burke must have finished this one mostly on her own, as it was as dull as toast, with little to no suspense.

The Midnight Library – by Matt Haig was good, but got off to a slow start, and I did not find the writing as a female protagonist quite believable. (In an author interview he remarked that he had made an earlier attempt from a male POV. He also said he was striving for something hopeful like It’s A Wonderful Life).  Writing about parallel universes seems to be a popular theme these days, (who knows how many other dimensions are out there we might be currently living in. Some of them might even contain aliens!) I was close to abandoning it, but LA (fellow book lover and blogger of Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50), convinced me to stick it out and I was glad I did as the ending was worth it.  Besides I love anything with a library in it.

Lean Out – by Tara Henley – I enjoyed this non-fiction ode to time-out so much that I blogged about in My Literary Salon. I seem to have had better luck with non-fiction this year.

Two of these were DNR or did not get even started.   The weather turned too warm for Insta-Pot soup, and World Travel – the Anthony Bourdain book, written by his collaborator after his death but full of his own quotes, had so much swearing in it I found it offensive and merely skimmed a few chapters. I used to watch his tv show occasionally but have never read his first, Kitchen Confidential or any of his other books so I have nothing to compare it to.

When the Stars Go Dark – by Paula McLain of The Paris Wife fame – about a CA detective searching for missing girls, was good for her first attempt at a non-historical/murder mystery.

The Push was a riveting read – motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a deeply disturbed sociopath child.   I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so it would make excellent bookclub fare.   As a first-time novelist, I wonder where she got the idea, but then we have only to look at the news and wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a child who commits a violent crime, even if she is only seven.

Pretty Little Wife – DNF – reminder – do not order anything with the wife/exwife/trophy wife as the murder victim/suspect/crime solver etc.

Anxious People – Sorry LA – I know you said to give it a chance, and I may someday but it was overdue and I had to take it back.   By the same author as A Man Called Ove – which I loved and which Tom Hanks is re-making as a movie….I enjoyed the Swedish version.

The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron – a big disappointment which I blogged about anyway.

Keep Sharp – by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.   I loved this book, it’s an easy read for non-medical folks, full of common sense advice but it’s scary to think the decisions we make in middle-age determine how well we live in old age.  I may blog on this later.  He has another book coming out later in the year – World War C – Lessons from the Covid Pandemic.

The Last Garden in England – library bookclub selection, a multi-generational story about an English garden.   A good tale, but nothing much to discuss, character driven with the garden merely a background.

A Promised Land – presidential memoir by Barrack Obama – although it’s not pictured here.  I read his two earlier books but they were slim volumes. I’m sure his time in the White House was interesting but 700 pages was just way too much detail for me.  I got to page 200 and it was still the primaries, and I had to return it and besides, Michelle said it better and more concisely in Becoming.  I’ve not heard too much about this book after the initial buzz, but there is to be a volume two.  I like to read in bed with the book propped up on my lap and it was just way too heavy…..literally, it weighed a ton.

The Last Bookshop in London – this was a surprisingly good read for light historical fiction, but then I love anything with a bookshop.  Set in WW2 England during the Blitz….you can imagine the rest.

The Windsor Knot – cute premise and title with Queen Elizabeth playing sleuth. It was a slow, not very suspenseful read but somehow I do not think the Queen would be amused. Not everyone’s cup of tea.

The Lost Apothecary – also a good historical fiction murder mystery, but then I’m biased towards anything with an apothecary, especially a female one, even if it was a place you went to obtain poison for your intended (male) victim. The 1800 London past woven into a present day story, with a surprisingly hopeful ending. 

Biggest disappointing read of the year which I had been so looking forward to was Jodi Picoult’s – The Book of Two Ways. Book opens with married female protagonist surviving a plane crash. Does she go home to her husband and child or fly off someplace else? Waded through 400 pages on death doulas, AI, Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaeology, much of which was standard university lecture material and had little to do with the plot, only to arrive at a totally ambiguous ending. I guess if you live in a parallel universe you don’t have to chose between your responsible-but-no-longer-in-love-with husband and your sexy grad-school Indiana-Jones type boyfriend because you can have both? Or maybe you the reader gets to decide? The ending was just plain annoying. In the author notes she thanks her editor for making her change it as it was so much better, which only left me wondering what the original ending might have been. I’ve never known Jodi Picoult to write a bad book before so it was doubly disappointing. I found her last one, Small Great Things, (how someone becomes a white supremacist) a timely and outstanding read.

There were many other books I didn’t take photos of…..some the kind you can’t put down.

I particularly enjoyed The Pull of the Stars – by Emma Donoghue about an obstetrical hospital in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu, which I found riveting, both for it’s historical obstetrical detail (not advised for anyone pregnant but many of my friends were OB nurses) and for it’s depiction of the pandemic (much the same as today, masks, distancing, fresh air, but thank god no carbolic acid disinfectant). I was surprised by the ending, but after I researched the author it make sense. Only a well respected writer (the Room) could get away with no quotation marks around the dialogue, an odd feature which didn’t seem to distract from the story.

I love murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, if they’re not too gory and I have my favorite authors – One by One by Ruth Ware was excellent, the setting a snowy ski chalet in the French alps with eight co-workers. The End of Her – by Canadian author Shari Lapena who is consistently good also, and Grace is Gone – by Clare McIntosh. Woman on the Edge – by Samantha Bailey, about a woman who hands her baby to another woman on the subway platform before she jumps, was also an interesting read.

For historical fiction, The Book of Lost Names – Kristen Harmel – a WW2 saga about a female forger helping Jewish children escape, and The Paris Library -Janet Skeslien Charles about librarians working at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation, – were both good reads.

I hope you have found something interesting here for your summer reading.  I also have a link to My Literary Salon reviews on the front pages of my website on the main menu under Books.

It’s either feast or famine, and I have little out from the library at the moment, which has been the recent victim of a “cyber security incident” thus disabling the online reservation process. I hope they get it fixed soon, or we Readers will all soon be in withdrawal. I’m always up for a recommendation, so please leave any favorite reads or authors you’ve discovered in comments.

PS. 3000 words – and I was criticizing Obama? Maybe I’ll stick to a quarterly review in the future…

The Library Book

 This months literary salon pick is a non-fiction book titled, The Library Book, penned by Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker.   With those credentials you know it will be good, and I must say this was one of my favorite reads this summer.   But then the library has always been one of my favorite places, especially during the COVID crisis when their curbside pickup has been a real lifesaver – transporting me to another world for awhile.   

Jane Austen quote re libraries 2 (2)

(Quote by Jane Austen)

While I do not have my own library at home, just random bookshelves, I’ve been a proud library patron since the age of seven when we took a class trip to our newly opened village library.  Although small in size with just two rooms, a children’s section and the adults side, I thought it the most marvelous place and was excited to have my own library card.   I could already read by then, having started with the Dick/Sally/Jane books, but here were shelf after shelf of books, each with a different story just waiting to be told.      

Jane Austen quote re library 2(4)

(quote Jane Austen)

As a quiet middle child I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book.   My mother would take me and my younger brother to the library every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week.   The library was one of the few buildings in town with A/C and I can still recall the blast of cool air which hit you when you entered the vestibule, plus the distinctive musty smell of books.   The librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Sekritis sat behind a tall circular desk, and she would often comment on my choices as I grew older.  While our little library stocked picture books for children and adult fiction for grown-ups, the selection for Young Adults (if that genre even existed back then) was limited – perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine).   And so I read the classics way too young, Dickens, the Brontes, whatever sounded interesting on the book jacket.  Occasionally, when I would come across a YA book, I would find it fascinating reading about kids my own age, so different from my rather isolated life growing up on a farm. 

I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be too expensive to buy them all, and our small local  library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such wonderful people.   I seldom visit the larger downtown branch where the service is impersonal and the reserve lists long, except to browse the large print books (easier for reading outside with my aging eyes) of which they have a better selection.   But whichever branch I visit, I still consider the library a sacred place.       

But back to The Library Book.

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Goodreads/Publishers Blurb:

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?       
 
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
 
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
 
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
 
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.   
 
Discussion:   
 
As mentioned on the cover blurb, this 2018 book is a little bit of everything – true crime, history, biography and first rate journalism.   The story of who lit the fire is fascinating and interwoven among the various chapters.  She delves into the history of library fires over the years from ancient Egypt to the famous book burning of the Nazis in WW2, plus the destruction of thousands of books in wars including recent ones like the Gulf war – a list of the lost libraries of the world, so many words destroyed forever.  She covers biographies of  librarians, a different breed who must love people as much as they love books and the future and expanded role of libraries in our communities as beacons for the homeless and social services centers, as well as branching into art, music and technical programs such as maker spaces.   (Even our small branch has a technical support person on staff but I’m not sure I could listen to that annoying 3D printer all day).   I was aware of the history of the Carnegie libraries, but not the reason behind it.   As a young boy Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 fee for the local lending library, so he spent the last third of his life giving money away, funding a legacy of 1700 libraries for future generations of readers.   In much the same way that Bill Gates spent a decade funding literacy in third world countries.   If you want to change the world, books can help, one mind at a time.   Introducing your child to the pleasure of books and reading is even more important now in this time of COVID, when education seems so perilous. 
 
And lastly I loved this book for it’s perfect prose, here’s a sample from page 309. 
 
“The library is a whispering post.  You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.   It was that affirmation that always amazed me.  Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read.   I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.  It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.  I realized that this entire time, learning about the library, I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long, as someone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story:  it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was.  I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, alert and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaming at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books.  I knew that if we had come here together, to this enchanted place of stucco and statuary and all the stories in the world for us to have, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.” 
 
and another excerpt from pg 93 
 
 “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone has died is to say his or her library has burned.   When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect.  Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by out experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.   It is something that no one else can share, one that burns down and disappears when we died.  But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
 
And so we read on…..
 
Postscript:  I was moved recently by this video which fellow blogger Annie (AnnieAsksYou) posted, so I’m going to share it here.   It’s a short clip of congressman John Lewis, who died recently at the age of 80, accepting the 2016 National Book Award for young people’s literature for March, his story of the civil rights movement.  As a young black teenager in 1956 he was denied the privilege of a library card as the library was for whites only, but he had a teacher who encouraged him to “read my child, read.”     
 

The Literary Salon: Secondhand – To Have and Have Not

Cleaning out – that’s what many of us have been doing, making productive use of our time during our COVID staycations.   No matter that there’s nowhere to take the stuff now that the dump, Goodwill and thrift stores are all closed and the whole idea of holding a garage sale is frankly horrifying.  Somehow the idea of pawing through someone else’s junk/germs is not very appealing, when even the library is quarantining returned books for 72 hours before disinfecting them for re-circulation.  I did my annual house purge back in  snowy January and the stuff is still sitting in the basement and the gardening items are still in the garage, set aside for the spring horticultural sale, long cancelled. 

    So, I wasn’t much interested, when in my first curbside pickup of library books, there was one I had ordered eons ago – Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale – by Adam Minter.     But after I had read it, I thought – where were you last winter when I needed you!      

Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage SaleSecondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Publishers Blurb:

Decluttering. A parent’s death. Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop our old clothes and other items off at a local donation center, where do they go? Sometimes across the country-or even halfway across the world-to people and places who find value in what we leave behind.

In Secondhand, journalist Adam Minter takes us on an unexpected adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more. Along the way, Minter meets the fascinating people who handle-and profit from-our rising tide of discarded stuff, and asks a pressing question: In a world that craves shiny and new, is there room for it all?

Secondhand offers hopeful answers and hard truths. A history of the stuff we’ve used and a contemplation of why we keep buying more, it also reveals the marketing practices, design failures, and racial prejudices that push used items into landfills instead of new homes. Secondhand shows us that it doesn’t have to be this way, and what really needs to change to build a sustainable future free of excess stuff.

 Why I Liked it:   

This is not one of those how to declutter/reorganize/change your life  manuals, but rather it’s an eye-opening look at what really happens to the unwanted stuff you donate.   It certainly motivated me to rethink my “possession of things” in ways that those other books did not.   Maybe it’s the current COVID crises and morbid thoughts of sudden death, but really in the end, it’s all just stuff and you can’t take it with you.   So keep what you use and enjoy and get rid of the rest, and try not to buy as much in the future!

    The author, Adam Minter, has done a great deal of research into the global secondhand industry, and being himself the descendant of junkyard owners,  is well qualified to tell the tale.  He also wrote Junkyard Planet-Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, a 2013 bestseller. 

    Much of the book involves his travel in places like Mexico, Southeast Asia and Africa – countries where the secondhand economy thrives, and where the stuff which doesn’t sell here is often destined.   That old saying, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, is true.   While there’s a widely circulated theory that by sending our clothes and electronic waste to third world countries we are harming their homegrown economies, the author debunks that myth.   While undeniably some of it does end up in the dump, much of it is recycled and repaired to be resold to people who would otherwise have nothing.   The author follows a container of discarded computers, cell phones and tube TVs to Africa and it’s thriving electronic repair shops – shops who would much rather have older recycled goods than new cheaper ones because they last longer and are made better.   In one story, Greenpeace installed a GPS tracking device on a discarded TV in a shipment bound from England to Africa and then send a reporter to reclaim it at the other end, thus proving, according to their report, that it was destined for a digital dump.  But it wasn’t – it would have been brought to a repair shop and then resold to someone who had nothing.  

     There’s a chapter on emptying the nest (professional estate cleaning  crews), secondhand clothes, wiping rags (a whole separate industry), and why appliances don’t last, (remind me to buy a Speed Queen if my thirty year old Maytag washer/dryer ever wears out).   Simple fixes such as making manufacturers release repair manuals for older models would do a lot to keep older electronics out of the dump.          

     I once donated an old 80’s radio/cassette player to the St. Vincent de Paul and the clerk thanked me as there were some seasonal workers in the store who were looking for a radio.   They were Mexican, here to help with the pepper harvest.  We smiled at each other.  I was pleased too, as when we drop things off at the thrift shop, we hope they will be reused and appreciated by someone else – if not here than perhaps in some other country.   In this world of have and have not, it’s comforting to know that sometimes happens.   

PS.   I’ve been thinking about my garage sale stuff and wondering – if things continue in recovery mode here and we don’t get a second fall wave – if I could just put some of the stuff out at the end of the driveway on a table some Saturday afternoon with a sign, Free for a Small Donation to COVID relief fund?   That way it won’t sit in my basement until next year.   A lot of what I have is winter stuff, Christmas decorations, wreaths, sweaters, etc.   I only had a garage sale once, (advertised) and I remember people coming really early, like before I was awake!    

Vintage Casablanca poster

Vintage movie posters

French Press Coffee Maker

French Press coffee maker…used once…$35 price sticker still on…coffee not hot enough and too much hassle to clean out the grounds.

red plaid housecoat

Flannel bathrobe with fleece lining…never worn……not suitable for menopausal women….

fake flowers

from my fake flower/wreath making days…

Sparkly Christmas wreaths

Many sparkly Christmas in July things…

     

 

    

 

The Literary Salon – On Edge

On Edge - book - Andrea Petersen

We’re all on edge these days.   We live in anxious times and the new worries associated with COVID-19 have made things much worse in a very short period of time.   It seems only yesterday that life was normal and going to a store or restaurant wasn’t a dangerous activity which could cost you your life.   I drafted this blog a month ago before the current crisis exploded, but perhaps it is even more timely today.   This months’ literary pick is by Andrea Petersen, a Wall Street Journal reporter, who has lived with chronic anxiety her entire life.  

On Edge: A Journey Through AnxietyOn Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety by Andrea Petersen

 

 

 

The Publisher’s Blurb:

A celebrated science and health reporter offers a wry, honest account of living with anxiety.

A racing heart. Difficulty breathing. Overwhelming dread. Andrea Petersen was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at the age of twenty, but she later realized that she had been experiencing panic attacks since childhood. With time her symptoms multiplied. She agonized over every odd physical sensation. She developed fears of driving on highways, going to movie theaters, even licking envelopes. Although having a name for her condition was an enormous relief, it was only the beginning of a journey to understand and master it—one that took her from psychiatrists’ offices to yoga retreats to the Appalachian Trail.

Woven into Petersen’s personal story is a fascinating look at the biology of anxiety and the groundbreaking research that might point the way to new treatments. She compares psychoactive drugs to non-drug treatments, including biofeedback and exposure therapy. And she explores the role that genetics and the environment play in mental illness, visiting top neuro-scientists and tracing her family history—from her grandmother, who, plagued by paranoia, once tried to burn down her own house, to her young daughter, in whom Petersen sees shades of herself.

Brave and empowering, this is essential reading for anyone who knows what it means to live on edge.

About the Author:    Andrea Petersen is a contributing writer at The Wall Street Journal, where she reports on psychology, health and travel.  During her 18 years as a staff reporter and editor at the Journal, Andrea has covered a wide variety of beats including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals and aging.    On Edge – A Journey Through Anxiety is her first book.

Why I Liked It:

This was one of my bookoutlet bargains, an online site where you can spend hours just browsing, and in this case I was trying to get my basket to $100 so I could get $40 off.   Certainly I’ve known and counselled many patients about the benefits and side effects of the drugs which are often prescribed in the treatment of anxiety, but I’ve never read a memoir about what it’s like to live with it day after day, so I found this book to be an interesting read. 

While most of us think of anxiety as a sporadic or episodic condition associated with a specific event, (like COVID-19), this book delves into what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety disorder.  Patients with.generalized anxiety disorder worry even if there isn’t anything concrete to worry about, as the mind of a patient struggling with GAD can always find something to catastrophize about!   Despite her many low points, the author has led a very successful life,  although her boss at the Wall Street Journal was unaware of her struggles until the book was about to be published.  Worriers can often excel at masking their condition.  She was also fortunate in having a supportive family and friends who understood her condition.   I liked how the author’s history was woven into the various chapters on drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, research and genetics, so it was a personal story and not just a recounting of scientific research. 

The fight or flight heightened response is an evolutionary adaptation for survival, left over from the caveman days, when our worries were of sabre-toothed tigers and where to find the next meal.   While we in modern times may have new and different things to worry about, like is it safe to go to the grocery store, it’s amazing how adaptable the human mind can be to the new normal, and how it can rise above a current catastrophe and find a way forward.    Something to remember in these, the worst of times.   

PS.   There are many non-drug coping mechanisms that can help soothe an anxious mind and stop the cycle, number one of which is distraction.    Keeping your mind occupied with something creative can be a wonderful distraction, and if you can’t shut your mind off at night, then I find getting up and reading to be a good activity, preferably a non-fiction book.    Basically, any mindless activity such as gardening, painting or reorganizing something is also wonderfully blissful.  What is your coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety in these crazy times?       

The Literary Salon – The Great Influenza

In view of the current fears about the spread of coronavirus COVD-19 this month’s literary salon will feature a New York times bestseller first published in 2014, The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry.   The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 was first recorded in army training camps in the US in the spring of 1918, spread to Europe with the mobilization of the troops and eventually infected about one-third of the world’s population, killing an estimated 17-50 million people worldwide (mortality rate 2-3%), more than the number who died in the war.    While most patients will likely get a mild version of COVID-19 and recover quickly, when you think about the 2-3% mortality rate, the implications are staggering considering how many more people there are in the world today.   For more about the 1918 pandemic see Wikipedia link and CDC link. 

 The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryThe Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest P andemic in History by John M. Barry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Publisher’s Blurb:

At the height of WWI, history’s most lethal influenza virus erupted in an army camp in Kansas, moved east with American troops, then exploded, killing as many as 100 million people worldwide. It killed more people in twenty-four months than AIDS killed in twenty-four years, more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. But this was not the Middle Ages, and 1918 marked the first collision of science and epidemic disease. Magisterial in its breadth of perspective and depth of research and now revised to reflect the growing danger of the avian flu, The Great Influenza is ultimately a tale of triumph amid tragedy, which provides us with a precise and sobering model as we confront the epidemics looming on our own horizon. John M. Barry has written a new afterword for this edition that brings us up to speed on the terrible threat of the avian flu and suggest ways in which we might head off another flu pandemic.
About the Author:
John M. Barry is a prize-winning and bestselling author and noted historian with such an extensive C.V. that I scarcely know how to summarize it.    Here’s a link to his website –link.
Observations:
My interest in reading this book in 2014 was sparked by the 100th anniversary of WW1.   I was preparing some information for a museum display of the Great War and came across this postcard of a hospital among my great uncle’s war memorabilia.     
WW1 Uncle Charlie hospital
This eventually led to a blog where I traced his journey from Canada to Britain, France and Germany and back again.   Uncle Charlie had caught the Spanish flu in 1919 and was six months recuperating in a British convalescent home before he was well enough to be sent home.   His prolonged illness was most likely complicated by being gassed in the war, as those with bad lungs always seem to suffer the most with influenza once it enters the respiratory phase.  

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

As well I had a great aunt, Jenny, (the girl in the middle front row beside her father), who died of the Spanish flu, leaving behind two young children and a grieving husband so angry at God he never darkened the door of a church again.   Jenny’s name is engraved on the bell of the parish church as she was one of the young girls who helped to raise the most money for it’s installation.  
Having been stricken with the H1N1/swine flu myself in the fall of 2009, one week before the vaccine was available, I am grateful to be retired now.  Certainly it was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, for the longest.   Two weeks of misery, off work, followed by four weeks of weakness, while working, although never in any danger of dying despite some SOB, and I do remember exactly the middle aged woman who coughed all over me, as she was wearing flannel PJ’s.   I worked one block from a busy ER so we saw a steady stream of patients in for the antiviral Tamiflu,which was provided free by the government, and when the drug company ran out of the suspension for kids we made it from scratch just like in the old days.   It annoyed me greatly that I, the Queen of Hand Sanitizers, was the only person in my workplace who came down with it, me and one ER doctor, but H1N1, like the 1918 flu, seemed to strike younger healthy people and could in a perfect cytokine storm (inflammatory overreaction of the immune system) sometimes lead to multi-organ failure.    Of course we had antibiotics and ventilators to treat the respiratory complications unlike in 1918.   And then there was SARS in 2004, with all of those unnecessary deaths in Toronto as the health care system did not even know what they were dealing with until it was too late.      
While I don’t remember the specifics of this book, as it was six long years and many books ago, I do remember it was a fascinating read, but then I’m always up for a good non-fiction book.   Of course I may be biased, but you don’t have to have a medical background to enjoy it as it was written for the average lay person.   It was evident the author was a noted historian as the book was meticulously researched and presented.   It won the National Academies of Science award for the year’s outstanding book on science or medicine and is a highly recommended read, whatever your reasons for wanting to know more about pandemics.   
At any rate it might be something interesting to read from a historical point of view, while we are all encouraged to shelter in place.    (As all the libraries are now closed here for three weeks, I note that both Amazon (book and kindle version) and the bookoutlet site have it for half price).   
I remember thinking at the time well if we do have another pandemic, we’ll be better prepared….and of course we are in some ways, but here we are again, a hundred years later, the best of modern medicine facing off against another smart wily little virus.  May science and cool heads prevail.   Stay in and stay safe! 
Coronavirus   COVID-19
    

Books and Brownies

It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months.  These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.

Brownies

As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries.   Click on the link for the full publishers blurb.    The list is in descending order of greatness. 

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A page-turning jewel of a book, her best yet.

Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday,  telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods.  Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change.   But others have been waiting for this day too.   Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying.   When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib.  Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.

Think your family is dysfunctional?   After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison.   I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet.   There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.        

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.”   In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too.   Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?

While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales, Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride.   Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was.   She used to be  a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.  

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.

                                                                                                                         

The perfect life, or the perfect lie?   Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret.   Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem.  Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.

A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone.  She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014.   I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending.   Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries.  A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.  

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy.   Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything?    As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.

Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex.  In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older.   I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.      

I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title?    I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.  

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis.   Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.    But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.

A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not.   It’s also immensely readable.

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.  Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.   Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.

One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about  the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns. 

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?   Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.   While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all.   Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme.    I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells.   Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris?  (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what).   While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member.   Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book –  you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.   

I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies!   Have you read any good books lately?     (1500 words – most of them not mine)

  

The Literary Salon – Eating Local

(This months Book Review may motivate you to eat healthier…..or you may just crave a piece of cherry pie.) 

A few weeks ago I attended a Harvestfest supper prepared entirely from  locally sourced food.   Although I had intended this post to be a restaurant review of that meal,  it grew too long so this will be the literary review for the month.      The books discussed here are older ones but they inspired me to try and eat better.   If you’re not into books, please feel to skip right over to the main menu.   (see Part Two for The Harvestfest Supper).

Harvestfest menu Many of us have the desire to eat healthier, but in today’s fast paced world it’s becoming more difficult to do so, hence the arrival of all those companies who will conveniently, albeit for an outrageous price, send you weekly pre-measured food preparation parcels – voila, supper in 30 minutes, as if a grown person wasn’t capable of going to a grocery store, buying food and preparing it just as quickly.    Perhaps there are fewer left-overs, but aren’t leftovers a good thing and would you really enjoy all those recipes they send?   As well, a large percentage of debt-ridden people eat out several times a week, a major hit to the family budget, and now you don’t even have to go out as those grub-hub apps will deliver the meal right to your front door.  And then there is the ever present lure of fast food restaurants so conveniently located along strip malls everywhere.   No wonder we have all forgotten how to cook, or in my case never bothered much.     

For many years eating local was the standard way of life.   When half the population lived in a rural environment you ate what you grew or raised.    My mother says that in her early married years, she only visited the grocery store for a few staples, which she bought with the $8 twice weekly cream check.   My father had dairy cattle so cream, milk and butter came from the cows, meat, chicken and eggs were all raised organically on the farm, and a large fruit and vegetable garden supplied canned goods and jams over the winter.    Self-sufficiency without delivery – although the breadman and milkman did make home deliveries.   

Things started to change in the mid-60’s with the arrival of processed food.  For an understanding of this shift in food production, I found a series of books by author, Michael Pollan to be excellent reads.    His 2008 book, In Defense of Food, is famous for it’s mantra, “Eat Food, Mostly Plants.  Not Too Much.” and “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”. 

In Defense of Food: An Eater's ManifestoIn Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Simple words that changed my eating habits ten years ago when I first read this book, or at least made me stop and think first. Don’t eat anything your Grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Also wise words. This book provides an interesting history and peek into the multi-million dollar processed food industry – what started out as an attempt in the fifties to make food better and healthier and last longer, has backfired so that we now have transfats, plasticizers and softeners in our bread and fast food burgers which never decompose. Certainly an eye-opener – you may never eat the same way again.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

In his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he discusses how food scientists thought they were improving food stability and palatability by adding chemicals and preservatives and such.   And while no one would argue that organic vegetables don’t stay fresh as long and bakery bread does tend to grow mold after a few days, if you look at the long list of unpronounceable ingredients on a box or can in the grocery store, it does seem strange to want to manipulate food from it’s natural origins to a more chemical state.   

Perhaps their intentions were good, and Tang orange crystals did supply the astronauts with vitamin C (although I remember it as tasting rather artificial), but starting in the 60’s the processed food revolution had begun – with snack foods, frozen TV dinners, cakes from boxes and fast food burgers – and there was simply no stopping it.   It was convenient and it tasted good – who cared if it was good for you.  

Like many farm women, my mother was a wonderful cook, of the plain meat/potato/vegetable type and we had plenty of homemade cakes, pies and cookies.     So while I may think I grew up eating healthy nutritious meals, and most of the time I did, by the sixties we also had penny candy and weekly trips to McDonalds on grocery shopping days and Saturday night treats of potato chips and pop (usually Coke) while watching Hockey Night in Canada.  Of my poor student days I have absolutely no recollection of what I ate, (did I eat?) other than residence food the first few years which was so bad I lost ten pounds.    Once I had an apartment with a kitchen we still never cooked but ate cheap meals like beans on toast, (never KD though), grabbed yogurt and grilled cheese from the student cafe, and drank endless cups of mostly vile donut shop coffee.   Our idea of splurging was an occasional trip to Bloor Street – Swiss Chalet (chicken), Steak and Burger (tough steak but warm apple pie) and Mr. Submarine (still the best subs IMO).   When I started working I had to contend with decades of hospital food, some of which used to be quite good when it was prepared from scratch, (I remember our cafeteria serving Seafood Newburg in the early 80’s before the discovery of cholesterol), but which eventually turned into those cook, chill and reheat meals which are now standard hospital jokes – if you’re well enough to complain about the food, you can go home.    I usually brought my lunch, except for the soup – as they always had some kind of homemade soup, probably loaded with salt.    After I changed jobs I was often too busy to eat, and lunch would be chocolate milk or half a sandwich grabbed in the staff room, and I would arrive home at night ravenous and eat whatever was in sight.    BTW, the invention of microwaves in the 80’s was a godsend, as then you could quickly reheat leftovers. 

Now that I’ve thoroughly scared myself with a review of my poor dietary habits over the years, I resolve to do better.  The Michael Pollan books have made a big influence on my food choices.   I read food labels now.   Buy as little processed stuff as I can and generally try to eat better, except for deserts, in moderation.  And isn’t that the more sensible way – everything in moderation.    It’s why diets don’t usually work – if you crave something, eat it, a small portion.   I craved cherry pie the other day, so I had a piece and froze the rest. The French way of eating, including lots of walking, is based on this principle.  As eating is one of the pleasures of life, why deprive yourself.  

Recently they have changed Canada’s food guide to emphasize fewer meat and more plant sources of protein, but I wonder how practical that is – are you really going to get people to eat more tofu, legumes and nuts?   It is accessible or affordable?    Maybe – those vegetable burgers seem to be very popular, but aren’t they just another form of manipulated processed food, fried on the same greasy grill as the meat ones?  

I’m certainly more of a foodie now than I used to be, but in moderation, not like those food network shows which drive me crazy with their pretentiousness – it’s just food folks – no need to have a melt down over a slightly burnt creme brulee when half the world is starving.    But I have become more selective in my eating habits.   When I eat something now I want it to be nutritious as well as delicious.  As we get older we worry more about maintaining our health – and as the saying goes, you are what you eat.  If you are in need of motivation – check out the books.  

Enough of the discussion, on to Part Two – The Harvestfest Supper.    As Julia Child used to say, “Bon Appetit”!