Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Bless the Beasts & Children

How is it that we don't hear about this book anymore? Do teachers still teach it? I hope so because it is a wealth, I tell you. And I was fortunate enough to read an e-edition with a wonderful postscript written by the author's son Mitch Swarthout.

Bless the Beasts & Children is real treasure of social conscience and coming-of-age. I read it for the first time in the sixth grade, along with that cultural phenomenon Born Free...I was so moved by the plight of wild animals and how oddly barbaric and violent our species can be toward them. Just give a human a few flimsy justifications and they will be off in the wild with plans to kill an unsuspecting animal. Not fair and not the coming-of-age story that they deserve.

I have come to a realization that I have never liked the coming-of-age story. I thought A Separate Peace was like a long, slow thumb screw; the cover of Swarthout's book seems to compare this book to that book. But no. Nor is it a bit like Lord of the Flies.

Maybe I related to this book a bit tonight because I know that I was a total dink when I was young. Dink. The term used by the kids in this book for a total loser. The plot of this book might read something like this: Six misfit teens come together at a summer camp and form a bond as the emotionally-messed-up outcast cabin. Together they embark on an adventure to ...should I say? Anyway, they go an adventure to right a wrong and each of them, in their own way, come to terms with their own identities and their own choices in life. If only we can come to terms with the choices that others make for us...with the decisions that people make for us that we, then, must live with.

Let me begin by saying that this is an unexpectedly beautiful read.
Glendon Swarthout is a poet.

The book was the 70s to me. Socially aware and awkward, all mixed into the lovely hearts of dinks with courage in spite of it all. Not just in Box Canyon Boys Camp just outside of Prescott AZ where the motto is Send us a Boy, We'll Send you a Cowboy.

Seems like in the 70s bullies were everywhere. Did schools even have any idea what to do about that back then? Is it still the same? How many of us were placed into the misfit cabin of school because of the limitations placed on us by the alphas? Swarthout's depiction of the struggle of the misfits was moving and realistic to my experience in the 70s. The breaking hearts and unspoken piercing pain of each character, all six main characters: Cotton, Teft, Goodenow, Shecker, Lally1, and Lally2.

But who is really the misfit? The child responding to his abandonment or the parent who does the abandoning? The young person sobbing in his sleeping bag from the abuse or the cabin full of young men who get off on beating and badgering the weaker more sensitive boy or the adult leaders who encourage such violent competition to be superior? The pillow-toting travelers on a social mission passing through town or the cruel and vicious hangers about found in every small town in the country, projecting insecurities and self-loathing on unprotected, random vulnerable. The adults paying to gun down magnificent beasts in a faux and unfair nature or a group of misfits seeking to free them?

Allow me to share one of my favorite quotes from the book to give you an idea of the quality of writing we are talking about; it is a quote where the musing was about a western film: 
You did not watch it. You sucked on it. For this is the marrowbone of every American adventure story: some men with guns, going somewhere, to do something dangerous. Whether it be to scout a continent in a covered wagon, to weld the Union in a screaming Wilderness, to save the world for democracy, to vault seas and rip up jungles by the roots and sow our seeds and flag and spirit: some men with guns, going somewhere, to do something dangerous.

As I read Bless the Beasts & Children I often thought to myself, let me be Cotton. Let me have the courage and integrity of this boy willing to stand up for what is right, stand right in the face of louder people determined to put their heels down on the heads of seemingly lower people. Let me lose my cool only to discover that I am equipped with resilience. Let me have the confidence to lead the pack when all direction and plan is lost. Let me speak to myself and speak to my friends with the utmost belief that our lives fricking matter. Let me know when to hold on and when to let go...

Each aside out of time in this book moved me almost to tears and pulled me further into the journey of these brave and deserving and fearful teens. I know I will revisit this book and recommend it to friends. I must give this book a very emotional seven stars. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Bless the Beasts

Back in the sixth grade I was in that classroom of smart kids. We had, somehow, completed the elementary school curriculum and we were doing all kind of cool independent work under the tutelage of our excellent teacher Mrs. Joanna Stork. I remember the very cool activities that she had us doing; lots of creative and independent work.

It was in that class that I read Glendon Swarthout's Bless the Beasts & Children. At this same time Karen Carpenter was on the charts with her song Bless the Beasts and the Children to the hit film Bless the Beasts & Children. That song is was sublime then and it is sublime now. It was also the same year that I read Born Free by Joy Adams...I was so moved.

This book came to my attention the other day and I decided to give it another go. I have so often found that revisiting books I've read in the past is such a wonderful trip. I should mention that I've never seen the film.

Back soon with the 411.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

The Truth According to Us
by Annie Barrows

Are you one of the many who read the 2009 surprise hit The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows? What a delightfully charming and fabulous book that was! I remember buying that book from a small, independent book store in Webster Groves (I wonder if that delightful place is still there) at the recommendation of a fellow shopper that day. I began reading it immediately and discovered a true gem.

When I ran across another book by Annie Barrows, coauthor of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I quickly purchased it when I ran across it at the shop on my ereader...and for less than three bucks!

The Truth According to Us is a story about generations, about how each generation relies on the truth of the history of the previous generation and how those stories can box us in or set us free. Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the main characters in the book: Willa Romeyn, the eleven year old daughter of the irascible and inscrutable Felix, Jottie Romeyn, sister of Felix,  and Layla Beck, visiting daughter of a NY senator, in town to write a historical treatise of Macedonia West Virginia during the summer of 1938 as the town prepares for their sesquicentennial. These three women clash with and love one another and learn from one another. By writing from each point of view we discover delicious nuance and engaging personality quirks as we view events from a child's perspective and from the perspective of an adult. Quite interesting and often humorous.

Beloved Willa reminded me so much of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird that I envisioned her as young Mary Badham from the 1962 film as I read the book. Always questioning, always longing for...something, always taking risks, knowing that the clean and tidy history she has been told is not true enough. Willa will remind us how confusing it is...this growing up.

Set in the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia, we meet a delightful array of quirky, real characters around the Romeyn family, we learn about past losses and lost loves. As the story progresses, as we page forward, one page at a time, we uncover more and more of each character; we uncover what moves them, motivates them, what they long for.

The unmasking takes much longer for with Felix, the handsome central character who remains hidden, yet beloved by all of the women in his life. The mysteries of his private life keep us turning the pages as more is revealed to those around him. We sincerely hope for things with Felix to be well because his eleven year old daughter is watching him like a hawk and needing him to be good, respectable, and, above all, knowable.

Personal histories, once again, slowly revealed affect each generation of women in different and very personal ways. And we discover that we never really know those around us and I, for one, enjoyed the deepening characterization of each main character.

In the beginning Jottie, Aunt Jottie to Willa and her sister Bird, is quite two dimensional and background. But in the fullness of the read, this woman becomes as beloved and true as Willa to the reader. Her ability to love and forgive is moving beyond words. Jottie's courage, struggle, and eventual personal growth is a highlight from the book. Both Jottie and Layla Beck provide bookends of strength in the Romeyn home, giving the girls Willa and Birdie, truly, women to learn from, though first Layla has alot to learn about what love looks like. More than one person becomes unmasked.

I loved this book.
I have continued to read as voraciously as ever, yet few books bring me to this blog. I knew, almost from page one, that this book was one for the internet. Annie Barrows writes with such spectacular detail, keen and amusing observation, wisdom. Grab some iced tea because this hot summer story of five hundred pages will grab will call your book club leader and recommend this wonderful story of loyalty and forgiveness. Some may say that the many voices in the novel sanitize it a bit or even confused it. Some may dislike the too tidy ending. Myself, I was OK with it because, hey, summer is too hot for anything else.

Overall I would give this book a nice rating of six out of ten stars.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby

The other evening I was having dinner with a new friend; we were talking about our favorite books. When I asked her what her most recent favorite book was she thought for a moment and replied, I read it two years ago; it was The Great Gatsby. Embarrassingly, I think I actually shrieked to her that I was reading the book right now. 

It's so great when you and your new friend like the same books.

As I said the other day, I've read this book before. First time was in high school: HATED IT. Several times again over the years when someone would mention that they liked it: STILL HATED IT. I also didn't care for the Robert Redford, Mia Farrow film from '74. But, as I also mentioned the other day, I read too fast and I now realize that I have, time and again, missed the beauty of the book. 
When I read it this time I didn't miss the language.

As I read Gatsby on my ereader this time I highlighted dozens of passages, beautiful writing, good quotations. I read it over several days even though it is s very short novel. I even stopped for a couple of days in order to read the new Harry Potter. (worth it)

I'm grateful to F. Scott Fitzgerald for having Nick Carraway tell this tale of people who are so incredibly bankrupt of common decency because I wouldn't have wanted to hear the story from anyone else: Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, Jordan Baker, Meyer Wolfsheim, Myrtle Wilson. I'm glad Nick is the narrator because he is fair, truthful, decent, and he is confused by the intrapsychic feelings of worthlessness that seem to plague so many ultra-wealthy people. Without Nick's observations and good heart the tale wouldn't be worth telling. Tom and Daisy wouldn't be people worth knowing.

Nick's storytelling gave beauty to the people and to the memories. He paints beautiful pictures with his words and moves us like a master.

If not through Nick's opinions and words I would not know what to think about Jay Gatsby. Was Gatsby a pitiful sham of a human being? Was he a corrupt bootlegger? Was he a deranged and obsessed man in mental anguish? Or was he a lovesick romantic worthy of our compassion? A man pursuing meaning in a life of empty pleasure?

I've decided that I care about Jay Gatsby for a simple reason: that he is hopeful. He is a man from very modest means attempting to navigate the culture of the extraordinarily wealthy, albeit through illegal means. I choose to see his admittedly stalker ways as romantic, charming, and human. I love that he reinvented himself, that he lifted himself up and pursued his dreams. According to the rules of The American Dream, you can't do better than that. Seems the biggest misfortune in Gatsby's life happened the moment he met the beautiful and flawed Daisy, the girl who seemed to be living the American dream...

The wealthiest in the country in the Jazz Age of the 1920s were, then, living the American dream. But is the American dream really lots of money, pursuing excess and pleasure, intoxication, jewels, spending huge amounts of money? Or is that pursuit just as empty, disappointing, and misleading as chasing Daisy Buchanan turned out to be? Gilded but ultimately not worth it?

I am disgusted by the insipid Daisy Buchanan and her equally heartless, morally bankrupt husband Tom Buchanan. I'm certain it was their abrupt departure during the crisis that destroyed poor Nick.

I haven't read anything else by F. Scott Fitzgerald but I see by the titles and description of his famous books The Beautiful and the Damned, Tender is the Night, and This Side of Paradise all seem to be exploring the raging 1920s and the decadence juxtaposed with the beauty, the greed and the fragility, weakness, and the vulnerability of love. Gatsby certainly fits that focus. Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald's own life choices fit that focus as well. 

Most of us know of Fitzgerald's Jazz Age lifestyle, his chronic alcoholism and over-the-top way of life, and his relationship with the tragically unstable and schizophrenic Zelda. Take those major struggles in his life and it's no wonder he would write books about such pain, struggle, emptiness, illness, and decline. What is a wonder is that he could do so with such beautiful language and in an interestingly clear perspective of a clear-headed, voice of integrity like Nick Carraway.

Some of my favorite quotes from are not the usual ones you find repeated online, but the longer, lovelier descriptions and dreamy imagery by Nick Carraway. Some of this is too beautiful for the story of HollaGirl Daisy.
  • We were all just humans, drunk on the idea that love, only love, could heal our brokenness. 
  • I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
  • His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete. 
  • If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. 
  • For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened - then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.
  • Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For awhile these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing.

There's more, lots more, but you'll have to read for yourself to appreciate it.

I'd already seen the Robert Redford film so I watched the Leonard DeCaprio version. While I adore the beautiful Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Leonardo seemed simply too old for the character of Gatsby. Besides, nobody says "Old Sport" quite as sincerely and heartbreakingly as Robert Redford. Robert Redford is incredibly beautiful and fits the role better in his natural vulnerability and his preppy, pretty-boy face.

With certainty that I will read even better books, I'm giving Gatsby an 8 out of 10 stars.

  Again, I have to thank my sister Linda for  
  encouraging me to reread this book.  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Nick & Jay & Daisy

I know I said I would only write about books I've never read before, but it's as though I'm reading this book for the first time. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is one of those books you can read again and again and always read something new.The first several times I read this book, usually under duress, I hated the book. Hated. The Book. Hated. The. Characters. Hated. It.

But I'm the lucky one because my sister Linda is a tremendous lover of literature and she is my own personal literature advocate. She and I were talking about Gatsby the other day. I was saying how awful I thought it was and how I was surprised she was making her kids read it. (She teaches high school English and Literature). She told me her kids LOVE it; I was doubtful.

Linda started her magic with me.

She told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a poet, that his writing is beautiful and lyrical and poetic and, if I would pay attention to the writing, that I would love it. Furthermore she told me that she often encourages her students to skip the first chapter of the book ("Nick can be long winded") and skip to the second chapter, right into the fun part of the book.

I have been a heavy reader for my entire life, but recently I've realized I have been reading wrong. As a young girl I was the fastest reader in my class, as per the speed reading machine, and I was proud of that. I have continued to read very fast, often reading for story rather than for language, skimming, zipping through long books, missing lots of detail and depth. This past month has been a huge epiphany for me; I've decided to sloooow it down and enjoy the read, rather than get through it quickly.

Maybe that is why I am appreciating Gatsby so much this time.
I'll be back in a few days (or more!) with my post on The Great Gatsby.

  Don Birnam, the protagonist of Charles Jackson's   
  The Lost Weekendsays to himself,  
  referring to The Great Gatsby,  
  "There's no such thing ... as a flawless novel. 
  But if there is, this is it."  

Friday, July 29, 2016

Tracy Chevalier's "The Virgin Blue"

Since 1997 Tracy Chevalier has been writing historical fiction novels with strong foundational history bases through which the characters move. It is clear that author Tracy Chevalier and I share a love of art history. In the late 90s I read Chevalier's popular book Girl with a Pearl Earring, like most novel readers of that time, and with it I discovered the genre of historical fiction.

Set at the time of Johannes Vermeer, part of the narrative and part of the action of Girl with the Pearl Earring describes the delicacy and dedication it took to create both paint colors and canvas. Part of the action included the running of the household and the financing of Vermeer's work by sponsors and art patrons. Chevalier's love of history shone bright and clear in that novel and drew me in like a moth to the genre of historical fiction.

Since Girl with the Pearl Earring I have read dozens of historical fiction novels. Some are more based in real history than others while some are less history and more fiction. I prefer the very historical books. If you like the genre I can recommend three favorites that I've read in the recent year or two:  Benjamin Franklin's Bastard: A Novel by Sally Cabot, Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull, and  
Mr. Emerson's Wife by Amy Belding Brown. I have about a dozen more historical fiction books on my ereader that I haven't read yet but that I'm looking forward to.

In this book The Virgin Blue we follow two characters on parallel paths. Current-day American Ella Turner and 16th century peasant woman Isabelle du Moulin lead dual storylines, my favorite type of set up.  Ella Turner and her husband are temporarily living in France for her husband's work. Ella struggles to fit into the small French town they are living in and begins to bristle a bit at the edges. Being of French descent she begins to do some genealogy. During her research Ella begins to have nightmares of a red-haired woman wearing a blue cloth.

The second storyline with Isabelle, a hidden Catholic in a town of Heugonots, is accused of witchcraft and is generally a pariah in town. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew in Paris, the murder of thousands of French Protestants, Huguenots, in Paris beginning 24 August 1572, sends waves of persecution throughout France. Being a Catholic was...not good. The family Isabelle is forced to marry into is quite cruel, rigid, and very anti-Catholic. Isabelle and her daughter Marie, named after the Virgin, are treated cruelly, so cruelly that Ella of the 20th century feels the pain of their treatment.

Suffice it to say, religious persecution is not new. Although the book never uses the words ghost or reincarnation, the reader can't possibly get through the book without wondering if some sort of spiritual hanky-panky isn't at play

I can't use the words elegant or scholarly to describe this early Chevalier novel because it lacks grace, sophistication, and balance at certain points in the story, qualities that her later books possess. But this is an early book and the author does read as a diamond in the rough in this book and I can't help but wonder if I had read this book before reading later Chevalier books, if I would have loved it more by not having the comparison available to me.

My favorite quote by Tracy Chevalier: It's a rare book that wins the battle against the drooping eyelids. 

I absolutely adore the concept of taking a work of art, real historical events, and creating a story of dramatic human suffering and struggle. Chevalier is a master of this formula and I highly recommend her books. As for this book, I give is a high six stars out of ten.

My THANKS if you can help me figure out why Ella's eczema was mentioned so often.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Next Up: Tracy Chevalier

Were you among the many who were enamored with Tracy Chevalier's bestseller Girl With the Pearl Earring?

OH, with Girl With the Pearl Earring we were delightedly moved and transported to the time of Danish painter Johannes Vermeer and drawn into a beautiful historical fiction about that beautiful, enigmatic painting. For me that book was an introduction to the historical fiction genre'. I loved it. I didn't love the film, but I did like it.

What I loved about Chevalier's GWTPE was the history, the real history, in the book. How paints were created, Vermeer's life and family, Danish culture. It was wonderfully and richly written and I adored it. That is why I picked up my next book The Virgin Blue: A Novel by Tracy Chevalier. I've had it on the book table to read for a couple of years now. I'm finally giving it some attention.

The Virgin Blue: A Novel was written before GWTPE and was, therefore, written before the fanfare of that novel.That is noteworthy because that makes this book the original Chevalier historical fiction novel. I can assure you, the wealth of historical information in this book is very satisfying and worth a read; Tracy Chevalier really did her research for this one.

I saw several different book covers for this book, all of them beautiful, but I didn't see a single book cover with the painting of the actual inspiration for the book.
It is this one:

Check back in a day or two for my post on The Virgin Blue: A Novel.
I'm enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

And the Next Book, and the Next...

This post in an important and totally typically TMI post.:

I will probably never be fully satisfied with posts that I write about the books I read. I have an expectation for myself that my posts should be intellectually keen, surprisingly savvy, intuitive, insightful, or unique. I expect my own posts to display some intellectual depth, to exhibit my unique connections, or maybe to incite further interest or something. Not necessarily brilliant or slick, but unique.

But the truth is, when it comes time to write I go blank and I can think of nothing to say. Just like every other writer in the world, I guess. The truth is that much of the processing of novel reading happens over time. The book needs time to percolate, to make connection, to figure out meaning. In real life, sometimes I don't appreciate what I've read for months, it takes time to process.

I'm writing this post for two people.
For me.

For you.

I'm allowing myself to write posts that are, sometimes, less than they can be and I'm letting any readers know that any review or post here is simply thoughts of a moment in time. Probably an embryonic and premature moment in time.
But there you are.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Terry Tempest Williams: When Women Were Birds

It happened again; I found an amazing book. When I picked it up I had no idea it was such a treasure. And it wasn't.

When Women Were Birds:
Fifty-Four Variations
of Voice

By Terry Tempest Williams

I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone.

This is what Terry Tempest Williams' mother told Terry just a week before she died. Terry's mother left her three shelves worth of personal journals. When Terry's mother died Terry discovered that the shelves of journals were all blank. This memoir is Terry's exploration of voice and what it means to have voice.

While I was reading I couldn't stop highlighting. The beautiful words, the contemplation, the questions, the poetry, the lyrical meditation on what it means that her mother's journals are empty, what it means to have a voice, what it means to find beauty in the world.

As it happens, we all have to fight for our voices, men and women. This book is a call to finding your own voice. You won't be able to help yourself. You will be drawn in for many of the fifty-four chapters and you will be grateful for it. Terry Tempest Williams truly has a voice worth listening to.

I highlighted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of words in the first half of this book. Words, voice, speaking out. Terry Tempest Williams is a woman who learned that speaking out was essential, and so she spoke out in this beautiful book.

The beginning of the book, Tempest's writing is like poetry or prose. Lyrical and stunning and meaningful and personal, clean and pure, philosophical. It is like a delicious buffet of ideas and rich flavors. If only she had stuck with the subject of her lessons and relationship with her mother.

Somewhere part way through the entire feel of the book changed and I started wondering what I was reading. About half way through I realized that I was reading a memoir of a woman with an ecological message, and that she was trying to combine her  emotional processes of her relationship with her mother and the struggle to protect millions of Utah acres. This is when the confusion came for me...and when I realized that the book was a bit of a scrapbook. It became uneven, meandering, a bit too much. At times, I felt as if her voice veered off as the book would weave into pompous effluent feminist, ecological and political issues and falls just short of becoming too false to me. Although I personally agree with the some of her opinions (who wouldn't want to protect the beautiful topography of Utah) the writing loses it's compelling key. 

The cry for the National Parks in Utah almost killed the book for me, truly felt like an entirely separate book. But I stuck with it for the beautiful parts. And that is why I give this book a very strong seven stars.

Harper Lee: Go Set a Watchman


Starting a blog about my reading is presumptuous as hell because it seems as though I am saying that my thoughts and musing about my reading are so very readable. But I know that they are not. I know that my reading is rather mediocre and that my opinions and reviews about books are fairly pedestrian.

But I decided to do this blog anyway because sometimes I run across a remarkable book among the many stacks that is so worth sharing or that I simply need to talk about. That's why this blog exists. But this next book is not one of the remarkable books. It's a good one, but not remarkable.

While reading the book I was talking with a friend who expressed an opinion that surprised me, that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is probably not a Great American Novel and that she doesn't support its being included in most high school required reading lists. I had to stop and think about that one.

So much happens in the world that we all just go along with, without question or with out questioning. Even though I like to think that I question question question, still reading TKAM was one of those thigs for me that I simply accepted as fact: To Kill a Mockingbird is a Great American Novel. In fact, my son is reading it right now for a high school reading book and he's enjoying it very much.

I guess I'll leave it up to you what you think about TKAM. I think I will always love it. It takes me back to my childhood (in the 60's) in a small town where things were slow, we were all generally innocent (read: we didn't question what was), and bad things and good things happened around us all of the time and we just lived with them.

Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, though it was written in the 1950s, a draft that was written and rejected. It was not originally written as a sequel to TKAM but was an early draft written as a stand-alone novel. Although the events of the novel occur twenty years after those in TKAM, it is helpful to know that Go Set a Watchman was intended as a novel on its own. However, most of us of this era will always view the newer novel as a sequel because of the updating of characters' lives and because of the seeming resolution of Scout's move from young person to adult.

The book opens up as Scout returns to Maycomb after being in the Big City for about a decade, living on her own. Viewing the smaller town through her eyes is more than a right of passage, it is an eye-opener that almost everyone who has ever lived in a small town has experienced. Not surprisingly Scout has grown into a quick, smart, accomplished young woman.

She is still likable, Scout with her sharper edges. Visiting her aging father, Scout reminisces about absent people and important childhood events (Oh no, I'm not letting the cats out of the bags) as she struggles to figure out her relationship with her boyfriend, Henry Clinton, a reputable young lawyer in Atticus’s practice who hopes to marry Jean Louise one day.

Scout seems to be just about ready to enter into a commitment with Henry Clinton when she learns, to her shock and dismay, that Henry and Atticus are members of a Klan-like organization in Maycomb called the Maycomb County Citizens' Counsel, a group established after 
Brown v. Board of Education, designed to appear as a respectable organization for the good business people of Maycomb 
but is, truly, a means to empower those who support racial segregation. 

Scout makes this discovery, that her father openly supports community 
framework for racism, and it rocks her entire world.

I enjoyed it enough to finish it but not enough to recommend a read. It's not bad and worth a read if you are a fan of KTAM, if only to get further idea of what was in Harper Lee's mind when she wrote that book. Scout is likable and her struggle is relatable. I do feel as though some further processing could have gone on with Scout and between she and her father. As well as between she and Henry.

My favorite quote from the book comes from a conversation between Atticus and Henry; Atticus says: Don't push her. Let her go at her own speed. Push her and every mule in the county'd be easier to live with. For cutting Atticus down to an average man of his time, I give the book a zero. For some good and interesting writing that feels like a familiar and likable Scout in Maycomb, I give this book a six. Average that out and I give it three stars.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Next Up: Harper Lee

Last night I was doing some research on great new books to read and I've got a new list a mile long, well, half a mile long. In the meantime I'm on to my next book, a book that has been on the list for about a year.

I am a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially Scout and Atticus. I think Go Set a Watchman is essentially about these two characters. I'm open to anything that comes my way. The reviews on the book in the beginning were quite mixed and I haven't heard much about the book since, so we'll see.

I'll be back soon; I'm already half way through.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Last Picture Show


Well, I didn't love it.

I've been a huge reader my entire life. As I was growing up Lonesome Dove was so popular, I think I might have been the only human being on the planet who didn't either read it in the 1970s or watch it in the 1980sm and that's why I randomly decided to give it a go.

The Last Picture Show is a story of the small town America, a coming-of-age story some would say. But I rather dislike the idea that growing up is a singular event in a book, UGH A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye, or maybe I fail to grasp the universality of the events typically depicted in such books. I admit it might be my own issue, the generally not appreciating this genre, the so-called coming-of-age novel. I don't think I have ever, ever liked a coming-of-age novel... (If  you're looking for a great coming-of-age book, though, try Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.

The major players in TLPS are Sonny, our hero, his best friend Duane, and Duane's girlfriend Jacy (Jack ee? or Jasey?) all living in the fictional Texas town called Thalia. As these three high school students navigate their own identities and their own sexual experience I found myself wondering if some of the things that they did were truly common among young teens or among teens living in a small town. Almost none of their experiences seemed to sync with my own teen years...except for the many questions and the much confusion about sexuality, the opposite sex, and the sense of self. Maybe I lived in a cave in high school...

So much of the sexual stuff described in the book might be considered sexually-deviant and appalling; it felt that way, even to me...and how square that sounds. But really, without giving away too much of the content of the book, I'm pretty sure you would agree with that. How realistic? Not very, I think. But I would describe many of the sex scenes as sad, sadistic, crass, humiliating, unappealing, cold, or impersonal. On the other hand, Sonny's confusion and questioning was very readable and relatable. Sonny's journey through the year portrayed in the novel is not a happy journey. From his unrequited love for the town flirt to the secret affair with a married woman, Sonny is bound to find unhappiness while living in Thalia.

The dry and dead town of Thalia, in my opinion, is also a character in the story because the failing little town suffocates each character it varying ways, causing them to act in painfully desperate ways. Perhaps Thalia's aridity and dead-ended-ness is what causes so many of its citizens to look to sex as a way out, as a way to feel something, as a way to connect, to find meaning, maybe to feel alive, though very little of the sex described in the book is life affirming. Interestingly, the ancient Greek goddess Thalia was the goddess of festivity and rich banquets and the Greek work thalia is an adjective used to describe banquets, meaning rich, plentiful, luxuriant, and abundant.

Only two of the characters in the book seemed to offer any wisdom or humanity to Sonny, to the town. Jacy's mother Lois, though also one who has found only pain in her sexuality, is clearer-eyed and strong enough to maintain her individuality among the small-minded small town bunch. She is truthful, even when it is painful. Mostly Lois seems to be an artifact of a time when Thalia was a thriving cattle town. 

The other minor character who seems to bring humanity and wisdom to Thalia is Sam the Lion, the man who operates the local billiard club. His behavior tends to be reserved, guided, in control, in stark contrast to every other adult in the book. The more we learn about Sam's life the more we recognize how unique he is in town. 

Seems like something needs to be said about the town flirt, Jacy, and her similarities with her mother, maybe a word about the ceaselessness of the town's decline and how that decline effects her, maybe something about the numbness Jacy feels that calls for extravagant behavior to feel alive, maybe a few words about the wastefulness of idle, wealthy teens, or perhaps something about the essential need for good role models. But I'm not saying it here.  ;) 

Summarily, as our teens change into young adults we see no growth or improvement in their sense of maturity or in their direction in life. In fact, the morbid fact of same old-same old leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of depression at the continuation of squalor, painful and dead end life choices, and little opportunity presenting itself to our characters. Sorry to be blunt, but there it is.

Notable quote:  Anything gets boring if you do it enough.

I did not find McMurtry's writing to be compelling or deep or appealing at all, frankly. It is bloody unlikely I will ever pick up another McMurtry book ever, including Lonesome Dove.

I have to give this book three stars, mostly for some scenes where Sonny and Billy, a simple-minded townie, connect and also for a few scenes between Sonny and his best friend Duane.

  What did you think?  
  Did you like it?  

Monday, July 4, 2016

Next Up: The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Turns out the author of The Last Picture Show also wrote Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, and The Evening Star. I'm imagining two of my least favorite actresses: Cybil Sheppard and Shirley McClaine...yet I am still reading TLPS and I refuse to image Cybil as a character.

Up next, Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show , copyright 1966.

  Interested in reading along with me? 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Losing Julia


I'm one of those people who will approach a person in public if they are reading or prominently holding a book and I always will be. And this book is one of the reasons why I will always do that:

Losing Julia
by Jonathan Hull

I was at a restaurant and saw a woman about my age reading. When I asked her about her book she enthusiastically recommended it. In fact she could barely contain herself...and now I know why.

This book would probably be considered historical fiction for the wonderful attention to detail and historical continuity. WWI, and if you recall I read another book about WWI just a few weeks ago All the Light We Cannot See.  If you are anything like me, you will spend some time researching locations and historically accurate events from WWI. Thank you to Pinterest for so many revealing images of the war in Verdun, France and the Battle of the Somme. What a horrific place and time. And what, I ask you, WHAT makes one country decide to decimate the young men of their own AND of another country? WHAT is it all about?

So to tell about the book. Our main character Patrick opens up the book at the unveiling of a WWI memorial in Verdun France, the unveiling happening about ten years after the end of the war. At the ceremony he sees a woman who was the wife of his fallen friend, Daniel. Julia. 

The threads of story follow Patrick through the trenches of WWI, through the days following the unveiling of the war memorial, and well into his life at a retirement home in his older years. The times and storyline flow through the book in a most delightful way.

Books are quite sublime. I don't crease the corners. I don't write in them. I don't fold them back so far that the binding cracks. For this book I was grateful to be reading it on my ereader because I highlighted about a hundred different things. From sublime turns of phrase to riotously funny passages to things that I wanted to read up on to words that moved me.

When I review the words that I've highlighted on my ereader I discover that I have been the most moved by words that attempt to explain the inexorable changes of becoming old, losing yourself, losing connections, ultimately losing everything. But it's not a sad book, not really. In some ways Patrick is truly a heroic human; he is a man who examines his life with beautiful nostalgia, who is aware of that feeble quest for meaning in the intensity of passionate love, and who acknowledges the very human experience of knowing that our time is limited and still not living that one life to its fullest or not making the choices that one longs to make. He is a man who survived the horrific trenches in France during WWI and who discovers, ultimately, that those years in France never really leave him.

I actually feel that the more I attempt to describe the book the more I diminish it. Instead allow me to describe my own experience of the reading.

Perhaps being in my fifties has made me more aware of the passing of time, of the places in life where one makes decisions that direct our course, of the echoes and shadows of past the live with one each day, and of how that passing of time begins to feel a bit cruel at times. I'm fairly certain this book would have been different for me had I read it twenty, or even ten, years ago. I can't recall ever feeling so connected to an elderly character as I did to the elderly Patrick. His remembering and observing and attempts to figure out meaning would hit me in the heart at the same a time that they made me laugh.

Surely dark, sad, war torn, but ultimately hopeful and richly beautiful. Jonathan Hull has written a truly moving story of one man's search for meaning, and because of his ability to write beautiful words I have already downloaded another book by him called The Devoted. Also, if I ever see the woman at Panera Bread Co. reading her book again, I'll be sure to get another recommendation. 

I give this book 9 out of 10 stars because something has to be better...
It's about as good as a book can get.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family


I've been thinking about this book Roots: The Saga of an American Family for over a week now because I have a different opinion than so many other readers have. I checked on and this is a very beloved book to so many and I'm going to have to write my honest thoughts about the book. 

I have also been doing research on people and places and events mentioned in the book so as to better understand setting and circumstance. I highly recommend doing this anytime one reads a book set someplace in reality. In fact, I'll never forget how much I was able to look up while reading James Michener's The Covenant, set across several centuries in South Africa...SO MUCH available online to learn more. I loved that I was able to see pictures of characters and places from the book...I adored reading that book.

Chicken George
With the Roots story I wasn't able to find as much as I would have liked, yet Pinterest did have an amazing picture of the man who was the real Chicken George, Kunte Kinte's son. 

Although plagiarism has been confirmed by this author over time, the book's story still stands as a testament to the horror, to the shameful torture and enslavement of so many millions of Africans. The problem with this plagiarism is that the portion of the book plagiarized from Harold Courlander's The African was the first third of the book, the best part of the book, in my opinion. 

Alex Haley claimed that the stories in this book are actual stories uncovered while doing genealogical work on his own family and that the characters, therefore, are based on real people in his ancestry. The plagiarism taints the entire book in my opinion because the reader can't know which parts of the book are complete fiction and which parts are supposed to be genuine familial roots, stories told from generation to generation. Nonetheless, I loved Kunte Kinte and his wonderful family as I read the book.

One possible reason for Alex Haley's plagiarism may have been something like this. The nearly fourteen million people who were stolen from their homeland and home, from their tribes, from their languages, from their belief systems, from their names and histories, and from their families and brought to the North American shores left massive massive gaps in Haley's family history, in the family history of all Africans seeking their roots. Given the estimation that just under half of all people forced into the horrific Transatlantic crossing died on the journey, that means that an estimated twenty-five million people were stolen from their people, a people who had to move forward without these indispensable people. 

In September 1981, the City of Annapolis
unveiled a plaque honoring
Kunta Kinte and Alex Haley.
I can honestly say that the pages of the book telling of the Transatlantic voyage were some of the most harrowing pages I have ever read. When I picked up the book to read I knew that I was going to have to read about the journey but I had no idea how that telling would effect me. My entire week has been lived in the hold of that filthy, seething, hellish person-stealer's ship.

As for the remainder of the book, I have to submit that Alex Haley is not a a very good writer. I'm sorry to say it, but there you are. If we look at this book as historical fiction, which it is, we must acknowledge that the writing is simply not good. 

Furthermore, I found so many characters incredibly unlikable that I didn't really care what happened to them in the trajectory of the story, namely Kunte Kinte as a slave did not hold my attention. Yes, you read that right, the Gambian Kunte Kinte from the Juffure village and the Mandinka tribe that I loved for hundreds of pages simply became two dimensional to me, as did most of the other characters that followed. I loved and cared for Kizzy, yet even this character wasn't well-drawn.

I'm not saying that Kunte's longing for escape and freedom doesn't move me, it does. His life and experiences and longings are heartbreaking. I'm saying that Haley's telling of the tale is simply not compelling. I wanted to love it. 

HOWEVER, I also watched the 70s miniseries this month and I was mesmerized for the entirety of it.

I can't give a sky full of stars to this book I'm afraid so I'll go with five stars out of ten...knowing that I am in the minority.
Maybe I'll revisit this one again in a few years.

Friday, June 17, 2016


The new Roots miniseries came out last month, May of 2016. In 1977, when the original miniseries came out, I was in middle school and I was far more interested in going to the skating rink than in staying home and watching the groundbreaking miniseries starring LeVar Burton, John Amos, Robert Reed, Cicely Tyson, Ed Asner, the amazing Madge Sinclair, the stellar Louis Gossett, Jr., the gorgeous Thalmus Rasulala, and so many more high-caliber stars of the time. NO, I wanted to roller skate with a cute boy at couples only skate; so I missed it when Roots was on the TV in our home each night.

I do remember my parents talking about it quite a bit but I myself didn't see it. This week I have been watching this 1977 mini series. The first episode was so moving. If I didn't love LeVar Burton before, I certainly do now. His earnest and innocent face just got to me so many times. I have to admit to my favorite moment being when Kunte Kinte is being chased by OJ Simpson who looks like a blur across the screen.

With the new miniseries released in May of this year and featuring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Kalachi Kirby, Matthew Goode, Babs Olusonmokun, and many more, I decided it was past time for me to read the book by Alex Haley. I had alot to catch up on.


Levar Burton
as Kunta Kinte

By now it is fairly well-known that Alex Haley admitted to plagiarizing parts of the story from an author named Harold Courlander. Courlander's novel The African tells a story of a young black boy who was living in Gambia, who was captured by slave traders, who was able to survive the absolute terrors of a trans Atlantic slave ship, and who maintained a strong allegiance to his home village of the Mandinka throughout his life. This storyline is the exact trajectory of Kunta Kinte, the main character in the first generation of the Haley Roots saga.

Additionally, some researchers have done research attempting to recreate or support Haley's claims from so many generations ago, but specific tribes and individuals were not able to be verified. Additionally, much of the slave time period in Virginia and South Carolina in the 1700s and 1800s are not possible to confirm.

Can a novel of historical fiction not be worthy?
I say that it is.

Alex Haley unwisely made claims that he could not support, but had he offered this story as an historical fiction novel, authentic details and credible claims might have elevated the story from novel to historical genealogy, rather than the other way around.

Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley

Rather than give some sort of synopsis, which you can find in a dozen places on the internet, this writing will focus on my own experience with the reading. I've only read the first few pages so far. I do find the story reads like historical fiction so I have no idea why anyone is surprised. The idealized setting of Gambia reads like a child's garden with a looming threat just outside of the borders. And, indeed, it surely would feel that way to a young man growing up within its borders.

I'm traveling quite a bit this weekend with alot of time for reading...more later.

Alex Haley also wrote a book about his grandmother called Queenie.
Has anyone read it? It's on my list.

The real Chicken George

Monday, June 13, 2016

James Fenimore Cooper


If you thought this was going to be about Last of the Mohicans or The Deerslayer, or The Leatherstocking Tales you are wrong. I read Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief. The story is truly an autobiography about a pocket handerchief.  :)

According to the very interesting forward notes by the secretary of the James Fenimore Cooper Society, who transcribed this work for Gutenberg, this was Cooper's first serious attempt at magazine writing. The editors at Graham's magazine must have gotten a good number of positive reviews of the novelette because they happily published other Cooper works over the years as well, including a novel that stretched out for two years! 

Set in Paris in the 1830s, this story is told from the point of view of fibers woven into a handkerchief, surprise! But those fibers have fiber memory and fiber empathy and can tell us about progenitor stories as well as stories about the person holding the fabric made from the fibers. I couldn't say that everyone would love the idea of this story told by an inanimate object, but I do. I so enjoyed hearing the fiberous memories from the growing field. I also enjoyed reading about where the seeds came from, how they were sprouted... Kept me interested when I thought it wouldn't.

During the hanky's early years in the growing field, an astronomer would bring students out to the growing field to look at the stars and to discuss the Parisian knowledge of the solar system and of the stars in 1830. I was delighted with the tales being told, as were the fibers. In fact, the handkerchief, now woven into the finest linen, fondly recalled their astronomical education from the growing fields for much of their lives and they, actually she, felt that this knowledge made her more worldly and cultured than most fabrics.

We follow the handkerchief through the July Revolution, a political revolt that further reduced the wealthier Parisians in station. Through our hankychif we experience a society with an elegant upper crust that falls apart and that loses value of their precious and sophisticated articles and notions, namely handkerchiefs, apparently. No more is a lovely linen handkerchief highly-prized or appreciated, rather such an article is derided as a throwback to the unfairly-wealthy aristocracy. But some people still appreciate the finer things.

It's almost like les Miserable for hankies.

James Fenimore Cooper, 1820s
Our handkerchief has a fondness for a former fine lady, the lovely  Adrienne de la Rocheaimard. Adrienne, of a formerly noble family that has now fallen into extreme poverty, creates a beautiful work of needlework, embroidered art on the hanky over the months that the handkerchief is in her possession. We share in the hanky's affection for this young woman who is trying to stay afloat in the underbelly of Parisian society by creating an exquisite piece of needlework to sell for high dollar, er, sou.

Eventually our handkerchief finds her way to America where all of the fabrics she has contact with reflect the ethos of America at the time, while our narrator maintains her high society noble Paris ethic. Our narrator finds the nouveau riche of New York incredibly gauche, which is interesting to me because we all know of the excessive wealth of the French aristocracy, including their freaky proclivities, possible only because of the generations of money behind it. Perhaps it is the observation that the accumulation of wealth, generations back in French society, looks like a gaudy social climber from this angle.

 Read this story and absorb the observations of America of the 1840s, its customs, mannerisms, social constructs, defects through the handkerchief's interaction with American fabrics.

I enjoyed it tremendously. The subtle humor and satire, the history and culture, I give it a strong six stars.