Thursday, December 04, 2014

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

November by the numbers:

* I finished book 52 of my book-a-week-in-2014 reading challenge. I'm still reading and will probably count at least three more before the new year. The last was Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, a tear-jerker of a novel. It was one of 15 books to get a five-star rating from me this year. Of those, my favorite was a classic, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, which in my opinion is the model of all a novel should be.

* In November, I began writing a novel of my own and tallied more than 50,000 words to "win" National Novel Writing Month. I haven't finished the story yet, and of course, I'll be making revisions for months, but I'm pleased with my start.

* When I wasn't reading and writing, I was counting rows for a cute little hooded cape, begun and finished in November. My daughter, a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood, models:

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Casual Vacancy

I wanted to love J.K. Rowling's first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, and I was certain I would, not because of any fangirl loyalty to Ms. Rowling. Rather, I was annoyed by the negative reviews from disappointed Harry Potter fans. I wanted to affirm with my praise Ms. Rowling's right to write whatever she wants. I was also intrigued by the notion that this book was somewhat personal to Ms. Rowling, who struggled on government benefits before her publishing success.

Indeed, the novel reads like the author has an axe to grind, but I'm sympathetic to this particular axe, which seems to be a desire to castigate those who heap scorn upon the poor from the safety of their comfortable homes. I know the species, and its members deserve every dig the famous author can send their way.

Ms. Rowling's prose is not elegant, but she is competent in her crafting of characters, settings and plots. I have no quibble with her technique or subject matter. The novel fell flat for me because, like some of her teen characters, I wanted to see the fictional town of Pagford disappearing in my rearview mirror as I sped away.

The only truly likeable adult character in the novel is the guy who drops dead on page three. A few others are tolerable, some are pathetic, and a couple are detestable. They are all far too real and I doubt I'm the only reader who wondered if Ms. Rowling had visited his or her hometown and modeled Mr. or Ms. So-and-So on that guy who always complains at city council meetings or that woman who gossips at the coffee shop check-out.

This is the problem: the gritty realism of The Casual Vacancy is too familiar, too much like the world many of us want to escape when we open a book. I don't require wizards and magic, but I do want someone or something in the story to triumph, or at least improve. If I wanted to mire myself in negativity and mean-spiritedness, I could walk three blocks down the street on Monday nights and listen to some of my neighbors complain at city commission meetings about the threats to their comfort posed by the handful of destitute members of our community.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Clearing the stash

I recently joined an online book group, and last week I participated in the bimonthly "toppler" activity. The purpose of the toppler is to set aside as many other activities as possible to embark on an intense readathon to clear your shelves of malingering titles. Most members, however, report that their "to be read" list tends to grow rather than shrink during the toppler activity as they add the titles of interesting books other members are mentioning.

Anyway, I managed to read four novels during the toppler week, and a couple of them were quite good. My very brief summaries follow.

First up was a classic science fiction novel I've had on my reading list for many years, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As I'm probably the only person on Earth who hadn't read this spaceship adventure tale, I'll skip the capsule summary and just note that I enjoyed it and was surprised (and pleased) at the humor.

Next was the most poignant and beautifully-written novel of the week, the Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. This was terrific stuff and another of the novels I've read this year that made me despair of becoming a novelist.

Fortunately, I followed it with the adequate, but not chill-inducing, Lady Macbeth. Perhaps I should write historical fiction. I could manage this.

If I try very hard, I could possibly write a novel of the quality of the National Book Award-nominated Station Eleven. Author Emily St. John Mandel has an engaging story of well-drawn characters in a post-apocalyptic world, and her prose is spare and elegant, although not awe-inspiring. Still, it was one of the better novels I've read this year.

I've also been clearing my yarn stash, so far with scarves and this hat:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Good poetry, bad prose

Notice: knitting content will be returning to this knitting/books/film blog.

After 8.5 years, I have completed the knitting project that has been my albatross. This sweater is why I haven't been in a yarn shop in, well, probably 8.5 years, until yesterday when I purchased the buttons to finish it off.

And here it is:

The pattern is from a gorgeous, now out-of-print book, Poetry in Stitches, by Norwegian designer Solveig Hisdal. The knitwear designs in this book are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen, and I would be happy to knit them all, if I live long enough. But for the next one, I will take the time to adapt the pattern for knitting in the round with armhole steeks, rather than divide at the armhole as written. A pattern that requires constantly consulting a chart is slow enough; reading the chart backwards when the purl rows begin is excruciating.

Also excruciating was the book I finished yesterday, Jeffrey Archer's Only Time Will Tell. I was misled by the high ratings on Goodreads. What are people thinking? This is the Lord Archer that is one of Britain's best-selling novelists? Readers from the land of Dickens consider this good? Rubbish, I say. Admittedly, few novels could follow on the heels of the elegant prose of Wilkie Collins' masterpiece and not suffer in comparison, but this was still bloody awful.

Curious to know if I'm alone in my harsh judgement of the novel, I searched out reviews and could find no critics who were impressed. (The delightful Diana Gabaldon raked it over the coals for the Washington Post).  This must be akin to the summer movies that receive one star from critics yet top the weekend box office receipts.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Woman in White

My favorite category of literature is British novels of the 19th century. (I'm also extraordinarily fond of the music and poetry of the 19th century; perhaps I had a previous life in that time).  Having just finished another novel of the era, I've been pondering the common characteristics that link Austen, Dickens, Elliot, et al, in my mind, and so far I'm at a loss to account for it.

Could the common thread be the cadence of the language? The essential Britishness of the characters? The languid pacing? The rich descriptions? The precision of the prose? The wry wit? At least one contemporary writer has deciphered the commonality enough to successfully imitate it. Perhaps one day I will have the leisure to pursue a PhD in Literature and unravel the mystery for myself.

Until that day, I can delight in occasionally losing a weekend in the company of fictional Victorians. This past weekend, I was glued to the sofa with Wilkie Collins' magnificent thriller, The Woman in White.

The title character makes only cameo appearances, but the mystery surrounding her is central to the story. Her fate is intertwined with the six principal characters -- three of whom are virtuous in the extreme, and the other three of whom are villainous. Mr. Collins has not shaded his characters in hues of gray; his hero and heroines act only with the noblest of motives and seem to be immune even to common human failings. Of his three main villains, only one transcends a one-dimensional drawing of heartless, remorseless manipulator. The corpulent Italian aristocrat, Count Fosco, is a villain worthy of a comic book: flamboyant, cunning and controlling, he is always one step ahead of his adversaries and seems to require a hero with superpowers to outmaneuver him. Yet he has a soft spot for animals and intelligent women, notably his protagonist on the virtuous team, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is the only one of her side to have a flaw: an ugly face.

Were this novel released in our age, a modern critic would likely take issue with characters painted in such pure terms. Even Batman has to wrestle with his inner demons these days, and the Joker perhaps had a good reason for turning to crime. No contemporary novel could support a character such as Marian Holcombe, who lives in stunning devotion to her younger half-sister who inherited not only all of the family money but also the physical beauty. Poor, plain Marian never seems to experience even a twinge of jealousy towards her fortunate sister.

I'm grateful Mr. Collins had no need to concern himself with the opinions of our century. His one-dimensional characters draw in the reader (assuming the absence of modern perversities that cause some readers to root for the bad guys), who will know clearly which team to support in this struggle of good and evil. Plus, the plot is intricate and perfectly paced.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Name of the Rose

I've been an admirer of Umberto Eco since reading his marvelous novel Foucault's Pendulum in my mid-20s. For many years, I counted it among my top-five favorite books, although I was less enchanted when I re-read it a few years ago. I read 3 of Eco's subsequent 4 novels and a collection of essays, but none have matched the delight of my first experience of Foucault.

The glaring omission in my Eco-sphere has been his most famous work, The Name of the Rose. If my enthusiasm for Eco has waned with each reading, perhaps I could rekindle it by visiting his masterpiece. I had never read Rose, primarily because I had seen the Sean Connery film version and rarely read a book after seeing the movie.

I quickly realized that this novel was not one to rush through in the midst of a book-a-week challenge, yet I soldiered on. I was in no humor to decipher medieval theological arguments, particularly those partially presented in Latin, so I skimmed those passages and tried to focus on the crime mystery plot.

This novel is full of allusions that are above my education level, but in the first chapter, I was tickled to spot an allusion to this book from a less erudite work of fiction. The story is narrated by Adso of Melk. Where had I heard that name before? Hmm, isn't Claire Fraser's cat called Adso? All of the seven Outlander tomes I've read this year are back at the library, but with a wee bit of googling I found the passage in which the cat gets its name. Jamie says his mother, a very learned woman, liked a book written by Adso, a German monk from the city of Melk. Well, Adso of Melk is a fictional character in a book published in 1980, which leads me to wonder: is this a clue that Jamie's mother time-traveled, or is Diana Gabaldon simply playing a joke? I'm now very eager to read the most recent Outlander novel in hopes of unraveling this mystery.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Shadow of Night

This month I'll be reading 8 books, I hope! This ambitious undertaking is necessitated by next month's even more ambitious undertaking: to write 50,000 words of a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month. To stay on plan for the book-a-week challenge, I'll need to bump November's books into October, so that I may devote all of November to writing a novel for which, at this point, I have neither characters, plots, themes or ideas of any sort.

First up was Shadow of Night, the second volume in Deborah Harkness' All-Souls trilogy. I didn't like it as much as the first, but as I've invested so much time in these characters, I'll undoubtedly read the final book to find out how the saga ends, even though I've had enough of witches and vampires already.

So much contemporary popular fiction is presented in the form of a series, and the most common variant of that seems to be the trilogy. I don't know if this trend is reader-driven or publisher-driven. (I suppose I could google it, but I have a bad cold and can't summon enough energy right now to read the answers). If readers are responsible for the situation, it must be because they are reluctant to let go of enjoyable characters and make-believe worlds (the fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi genres accounting for a disproportionate share of the trilogy scene). Publishers, of course, are usually eager to cash in on reader preferences. I wonder how often a publisher says to a writer, "hey, this is a good story, do you think you could stretch it to three books instead of one?" If this is happening, I would like to beg publishers to reconsider. Few stories are worthy of extended treatment. My judgement of Deborah Harkness' trilogy, now that I'm two-thirds finished, is that it would have been better as a single volume. Give me one excellent 1,000-word novel instead of three mediocre 500-word novels. (J.K. Rowling and Diana Gabaldon, you are exempt from this rule).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Echo in the Bone

I'm grateful I didn't read An Echo in the Bone in 2009 when it was published. Five years would've been an excruciating wait for the next book in the Outlander series; the cliffhangers and loose ends are unmatched since Dragonfly in Amber. As it is, I merely have to give myself a little time to decompress before picking up Written in My Own Heart's Blood, which waits on my bookshelves.

Number 7 in the series, An Echo is my favorite so far and the only one I've rated 5 stars. Diana Gabaldon's storytelling powers are magnificent. She has created interesting characters and set them in interesting times. In this case, the interesting times are the American Revolution, which, in this narrative, is largely a civil war as communities and even families are divided. [Ms. Gabaldon's portrait of the war may be a more accurate understanding than the prevailing mythology of it as a struggle against imperialism.]

Readers who thought the previous three books were a snooze, with too much description of Claire tending her garden or making ether in her home surgery, should enjoy seeing Jamie and Claire back in action and near-constant danger. I found myself wondering, as Claire is about 60 in this book, how she can physically manage so many adventures, but she does reflect on this herself and is keenly appreciative of soft beds and warm fires when she can manage to find them.

The last 200 or so pages of this novel were so gut-wrenching and absorbing that I'll need a few days at least and a couple of buffer books to chill out before the next one, but I know I won't be able to put it off for long.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Joy of Conversation

A few months ago, a friend in my neighborhood book group inquired if any of us would like to meet occasionally to discuss other topics, perhaps issues of local interest, in a semi-facilitated manner. Hmmm, I'm aware of that concept, I thought, and I mentioned it to another friend who has facilitated conversation salons, and she loaned me a book on the subject. Published nearly 20 years ago by Utne Reader, "The Joy of Conversation: The Complete Guide to Salons" is a helpful resource for anyone seeking to convene a group for the purpose of thoughtful conversation.

The book begins with a history of salons, from ancient Greece through 18th-century France to 1990s Los Angeles, and ends with some thoughts on salons and activism. In between are mostly how-to chapters with advice on organization, publicity, time management and strategies for coping with difficult personalities. Some of this advice is dated (the publicity section can be entirely skipped as no group would rely on mailings and flyers in this era of e-mail and Facebook events invites), but most of the instructions are timeless and applicable to almost any conversational situation. Who couldn't use a guide on listening skills?

A chapter on e-salons is included, although at the time of publication, those were mostly listservs and usenet groups. Still, internet nastiness such as flamewars and cyberstalking had already become enough of an issue that the author suggested strategies for saving an online discussion group from those sorts of troubles. I wonder what she would advise now as the internet often seems to me a place where nearly all hope of civil, thoughtful, meaningful discourse is lost. What if we all logged out one night a week and met with our neighbors in a real living room instead? Maybe every block needs a Gertrude Stein.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Shades of Grey

No, not THAT book! This is Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey of unspecified quantity. I joined an online book group, and this dystopian-type novel was the September read.

The setting is a world in which one's ability to see certain colors determines social status, as well as nearly every aspect of life. This world appears to be on our planet several centuries from now, but no specific places from our time are identified, so I couldn't decipher if the action takes place in what was once England, or North America, or South Africa (fortunately, Wikipedia steps in to inform me it is set in Wales). References to moorlands, the constant consumption of tea, and the author's nationality made me suspect England, but the local wildlife includes beasts such as giraffes and flamingoes. However, I can't be sure these names refer to the same species we know in our time. Relics from the past, inhabited by people called "the Previous," include vehicles known as Model-Ts, which seem to be a catch-all term for any motor vehicle.

The world-building is elaborate and was a little hard for me to follow at first. I almost abandoned this one as I generally don't want to step into that much unreality. But eventually it settles down into a basic mystery-adventure tale, with some romance and plenty of humor. It's part social satire reminiscent (at least to me) of Gulliver's Travels. I suspect that some things in the novel are meant to represent a counterpart in our current society, but I didn't try to ferret out the symbolism.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

The intrigues of the court of England's King Henry VIII have long been rich source material for novelists and screenwriters. Centuries later, Henry remains one of England's most famous monarchs, noted for his break with the Roman Catholic Church and his six wives. Henry's reign provides ample excitement to fuel the plots of a modern soap opera, but in Hilary Mantel's novels, the sexual politics are primarily background for a languid psychological drama.

The second volume in a proposed trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies continues the story of Henry's court as told through the perspective of his chief counselor, Thomas Cromwell. This is a character study of a specialist in character study, as Cromwell achieves and retains his position through his keen ability to assess the motivations, strengths and frailties of his acquaintances and generally manipulate these to his advantage.

In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was presented sympathetically. A devoted father, grieving husband, steadfast friend, generous employer, he was kind to those in need and generally a good guy. Sure, he plays power politics masterfully, but as he rises to prominence in Henry's government, his primary motivation seems to be to act for the good of England. Happily for Cromwell's household, what's good for England is what's good for Cromwell.

The first volume chronicled Henry's seven-year campaign to set aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for Anne Boleyn, a marriage that was not sanctioned by the Catholic Church and thus severed England's ties with Rome. As the second book begins, Henry is beginning to tire of Anne and cast his eyes on the quiet Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Cromwell, ever sensitive to his monarch's desires, engineers the downfall of Anne and a few men of the court whom Cromwell resents. A darker side of the man now emerges. That he treats his friends well no longer compensates for the persecution of his enemies, even as he rationalizes to himself that those he has convicted of crimes are guilty even if they are innocent of the particular charges.

Mantel's prose is lovely, and Bring Up the Bodies is a shorter, faster read than Wolf Hall, but I think I more enjoyed the first volume, which was richer in period details. Without as many descriptions of household management to distract me, I was more immersed in the political maneuverings and ever on the alert to discern the mistakes in judgement that would lead to Cromwell's eventual downfall. But that will have to wait for volume three.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Discovery of Witches

The last of my pleasant summer reads was surprisingly diverting, the surprise because I continued to read it after discovering it was a vampire romance novel. The entire genre has previously caused me to snort with contempt. In my 50 years, I've read only one book involving vampires, a well-reviewed Anne Rice novel, and that was so long ago I can't recall the title. I've fastidiously avoided even learning what the "Twilight" series is about beyond an inescapable awareness that it involves teen vampires.

I suppose if a vampire romance is to appeal to a middle-aged book snob it helps if it is written by a middle-aged professor of history, and so Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches was my discovery that maybe vampires could be romantic after all. Previously, the blood-drinking habits of a vampire would be sufficient for me to disqualify him as a romantic hero, but I had not considered the compensatory charms that can be accrued in an exceptionally long life. Imagine a man who has lived for centuries and shows up for dinner with a bottle of 1811 Chateau Yquem that he purchased from the estate the year it was made. The library at his castle in France is filled with rare first editions, many inscribed to him by the authors. Among the treasures is a Gutenberg Bible, a first printing of On the Origin of the Species with a personal letter from Darwin tucked in, and a folio of handwritten manuscripts titled "Will's Playes." Perhaps I, too, could overlook his thirst for blood. Besides, it's not like he needs to drink that all the time!

Reading this novel over the lazy Labor Day weekend provided me the opportunity to consider the essential attributes of the romantic hero. In high school, when my adult literary tastes had not yet developed, I devoured those formulaic Harlequin romances. The hero was always handsome, fabulously wealthy and not as arrogant as he first seems. I will not argue with those who say that every romance writer since Jane Austen has been attempting to recreate her Mr. Darcy.

As I was trying to account for my enchantment with the dashing, 1500-year-old Matthew Clairmont that chained me to my front porch with a book for the entirety of summer's last long weekend, I became aware of what may be a universal characteristic of the romantic hero that previously had escaped my notice. In every romantic novel that has charmed me (as well as millions of other women), be it from an erudite writer such as Harkness or a churn-them-out dimestore novelist, the hero is a protector. (Hear me out; this isn't about rescuing the damsel in distress.) In my personal memory bank of romantic literary heroes, I can think of some exceptions to the rule of handsome (Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility) and several exceptions to the rule of wealthy (Peeta in The Hunger Games, Jamie Fraser in the Outlander series), but I can't think of a single book with a significant female following in which the hero does not protect the heroine, even when she is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Most of our contemporary heroines have no need of a knight in shining armor. They are not Jane Austen's gentle ladies who are prevented by social customs from earning their own way in the world. Our daughters read about Katniss Everdeen, whose skill with a bow helps her feed her family and eventually overthrow her despotic government. Katniss both protects and is protected; she exceeds Peeta in every survival skill except charm, yet Peeta's self-appointed raison d'etre through three books is to safeguard Katniss. (She also protects Peeta, although not with the same single-mindedness). The Outlander's Claire is a woman of courage and accomplishment, yet Jamie is her unrelenting bulwark against a hostile world. Midway through the series, Claire and daughter Brianna are discussing career callings, and Brianna asks Claire what her father's calling is. Claire answers (paraphrasing), "He's a man."

Jamie and Claire

Protection need not involve a sword or a vampiric bite on the neck of a witch who dared offend his lady love. Recall Mr. Darcy, the model of the romantic gentleman, who is Elizabeth's shield against malicious gossip, whether he is silencing it with a sharp remark to Mr. Bingley's catty sister or saving the Bennet family from social disgrace by arranging the foolish Lydia's marriage. The hero provides the form of protection needed.

This protectiveness is rooted and powered in the unselfishness of love, putting the beloved's interests ahead of your own, which may partially explain the magnetism of these stories. But self-sacrifice isn't enough; results matter. An incompetent champion will not do.

Since my teen years, the most frustrating love triangle in literature for me has been Scarlett-Rhett-Ashley. Scarlett is Katniss' spiritual great-grandmother. She doesn't need rescuing, despite often being in distress. Scarlett takes care of herself and everyone else, turning to Rhett on only a couple of occasions when she gets in over her head. My frustration is with Scarlett's obsession with the vapid Ashley, who in every respect save one is the ideal romantic character: handsome, intelligent, honorable, kind, thoughtful, loving. The missing element? He can't protect her! He can't manage anything! Scarlett rescues Ashley repeatedly; he gives her nothing but lovely speeches and shattered dreams. We may believe Ashley loves Scarlett and spurns her for noble reasons involving duty and honor, that perhaps he is even acting in her best interests as he recognizes their ultimate incompatibility. But we aren't moved by this type of self-sacrifice. Rhett, by contrast, will defy public opinion for Scarlett. He'll steal a horse for her and, we suspect, commit murder. Rhett is the competent hero, and woe to Scarlett that she can't see it in time.

Many years ago, my husband I took a weekend class based on the popular book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. The lesson centered on a primary distinction between men and women. According to the author, when women talk to men about a problem they are having, men want to offer a solution, but all women really want is for them to listen. This may be true in our real lives, but our most popular romantic fiction suggests our fantasies play by other rules.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Breath of Snow and Ashes

I'll remember the summer of 2014 as my summer of Outlander. In three months, I read the first six books in the series, spent an enjoyable evening listening to author Diana Gabaldon at the Traverse City Opera House during her National Writers Series appearance, and got hooked on the television adaptation on Starz. I could've finished all eight books by this Labor Day weekend if I had not decided to give myself a break and do something else. I'll continue with the next book soon.

With regard to the television series, the casting director nailed it with Sam Heughan. I predict he'll do for Jamie Fraser what Colin Firth did for Mr. Darcy.  

One would think that after some 6,000 pages of Jamie and Claire, I would be tiring of this couple. Not even close. If anything, the length of the novels -- which is largely due to Ms. Gabaldon's attention to the details of the world she's created -- makes the reading experience even more immersive and difficult to abandon. Ms. Gabaldon writes well and her fascinating characters are so alive they become friends. OK, I exaggerate, but only slightly.

I enjoyed book six, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, as much as the previous five, and I want to hurry up with my "break book" so I can check out book seven.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Magicians

As the last novel in Lev Grossman's trilogy has been released to rave reviews, I decided to read the first in the series, The Magicians. Some describe this novel as "Harry Potter in college," and that's not a bad tagline for the plot. Imagine more cynical versions of Harry, Ron, Hermione and friends at college with the concerns of that age group: drugs, alcohol and sex, with only magical studies to differentiate them from their peers at, say, Dartmouth.

As the story begins, Quentin, the main character, is preparing for his Princeton interview but is instead offered an opportunity to enroll in a mysterious magical college. Of course, he accepts and the rest of the story concerns his adventures at Brakebills, hidden in upstate New York and reached through magical portals.

But Brakebills is not Hogwarts, and Quentin is not embarked on a quest to save the magical world from an evil wizard. Indeed, Quentin has no quest at all, which contributes to his general sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As a child, Quentin became obsessed with a series of books set in the fantasy world of Fillory (basically C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia). We learn of this obsession at the very beginning of the story, and if this novel has a theme, here it is:

"But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn't let go of. It was almost like the Fillory books -- especially the first one, The World in the Walls -- were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt's house and slips through into Fillory (Quentin always pictured him awkwardly pushing aside the pendulum, like the uvula of a monstrous throat), it's like he's opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually did: get you out, really out of where you were and into somewhere better."
Therein lies the heart of Quentin's journey into self-discovery, and one I look forward to reading more about in the second book of the trilogy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rebuilding the Foodshed

The selection for this quarter's community resiliency read, Rebuilding the Foodshed by college professor Philip Ackerman-Leist combined optimism with a reality check. My friend Diane's review of it is much better than any I could write, so all I need to do is decide what to cook for the potluck.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Fiery Cross

The fifth installment in the Outlander series, The Fiery Cross is definitely slower-paced than the preceding four, and perhaps if I had begun reading the novels as they were released, I would have been disappointed to wait three or four years for more breathless Jamie-Claire adventures only to be find them nearly collapsing into the rocking chairs on the porch of their 1770s Appalachian homestead. There's still plenty of drama and passion to be had wherever this duo finds themselves, but in this novel, their creator gives them a little time to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of home and community, and after reading the previous four novels in the span of eight weeks, I was happy to catch my breath as well.

Diana Gabaldon is such a fine storyteller and writes her characters so vividly that even the details of potty training on the frontier can charm and engage the reader. And this particular novel is an exemplary exercise in storytelling. Many of the supporting characters -- and there are legions of them -- get a chance to tell their own stories by campfire or hearthside. I can imagine this novel being serialized in a 19th century newspaper or magazine, or being read by Mrs. March to her daughters as was "Pilgrim's Progress" in Little Women. This is a novel for people who enjoy stories that unfold slowly.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Third Plate

This week, my newsfeed had a trailer for a documentary that apparently blasts some of the leading environmental organizations for failure to rail against hamburgers. Several other headlines informed me that eating beef results in more greenhouse emissions than driving a car, apparently extrapolating from a study recently published in the journal Climatic Change. And Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker of her week-long experiment with the trendy paleo diet and laments the damage so much meat eating could have on the climate.

Never in human history have we been presented with such an an abundance of food choices as at the average U.S. supermarket, and never before have we seen so much hand-wringing about what to eat. As Dan Barber reminds us in The Third Plate, only a few generations ago, human diets were largely restricted to what the local region produced. Cuisine and culture were intrinsically linked to place.

In recent years, the farm-to-table movement featuring prominent chefs such as Mr. Barber, has sought to reacquaint diners with the sources of their food. Farmers' markets have proliferated and the term"locavore" is in the dictionary. In my small town, several restaurants proudly list the nearby farms and producers contributing to their menus.

Yet the resulting "second plate" of farm-to-table goodness still closely resembles the "first plate" it aimed to replace, which at the American table is meat-centric and flanked by a limited supporting cast. Mr. Barber envisions a "third plate" representing a sort of nose-to-tail for the whole farm, incorporating and starring crops that currently may not be beloved, or even known, to diners but are important to the ecology of the land. Chefs, he says, can use their skills to create demand for these oft-discarded goodies, from the bycatch of tuna nets to the cover crops of wheat fields.

Few chefs are better positioned to expound on this than Mr. Barber, who incorporates a farm and educational center as part of his flagship restaurant north of New York City. Nearly all of his journeys to investigate spectacular foodstuffs result in an experimental planting or livestock introduction at the farm, and the mouth-watering prose in which he describes these experiments may have some readers vowing to never again cook polenta until they, too, can get their hands on some Eight Row Flint corn.

If this planet is to support 9 billion humans by mid-century without absolutely devastating every other species, we must get over our predilection to "eat high on the hog." Unfortunately, so many previous calls to mend our dietary ways -- whether the motive is to improve health, environment, economy or even mood -- have led many to equate virtuous eating with limitation. Mr. Barber, thankfully, is an immensely talented chef who refuses to sacrifice flavor for virtue, and he makes a convincing case (one I wish I could taste for myself at his restaurant) that such a compromise is unnecessary.

Now to size up a plot in my backyard for a patch of wheat.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Circle

I suspect Dave Eggers does not like the internet, and after reading The Circle, I'm reassessing my online habits to ensure I'm not under the spell of a cyber Pied Piper. While this novel isn't quite successful as a novel, it will provoke some thoughts on privacy in the digital age, the power we've ceded to giant tech companies, and the danger of embracing new technologies without scrutiny or limits.

Major new technologies have always been disruptive. If I could time travel into the past to stop an invention before it got out of control, I would bring photos of clogged freeways to 1908 and try to persuade Henry Ford to rethink his Model T. Other denizens of the 21st century might prefer to slow or stop the Industrial Revolution; some yearn for a pre-agricultural existence. It is impossible to know for certain which aspects of the Information Age our descendants in the next century will wish had never happened. Mr. Eggers is not alone in finding the ubiquity of social media obnoxious, but it could be a passing fad and its most significant legacy our collective and voluntarily surrendered privacy.

Of course, thanks to the internet, many summaries and reviews of this novel are easily accessible, so I'll forego a rehashing of the plot, which is thin. More attention is given to the theme of seductive-and-ever-encroaching-cyberstate than to character development or plotting. The internet-bashing theme is not subtle or nuanced, and that could be off-putting to readers who prefer novels that don't bludgeon them with a message.

Despite its length, this was an easy weekend read and I was engaged with the story, mostly because I was expecting something exciting to happen just ahead. In that, I was disappointed. Still, I don't regret reading it. A little examination of our personal and cultural relationships with digital technology couldn't hurt.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Drums of Autumn

Notice: knitting content ahead!

I don't know what else to say about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, so I'll just note that I've finished the fourth book, Drums of Autumn. I'm sure to read the next one after I catch up on some non-fiction titles due back at the library soon.

All of this reading about Scotland has made me desperately want to visit that country and has put me in the mind of Scottish-related activities, such as knitting. [In the last book, Jamie taught Claire to knit, because is there anything Jamie can't do?]  Scotland has a vibrant knitting tradition and is home to one of my favorite pattern designers, Alice Starmore. Recalling that I have yarn for one of her fisherman sweaters, I'm eager to begin work on it. But I have that pesky cardigan to finish first.

So last night, during a bad movie I didn't finish, I picked up my knitting bag and attempted to make my progress on the unpleasant sweater. I've gone too far to abandon it. Only the sleeves and finishing remain.

Incidentally, the bad movie was Highlander. I saw it on a list of films featuring Scotland, but it wasn't my kind of thing.

And finally, I've managed a post with all three topics: knitting, books and movies!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Happy City

I'm now in the second half of my 2014 challenge to read a book a week and I'm slightly ahead of pace, which is fortuitous as the next three books in my queue range from 450 to 900 pages.

Of this year's (so far) 28 completed books, the tome I just finished is the only one I wish I could force all of my fellow citizens to read. Those of us interested in urbanism have been schooled in the benefits of shaping our cities to a scale suited for humans rather than designing them to facilitate motorized traffic. Human-scaled cities, in which the tyranny of cars is minimized so that residents feel comfortable navigating public space, can reduce pollution, improve health, and save money. In Happy City, Canadian writer Charles Montgomery focuses on another benefit that is often overlooked: good urban design can make us happier.

bike rack, St. Paul, Minn.
Drawing on the findings of psychologists and sociologists as well as designers, architects, planners and philosophers, Montgomery considers both the large and small elements of design contributing to well-being. That happiness is increased when the view out the window is a lovely body of water rather than a cement wall will come as no surprise. But quite likely, very few people are aware that the arrangement of windows and doors in buildings will impact their comfort and enjoyment when walking by at street level, or that the height and layout of living spaces can influence residents' relationships with each other.

As in most books and articles touching on the movement known as New Urbanism, suburbia does not get much love in Happy City. However, Montgomery refrains from vilifying sprawl. He notes that some people enjoy suburban living and he does not condemn that preference. The family with the one-acre lot on a cul de sac in Rockville is just as entitled to their happiness as are the apartment denizens of Dupont Circle (my example). However, as other writers have argued, Montgomery agrees that urban dwellers should not be subsidizing the inefficiencies of sprawl, and the gap between supply and demand of housing in walkable communities needs to be reduced so that this choice is available to more who want it.

Montgomery travels the world to highlight places where human-scaled design interventions have met with utilitarian success such as Bogota, Vancouver, Portland, London, and, of course, Copenhagen [note to self: must stop googling Danish immigration policies]. Ultimately, this is a call for citizen activism (with a supporting website), to inspire neighbors and "citadins" that the road to happiness is more easily walked together.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Dragonfly in Amber

I fear I'm on the path to insanity.

Last month in my review of Outlander, the first in a series of eight (so far) extremely lengthy time-travel romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, I confessed to having the second book on hold at the library already. I went through the nearly 800 pages of Dragonfly in Amber like it was a box of See's dark California brittle and I'm already half-way through the third. I'm hopelessly addicted and I suspect I will read little else until I've finished the series, plus the accompanying novellas and short stories. I'm also planning to upgrade my cable service to include STARZ so I can watch the televised series beginning in August.

I won't write a summary of any of these books because such blurbs are widely available on the internet and can be spoilers. I'll limit my remarks to my opinions. Dragonfly was even more of a can't-put-down read than Outlander, and -- a warning to those who haven't read it yet but might -- it ends on a cliffhanger which will compel the reader to immediately begin Voyager.

Enough writing. I must get back to reading.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

I'm going to be lazy and not write about this strange "novel" by Julian Barnes, mostly because I don't feel competent to review it. I liked it very much, and it's undoubtedly clever. That's all I have to say!

Sunday, June 15, 2014


In my teen years, the bulk of my pleasure reading was romance novels, but with the notable exception of Jane Austen, I abandoned those after discovering the joys of literary fiction in college. If I had an inkling that Outlander was a bodice ripper, I doubt I would have checked it out. It only came to my attention because I have tickets to see the author at her upcoming and sold-out appearance in my town next month, and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Part fantasy (the main character travels through time), part historical fiction, the novel is somewhat atypical of the romance genre, and the writing is better than most. However, it did strain my credulity at times even though I understand the convention in these stories is for the hero to always be rushing to the damsel's rescue at the last possible moment. The numerous narrow escapes from danger might be excessive even in a Hollywood action movie.

I have many nits to pick with this book, but perhaps I would be wise to judge it by its peers and note that the works of Hilary Mantel are not among those peers. This is light, albeit lengthy, entertainment. It is a diversion, if one is not too appalled by the prolific sex and violence, all of which receives absolution from a priest before the story ends. Despite the annoyances, I've already put the sequel on my holds list at the library. It's summer, after all.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Of the 23 books I've read so far this year, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was the most entertaining. It was exactly the diverting and fun tale I needed after so much heavy lifting from the other pages I've turned recently.

I don't know if author Robin Sloan grew up playing video games and reading fantasy novels, but I suspect he did as his narrator and main character, Clay Jannon, is attuned to the realm of wizards, warlocks, warriors and rogues, although their representatives in the novel tend to work at Google rather than reside in Middle Earth. As the late shift clerk in the strangest bookstore in San Francisco, if not the world, Clay sees his role in the mystery unfolding before him as a quest given him by a wizard, the eponymous bookstore owner.

This novel has mystery, adventure, secret societies, the parrots of Telegraph Hill, film special effects artists, knitting, friendship, romance, books, cyber-wizardry, and nerdy cocktails, yet it has no dark villain. The only character who could even remotely be considered a villain is nothing more than a disappointed and inflexible business executive. The other characters are uniformly endearing. Clay gets by with a little help from his friends, a Bay area collection of high tech superheroes. (One moral in the story: if, during your childhood or adolescence, you befriend the weird kid who sits alone at lunch, you will not regret it later!). The "quest" brings these 20-something tech wizards into the company of an eccentric group of scholars who are perhaps still dazzled by the invention of the Gugenheim press.

Sloan's writing is sharp, intelligent and witty, infused with wonder at the magic of human creativity and invention, whether the product is books or self-driving cars. Mr. Penumbra's reminds us that the world is still full of interesting things to discover. As Clay would say: cool.

Monday, June 02, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

When I added My Life in Middlemarch to my list after reading glowing reviews, I expected to encounter something similar to Julie and Julia for the bookish set. Since I've only seen the film version of the latter, I can't adequately judge if this is a valid comparison, but the first parallel I noted was that each author's famous muse steals the show.

Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, has penned this extraordinary memoir about her lifelong relationship with George Eliot's masterpiece, which some critics consider the greatest English novel. Mead combines biography, literary criticism, travelogue and personal reflection to explore the impact a single book can have on a reader. Yet Mead keeps herself in the shadows and the spotlight focused on Eliot.

Mead brings herself into the story somewhat reticently, as if she dares not suggest to her audience she is worthy of sharing a stage with Eliot. While this humility is to her credit, I would have liked to get to know Mead a bit better and understand why this novel, of the hundreds she has undoubtedly read, spoke so strongly to her for three decades.

I did not first read Middlemarch at age 17 as did Mead. My high school experience with Eliot was Silas Marner, which like most of my classmates, I did not appreciate at the time. As a teen, I would've found Middlemarch slightly less tedious than Silas Marner only because it had a bit of romance. I would've been enchanted by the dashing Will Ladislaw and, had I become bored with the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, skipped to the end to find out if he and Dorothea managed to get together.

I was in my 40s when I finally read Middlemarch, but even with three additional decades of maturity, I still did not successfully mine it for profound insights as Mead did, so I'm grateful to have her as a thoughtful and articulate guide to its nuances and I look forward to re-reading it in my 50s.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Kitchen Literacy

Kitchen Literacy reads almost like a dissertation and has the copious endnotes to complete this presentation of research on the evolution of the American meal from colonial times to the present. Historian Ann Valeisis' goal, as noted in the subtitle, is to explain "how we lost knowledge of where food comes from and why we need to get it back."

Valeisis begins in colonial New England with Martha Ballard, a herbalist and midwife who kept a detailed diary of her daily life and work. Everything eaten by Martha's family was produced on their farm or a neighbor's. In the next few decades, industrialization -- particularly the advent of rail -- begins to distance Americans from the source of their food, and the process accelerates in the 20th century as more people move to cities and suburbs.

The author provides much detail, some of which can seem repetitive or distracting and warrants skimming. The last chapter -- the prescription for restoring kitchen literacy -- will not be a newsflash to anyone even marginally acquainted with the work of Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, the Organic Consumers Association, the Slow Food movement, etc.: buy organic, patronize farmer's markets, cook, plant a garden and avoid heavily processed foods.

If the reader needs additional incentive for doing those things, Valeisis provides it with a history of food regulation and consumer protection in the 20th century. Reading about the failures of regulatory apparatuses to protect consumers from harmful substances made me want to keep my foodshed as close to home as possible.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Goldfinch

Among my reasons for temporarily converting this knitting blog to a book blog was the desire to better remember what I've read. A few months ago, a friend loaned me a novel she thought I'd like, and as I looked at the cover and read the back blurbs, it had a vague familiarity that made me wonder if I'd read it or simply read reviews of it. Coming home, I discovered I already owned it and yes, I had read it a few years ago. To make matters worse, it was a Louise Erdrich novel, which should definitely be in the unforgettable category.

Obviously, my brain was clogged with too many books and I needed to make a personal card catalog, hence this blog.

I predict my latest completed book, The Goldfinch, will require no effort to remember. Theo Decker, a boy who survives an explosion that kills his mother, is a character for the ages, and nearly all of the supporting characters in the novel are just as intriguing and vividly rendered.

This book recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I'll refrain from describing or critiquing it as hundreds of superior reviews are easily accessed with a Google search. Mostly I'd like to record my impressions while they are still fresh.

The adult Theo reflects in the beginning of the story that his life would've been much different if his mother had lived. She is a central presence, or non-presence, in the story, and almost every bad decision the young Theo makes is a direct consequence of not having a mother, or more specifically, a good mother who is alive.

The foster mothers who step in for the teen Theo can't replace the angelic qualities of his dead mother. The wealthy Mrs. Barbour, who first shelters him, may be emotionally distant, but she is kind and has the wherewithal to keep Theo out of too much trouble. However, she doesn't have the legal standing to prevent his derelict father from taking him away.

Xandra, the seedy girlfriend of Theo's father, is on first impression a cartoon wicked stepmother. She redeems herself later in the story, and as we get to know her better, we discover she isn't all bad (no character in the book is all bad or all good, with the exception of Theo's mother, who attains a quality in death that she could not have possibly maintained in life). Still, Xandra fails Theo when he is in her negligent care.

His next foster mother is actually a man -- Hobie, a furniture restorer who agrees to be Theo's guardian. Hobie is decent and kind, but he is ill-equipped for the job of shepherding a teenager, and some of the bad habits Theo picked up with his dad and Xandra continue under the trusting and distracted Hobie.

The three age-peers most central to the story are Pippa, Boris and Andy. Pippa, who also survives the explosion, becomes for Theo the living embodiment of ideal womanhood in that his mother had been. Boris is larger than life, so full of vitality that he can simultaneously serve as Theo's demon and savior. Andy, alive or dead, keeps Theo in the orbit of the Barbours, which at least loosely tethers him to the world of decency his mother would've wanted for him.

I loved all 780 pages of this novel and I already miss spending time each day with Theo and his friends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

A person with 168 books in her "to read" queue shouldn't need to turn to Google to find something to read next, but that's exactly how Jenny Lawson's "mostly true" memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, vaulted ahead of the 168.

[I interrupt this review to disclose that I spent most of the day writing the previous sentence, but not because it's brilliant or I had writer's block. I wanted to have an accurate count of the books in my "to read" queue, so I consolidated most -- not quite all -- of the saved files, post-it notes and even an ancient typewritten list that previously comprised my "to read" list. It is all now in one convenient, accessible from anywhere Goodreads list. Except I know this is not comprehensive because some lists are lodged in my head and can only be retrieved when I see a physical copy of the book, or read a mention of it, and remember, "yes, I planned to read that one day!" And I also didn't include the Utne Reader's "alternative canon" from years ago, mostly because it's in a magazine I saved and I didn't want to root around the closet to find it.]

After reading a depressing book, can't even remember which one, I decided I needed something funny next, so I did various Google searches involving "comedy" or "funny" or "humor" and "book" and Lawson's memoir was among those mentioned and available at the library. Except it was checked out, so I put it on hold, which means I didn't get to start reading it immediately after the depressing book, whatever that was.

Lawson is a blogger, although I've never been to her blog, even after reading her book, and surely my life is poorer for it. She's quite funny. The memoir basically chronicles her journey from an eccentric childhood in west Texas to a relatively "normal" adult life of wife, mother and writer. Some of the outlandish tales, which one might assume to not be included in the "mostly true" part of the memoir, are backed by photographic evidence.

I enjoyed this book, although I think I would have enjoyed it more at half the length. Lawson's writing style eventually started to lose a little of its novelty, and the 20th tale involving bizarre Texas critters isn't nearly as engaging as the first few.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Although I have no data to support this assertion, I'm persuaded by personal experience and anecdotal evidence that the journalist's most common alternative career fantasy is to be a novelist. I didn't get my start in journalism with this goal in mind, hoping newspaper work would be a start for me as it was for Hemingway. But since "retiring" from the news grind, I've harbored an ambition to turn to fiction and made a start on a novel.

Some literary works make me doubt my ability to ever join the ranks of novelists. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example, made me want to disavow writing of any sort forever and simply be grateful that I could read hers. But then a novel such as Sisterland comes along and I have hope again: I could do better than that!

I would've probably abandoned this plodding tale of domestic minutiae after about the third description of diaper changing, but it's next month's selection for my book group, so I persevered through all 400 pages. When the main character spends much of her narrative time describing how dull her daily life is (aside from her psychic ability to "sense" the future), the reader has a foreboding that something uncharacteristically exciting will soon happen. This reader was sorely disappointed.

Because I want to move on to something better immediately, and The Goldfinch is beckoning on my coffee table, I'll say no more. Although perhaps I should resume writing my own novel before I read The Goldfinch and risk courting more discouragement.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Winter's Tale

The release of a film based on a popular novel often spurs me to add the book to my reading list; rarely does it prompt me to see the movie. Such was the case with Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, which had been on my "to read" list for at least a year, although I can't recall how it got there.

If I were a professor of literature, I might feel qualified to pass judgement on the quality of this novel. In my relative ignorance, however, I can't decide if it is brilliant or horrendous. In some places, it is barely readable, although I don't know whether I should attribute that to the author's fanciful, meandering prose or my poor understanding of it.

Apparently Mr. Helprin believes an incomplete sentence is one without a metaphor. While I certainly admire his ability to construct a vivid phrase, I often wished he would tone it down a little, much as I sometimes wish contestants on televised singing competitions were not so compelled to display their vocal acrobatics.

My primary criticism of the book is that it's simply too long. I'm not one to shrink from reading long novels, but this one had too much prose that did not advance the story in any way. The length could've been reduced by a third simply by removing the near constant descriptions of snow.

Also, the "mysteries" in the novel are never explained, which was annoying after finishing all 750 pages, hoping to find out what was so special about Peter Lake, or Hardesty's plate, or Jackson Mead, or the Lake of the Coheeries, and basically everything else in the story. I sense this is a type of religious allegory and I'm not tuned in enough to recognize the symbols. 

Otherwise, it is a diverting story full of interesting and likeable characters. Although it is described as "magical realism," I would classify it more as fantasy, which is not my favorite genre, so maybe that's why I wasn't enthralled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Submission

Despite the glowing reviews, I probably wouldn't have chosen to read Amy Waldman's The Submission if it were not my book group's May selection. I feel as if I've read and watched enough stories exploring the trauma of the 9/11 attacks that all possible emotional and psychological territory has been covered.

Ms. Waldman hasn't found a new planet in the 9/11 universe, but her fictional story of the chaos following the selection of a memorial design to honor the victims is a thoughtful portrayal of the complex relations Muslim-Americans faced during the years following the attacks. 

The novel opens with a jury of 13 choosing between two final designs for a memorial to be built on the site of the destroyed towers. A rule of the competition is that the designers remain anonymous until the winner is announced. The jury chooses "The Garden," and the chairman opens the envelope to read the name of the winning designer: Mohammed Khan. So begins a saga that will upend the lives of the enigmatic Mr. Khan, some members of the jury, families of the victims and assorted other characters.

The story is told primarily from the perspectives of the ambitious architect Mo Khan and the wealthy Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who has championed his design on the jury. These two seem to have more in common with each other than with anyone else in their lives, and the reader has the feeling that if they could just sit down for dinner together, they would form an impregnable alliance. But a conversation doesn't happen until too late, after events have forced both into entrenched positions.

If the novel asks a central question, it is probably "how can we learn to trust each other?" That's a crucial debate for any society.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Ok, I cheated slightly on my one-book-a-week reading challenge. Because I didn't read as much as I had hoped during my spring break vacation, I took an opportunity to catch up by choosing a book I knew I could read in a weekend. Also, I was in the mood for something light.

David Sedaris is almost always laugh-out-loud, rolling in the floor funny, but I've enjoyed his other books more than Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. His humor always strikes me as poignant, an exercise in laughing through the tears. This collection of essays had the usual reminisces of painful moments of childhood, young adulthood and romantic disappointments, but the humor fell short.

In a few essays which he claims to offer for high school students to read as part of a forensics debate club exercise, Sedaris writes in the voice of an alternate, fictional persona. Some of these were completely off; I couldn't tell if they were meant to be funny, satirical, sad or angry.

Even when Sedaris is not at his best, he's better than most humor writers, so if you're a fan, you may be slightly disappointed with this book, but you'll still relish the few hours you'll get to spend with this master of observational wit.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sparrow Migrations

A disclaimer: I'm acquainted with the author of this week's book, and I like her, but I will do my best to be objective in my review.

My book club chose Sparrow Migrations, by Cari Noga, to discuss at our April meeting and invited the author, who lives in our town, to join us. So Friday night we were in the unusual position of being at wine, er, book group and talking about the book.

The novel intertwines the stories of three ordinary, fictional families whose lives were altered by the real crash landing on the Hudson River in 2009 by the flight piloted by Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger. Their stories are told in parallel for most of the book as the characters do not meet at the time of the crash and go their separate ways, and for one of the characters, the reader can't imagine how her life could intersect with the others again. But as Seinfeld made New York City seem almost as small as Mayberry, the two degrees of separation for these characters make a reunion inevitable.

The most compelling character to me was Robby, a 12-year-old autistic boy who is aboard a sight-seeing ferry when the plane landed on the river. On hearing that birds likely caused the accident, Robby becomes obsessed with learning more. In what could be a common fantasy for parents of an atypical child, Robby meets a kind and wise mentor who sees his autism not as a crushing disability, but as a gifted ability that, properly nurtured, could make him specially suited for work as a scientist.

I was so engaged with Robby's storyline that I read impatiently through the others, although sometimes lesbian mom Brett's story had enough drama to draw me in. I related the least to professional ├╝ber-couple Christopher and Deborah.

Cari's journalism background is evident in the clear, concise prose. This is a pleasant and diverting first novel and a relatively easy read, yet it isn't simplistic or amateurish. The characters are richly-drawn and the plots are interesting. It certainly provided lots of fodder for discussion at our book group meeting!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What's the Economy for Anyway?

Due to a nearly two-week spring break trip, I'm slightly behind on my book-a-week reading challenge, but I anticipate being back on track soon.

My vacation book was the next selection in the Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project, What's the Economy for, Anyway? by John de Graaf and David K. Batker. While the book was a clearly-written and interesting way for this former C economics student to re-engage intentionally with the discipline, as well as economic policy issues, I suppose I wasn't quite as ignorant as I assumed because most of the information was familiar territory. I guess I can credit a decade of involvement with Bay Bucks, our local currency project, for keeping me up to speed with economic theories and alternative money structures.

The first premise presented in the book is that the Gross National Product (GNP) and its stepchild, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are poor measures of the nation's economic health. For example, the spending required to clean up after disasters will raise both measures, but no rational economist would claim the country would be better off with more disasters.

The authors propose evaluations that focus on a goal of the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run. Equality and sustainability should be considered when we judge the merit of economic policies. This was not a newsflash for me.

Perhaps because I'm poorly traveled, the primary eye-openers in the book for me were the economic comparisons of the United States to other nations. Being a big newspaper reader, I've seen plenty of charts showing the U.S. lagging in education, health care, wages, vacation time and numerous other measures, but this book brought so much of that together that I now feel like I'm living in a bad banana republic and wonder if immigration to Norway is possible for a middle-aged couple.

I'm content with my personal economic situation. I'm not rich, but I have enough and I don't yearn for more. I don't care to trade more time for money. I wish as a people we would stop measuring success with dollar signs. However, considering the inequity of current economic policies makes me want to grab the torches and pitchforks and storm the castle. We desperately need a fairer distribution of wealth.

For those who would like to learn more about this topic but don't want to read a book, I highly recommend the documentary Inequality for All featuring former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. It's available for streaming on Netflix and would be an excellent use of 88 minutes of your time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Signature of All Things

After two joyless books, I was in the mood for some lighter reading, so I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things.

This is a character-driven novel, with a rather plodding plot, if it has a plot at all. Fortunately, the characters are interesting, and the primary character -- Alma Whittaker -- is one I won't soon forget. A stalwart woman of science whose life spans the 19th century, Alma is born into privilege as the daughter of Philadelphia's wealthiest man, a self-made botanical entrepreneur. Money is the least of her privileges; she is blessed with parents who nurture and encourage her considerable intellect and thirst for knowledge.

As Alma reached her middle years, I anticipated the author of Eat Pray Love would rescue her heroine from spinsterhood with a steamy romance. Things did not go quite the way I expected, but I can say no more without spoiling.

This was a satisfying novel and one that makes me eager for the snow to melt so I can poke around in my garden and observe the wonders of the plant kingdom.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Despite living in Michigan for the past 22 years, I don't know much more about Detroit than the average American. I've only been there three times, each a short overnight visit. And after reading Charlie LeDuff's memoir, Detroit: An American Autopsy, I can't say I'm any better informed.

Detroit, LeDuff tells us over and over again, is a hellhole. He writes of his childhood on Joy Road in Livonia, a near suburb of Detroit. And the road name is basically the only joy in the book. LeDuff's Detroit is sordid, saturated with murder, corruption, cronyism, drugs, and despair. Those hipsters, urban farmers and young entrepreneurs you've heard are flocking to Detroit? LeDuff apparently hasn't met them.

This reads like a 1940s crime noir novel, with LeDuff playing the role of hard-edged gumshoe, which in his case is reporter for the Detroit News, the job he holds for most of the story. LeDuff is the lead character in a gritty tale of frozen corpses, murdered strippers, crooked politicians, incompetent business executives, heroic firefighters, shattered families, and LeDuff's ever-present cigarette. There's even a scene with a cop in a hat and trench coat.

In the prologue, LeDuff calls this a "book of reportage," but this is not a typical work of journalism. This is a memoir of the reporting he did in his two years with the News. He goes behind the scenes to show his work in getting the stories, with a lot of personal information thrown in. LeDuff doesn't bother with any kind of meta-analysis to explain Detroit's decline, aside from some references to the legacies of racism. There are no footnotes, and some conversations are clearly reconstructed from memory, unless it is LeDuff's habit to take notes while drinking.

Reading this book felt a little like rubbernecking at a major accident. It offended my ideals of journalism, strained my credulity at times, and, in one chapter, made me grateful to not be married to LeDuff. Yet, I couldn't stop reading. I finished this in less than 24 hours, closing it only to eat or sleep. I can't wait to discuss it at book group.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Prague Cemetery

Reading anything by Umberto Eco always makes me feel a little smarter, and that is true with his novel, The Prague Cemetery. However, this story is more clever than it is enjoyable, probably because the main character is so repulsive I was loathe to spend any of my valuable reading time with him.

Eco is a masterful writer. He chronicles the foibles, eccentricities and gullibilities of humanity, and in this novel, as in my favorite of his, Foucault's Pendulum, he revisits the bizarre terrain of conspiracy theorists, where freemasons and Jesuits are embroiled in elaborate plots, at least in some imaginations.

To appreciate Eco's cleverness, it would help to be acquainted with European history, particularly the latter half of the 19th century. Only the main character, the split-personality Captain Simonini/Abbe Dalla Piccola, is fictional; the supporting cast includes personages famous, infamous and obscure, using and being used by Simonini to thwart or further various intrigues. I frequently interrupted reading to look up names and events on the internet.

I would have enjoyed this story more if it had one prominent non-vile character, perhaps a nemesis to Simonini.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

Choosing a depressing book to read during the coldest week of the coldest winter of the past two decades perhaps was not a good idea, but the latest visit from the polar vortex gave me a good excuse to stay inside to finish Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction.

Kolbert isn't providing a newsflash; scientists have been telling us for many years that we are living in a period of species extinction not witnessed since the event at the end of the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs, which fossil evidence indicates was the fifth time in the planet's history that the diversity of life cataclysmically contracted. Species are disappearing at an alarming and accelerating rate, and this time, the villain is one very successful "weedy" species, an invasive species like no other.

Even though I consider myself reasonably educated on ecological issues, before reading this book, I had a simplistic notion of the cause of the current species extinction. I believed it to be largely a result of human-induced climate change. But as Kolbert explains, the warming of the planet is merely accelerating a process that started when homo sapiens walked out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. 

The rapidly-unfolding climate change brought about by the burning of fossils fuels is certainly a major factor driving species extinction, as it alters habitat, acidifies the oceans and changes the composition of the air we breathe. But other human activities also have a significant impact, including predation (hunting, poaching), habitat destruction, and global commerce that spreads invasive species.

Kolbert visits around the globe with scientists in several disciplines to describe their research and, sometimes, their near-hopeless efforts to save a disappearing species. These are interesting and admirable people, but probably not the sort with whom you'd want to spend much time on a gray winter day. Fortunately for Kolbert, most of her field visits occurred in the tropics, so at least that provided some relief to this depressing tale with her descriptions of the wonders and beauties of the endangered species she saw in the Amazon rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. But then, sadly, we are left to mourn for them, and for ourselves.

Despite the grim subject matter and the apocalyptic title, the author does not take an alarmist stance or issue a rallying cry to humans to mend our ways before it is too late. The tone here is more fatalistic, a sad witness to an inevitability rather than a call to action. Also, Kolbert makes clear that it's the diversity of life rather than life itself that's at stake, and we simply don't know yet whether the loss of diversity may threaten the species that caused it.

This book is an excellent piece of science journalism, well-written and researched, with an impressive bibliography. I recommend it, but if winter has already depressed you, wait until spring to read this.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


I said I wouldn't count re-reads of Jane Austen novels for my book-a-week challenge, but I didn't say I would avoid new Austen-inspired novels.

Longbourn, by British author Jo Baker, likely will appeal to fans of Downton Abbey as well as Austenites. Ms. Baker has imagined, in astonishing detail, the lives of the Bennet family servants, who are her central characters. Her story tracks that of Pride and Prejudice from the downstairs perspective, where anxiety about the future of Longbourn and its entail is perhaps even more pitched than it is upstairs.

The principal character is Sarah, a housemaid barely mentioned in the original novel. Her days at Longbourn are long with boredom and heavy work that drains her physically and mentally. I've never fully appreciated the wonders of flush toilets and automatic washing machines until I read this novel.

Despite Sarah's hardships, she never fails to notice the tiny delights of the natural world around her. Ms. Baker's vivid descriptions of the English countryside permeate the novel and approach the level of poetry.

Austen's novels were set during the Napoleonic Wars, but those events are barely acknowledged in her stories. The presence of a militia camp in the nearby village of Meryton and its later removal to Brighton is significant only for its romantic implications for the Bennet sisters. Ms. Baker, through the character of the footman and former soldier James, portrays the horrors of those wars.

This is not Austen fan fiction, and Ms. Baker does not attempt to imitate Austen's style. It is simply a famous story retold by a gifted writer from an alternate perspective. Perhaps an apt comparison would be that Longbourn is to Pride and Prejudice as Paula McLain's The Paris Wife is to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Eating on the Wild Side

In Eating on the Wild Side, nutrition researcher Jo Robinson turns the produce aisle into a medicine cabinet. She has sorted through massive quantities of food studies to reveal the fruit and vegetable superstars and how to select, store and prepare them to maximize absorption of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

Each fruit and vegetable is introduced with a description of its wild ancestor and a brief history of its domestication and resulting nutritional changes. Some cultivars have retained more of the wild nutrients than others. Robinson discusses the cultivars most available in U.S. supermarkets or farmer's markets, the relative merits of each, and when canned or frozen versions may serve as well as fresh.

I learned, for example, that purple carrots are the richest in bionutrients, and for all carrots, nutrients are more available if the carrot is cooked rather than raw. The best practice is to steam the carrots whole and slice them after. She also recommends eating them with a little oil or fat.

At the end of each chapter, Robinson provides a chart of recommended types and varieties of the fruit or vegetable for shoppers and home gardeners, as well as a good-better-best summary.

I checked this book out from the library, but I'll probably buy a copy so I won't have to copy half of it for reference.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Rules of Civility

I had trouble sleeping after finishing Amor Towles' mesmerizing Rules of Civility. Every time I woke during the night, I resumed thinking about the characters' choices and consequences and wishing I had been alive to experience New York City in 1938.

The central plot of Towles' novel is the love triangle of Katey Kontent, Eve Ross and Tinker Grey, but another trio of loves permeates the pages: literature, jazz and the energy of the world's greatest city. Gotham is the central character in the story, the polestar around which the characters invent and reinvent themselves.

I could subtract a rating star for the author's overuse of metaphor, but I restore it in gratitude for his giving me a heroine in Katey that I'm unlikely to forget. My only other quibble would be that the story may have been stronger if he had told Katey's story in the third person rather than the first; I was several chapters into the novel before I need to stop reminding myself that Katey was a woman. But eventually, she felt so real that I wished I could have dinner with her, if not be her.