We rolled the dice: Las Vegas!

The latest COVID quandary: when is it safe to travel?

After a year-plus of living like cave-dwellers, when is the right time to emerge, blinking and trepidatious, into what we used to call normal life?

The answer is different depending upon whether you’ve made a Faucian bargain or you’re a Berenson Bear (as in former NYT reporter Alex, whose COVID skepticism has been Big-Tech and Corporate Media suppressed to the point where you may not even have heard of him).

The CE has been solidly in the Berenson camp while I’ve wavered back and forth in a gray area somewhere between terror and rebellion. Yes, I am the reason we’ve had seventy-five pounds of rice stored in the garage since March of 2020. On the other hand, I also have moments of clarity when it occurs to me that we were wandering all over NYC for almost a month before the shutdown and didn’t get so much as a sniffle.

The truth is out there somewhere. Good luck finding it. For us, the combination of our double vaccination and cabin fever finally convinced us to get those dusty suitcases out of the closet and get on a plane for the first time in over a year, especially when we discovered that Southwest Airlines was initiating a direct flight from Santa Barbara to Las Vegas. Sweet!

What we didn’t realize was that we were actually booked on the inaugural flight! Celebration party scene at the airport and zero social distancing. Leave your cave and you take your chances:

Las Vegas airport was quiet when we arrived on a Monday afternoon. No wait for a taxi. No wait at the Wynn Tower check-in lobby. Easy room upgrade. Sat right down for a late lunch at our favorite Wynn restaurant, Tableau.

The menu was a miniature of the usual, but who could complain when one of the choices was a sumptuous lobster salad?

We discovered that some of our favorite restaurants are currently only open on the weekends, but things were starting to open up even as we arrived: we were able to book at Bouchon that night, their first Monday opening since who knows when. Steak frites is only half as sinful when you share it:

And thus, after a year of mostly eating take-out, began the restaurant parade. Lunch next day was at the Encore’s outpost of NYC darling Cipriani. You can’t go wrong with a beverage line-up of Pinot Grigio, espresso and club soda:

Or with Cipriani’s famed meringue cake, which we are used to savoring while seated on the rail overlooking Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall at Cipriani Dolci. Made us homesick for NYC!

In the past we’ve avoided the Wynn’s Lakeside restaurant due to exorbitant prices and poor service. But they were open while Sinatra, our Italian standby, was not, and we were pleasantly surprised by a truly fine dinner with excellent service. Yes, the prices are still steep, but how can you pass up a cocktail that is called the Lake of Dreams…

Alaskan halibut with nicoise vegetables and artichoke sauce. Yum.

We had another wonderful dinner at the Wynn’s lakeside Mizumi:

And a lunch at the newly opened Milos at the Venetian – just like our beloved Milos in Hudson Yards. You just have to imagine the view of the river…

Love their lunch prix fixe – best Greek salad!

There were a few service hiccups, mostly having to do with staff shortages at the restaurants. We were told that many employees are opting to stay home because collecting  COVID grants and unemployment is easier than going to work. Same story with cab drivers. Your federal tax dollars at work…

But those who are working are cheerful and trying hard. The atmosphere was buoyant and hopeful – dare I say – almost normal!

We settled into our usual Vegas trip pattern, albeit with masks. We’ve largely avoided dealing with them by rarely leaving the house, so it was an adjustment. For the CE, masking up to play Texas Hold Em gave a whole new meaning to the term poker face.

The Wynn’s spacious hallways and mostly sedate clientele made the masks seem a bit superfluous, but them’s the rules and there were extremely polite employees stationed throughout the hotel to remind the forgetful to mask up. There were hand sanitizer stations peppered throughout the hotel so no worries should you experience the horror of touching a door handle or stair rail. Other than not being able to breathe, we experienced zero concern on the Wynn and Venetian properties, or on a brief jaunt across the street to the Fashion Plate mall. Well, there was one moment of concern when I pointed to this and looked pleadingly at the CE:

Lucky for him that Louis Vuitton was limiting visitors in its boutique and I wasn’t inclined to stand in line. Who says COVID rules are all bad?

It wasn’t until our final evening that we ventured out onto the Strip and found an entirely different scene. Basically a mob scene. Vegas is apparently re-opening in a very big way and there were A LOT of people, many of them who seemed to be visiting for the first time and were determined to let everyone know it. Many who may or may not have concerned themselves with bathing before they arrived. And, sadly, some sprawled along the sidewalk lost in a trance of meth or alcohol or despair. I generally hold to the belief that you can’t contract COVID outdoors. But in that crush of heat and humanity, I put my mask on. Hey, I wasn’t the only one…

The walk may have been questionable but it’s never the wrong decision to sit down to a steak frites followed by a dessert of chocolate mousse at Mon Ami Gabi and watch the Bellagio fountain show. A perfect last evening in Vegas…

We even caught the volcano eruption as we walked back past the Mirage.

We had a wonderful week. Vegas is back and everything’s coming up…daisies. 

We’re safely home now, giving the trip an A++ and pretty sure that we’re never going back into cave-dwelling mode.

Anyone need seventy-five pounds of rice?

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Fact check: No, you can’t actually dig all the way to China

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It’s just when you’re gliding along, minding your own business that everything goes wrong. All those insomniac nights, wide awake, worrying about every little thing – that stuff never happens. It’s the moment when all seems placid, contentment within easy reach – and then -boom!

Oh, we’ve got tolerance for a little upheaval. Like the week before last when we got the news that our orchard had developed a death wish, some kind of pestilence that was moving inexorably from tree to tree. It started, apparently and predictably, with the apple tree. It’s always the apple tree. So now, here we are:

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But we had no idea how completely we were to be cast out of the garden of Eden for our transgression of sinking into “merrily, merrily merrily life is but a dream” mode. There we were, standing on the back patio, having just made peace with the orchard debacle, professing our charitable acceptance of the little disruptions in the greater scheme and being rather proud of ourselves for our equanimity. Just another little bump in the road, right?

Going back thirty plus years ago, our son Taylor’s first complete sentence so captivated us that it became part of the canon of our family lexicon, pulled out from time to time for our amusement. “The water it-a goes-a down the drain,” Taylor had sagely observed. We applauded extravagantly (and basically sat back at that point to await the eventual presentation of the Nobel prize for something, anything, everything to this brilliant scion of our clan.)

That was the sentence that came to me as we were standing on our patio and suddenly became aware that we were standing in water, the daintiest little ladyfinger of water, that was definitively not a-going-a down-a the drain. In fact, not only was it sitting there like so much spilled milk, it was actually coming up. Up from below. From between the seams of the carefully designed and expensively constructed sections of concrete.

The CE grew very pale.

And hence began a rather long and not very happy week, starring a valiant team of landscape workers digging here,

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and digging there,

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and digging pretty much everywhere in hopes of finding the leak. Any and all effort would be expended in order that the unspeakable word not be uttered – the word that, in fact, must not be breathed, the word that could not even be forming in the back of one’s mind. That word, a pox upon humanity: jackhammer!

While the CE was out there, up to his elbows in mud, I was envisioning an opportunity. I’ve long harbored a vision of a tidy little expansion of our back courtyard, one featuring wisteria-festooned pergolas and a lavish outdoor fireplace. One that would mean instead of shivering, wrapped in blankets as the marine air turns dining al fresco into dining al freeze-o, we could have a more civilized experience, one that, you know, included heaters.

I made the colossal mistake of thinking this was the right moment to share this vision with that muddy-elbowed man. And, while his bark is infinitely worse than his bite, this week he was growling and barking like mastiff.

It didn’t go over well. It turns out that when a man is experiencing intense anxiety tinged with a dollop of despair, he does not want to turn his thoughts to home improvement projects.

Did I mention that it was a very long week?

On and on it went. Like the drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight, our diggers dug up every inch of exposed soil as the inevitable reality slowly descended: this leak was hiding dark and deep beneath that cavernous expanse of concrete. Since the J word could not be uttered, they turned to the only slightly less traumatic T word, and the tunneling commenced.

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I think our resident legion of gophers would be very proud of what was accomplished here. Basically, the CE and a small (but alarmingly ever-growing) army of workers, performed a root canal on our patio. And, like every other root canal, once finished there is very little to show for it but the dim memory of sharp pain and a distinct contraction in one’s bank account.

But they found the leak!

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And not a jackhammer in sight!

I was slightly disappointed that China did not come into view given the depth and breadth of that tunnel, but grateful to have my husband back, minus the barking, albeit with a much thinner wallet. Dollar bills went flying into that tunnel project faster than Jerome Powell can print them.

Having been jolted out of our year-long idyll, our “we could just stay home forever” mode has turned rather abruptly to “we gotta get out of here”. We’re packing our bags for Vegas, baby, in hopes that all that dirt magically puts itself neatly back into place by the time we return.

Posted in Absurdity, Annoyances of Life, Life | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Blessed Easter.

We live in a time of so much noise and so little truth.

It is a joy and a relief to turn to the Good News of the Gospel.

Wishing you a happy and blessed Easter. And the promise of eternal life in Christ.

“We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”                  

                                                                                     – Romans 6:9

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Family Album: Newport Beach, the long way.

We used to live in and out of our suitcases. But after a year of almost continuous lockdown, a road trip seemed almost daunting. How could we leave the animals? Who can remember how to pack, what to pack, besides masks, masks, masks. Easier to stay home. But we hadn’t seen Tina, John, the girls and Ace since they visited last fall. Time to just get in the car and go. After all, how hard could it be?

Answer: a teensy bit harder than we expected. Tough to get very far when your car is on a tow truck.

The bad news: the dashboard display lit up like a pinball machine with every bright red warning sign imaginable. STOP VEHICLE IMMEDIATELY seemed to be a message we shouldn’t ignore. Also hard to ignore the smoke pouring out from under the hood.

The good news: we were only ten miles down the road from home when it happened. I caught an Uber ride back home to get the other car while the CE took a peek at the situation and called the tow truck. “There’s oil spraying out of a hose onto the engine”, he said, mystified as to how a completely reliable car could have suddenly begun spewing smoke.

I have my theories, foremost among them being sabotage. There are certain individuals who did NOT want us to leave home. And they look guilty as all get out. Never mind that they’ve never set foot in the garage. We all know that cats can simply engage mind control mode and their every whim is granted.

But an hour later we were back on the road. Good news: evil cat plot thwarted. Bad news: we were just in time to catch Friday traffic.

I don’t even know what “tier” So Cal is in these days but it appears no one is staying at home anymore. All in all, it took us six hours to get to Newport. But the welcome made it all worth it!

So, so great to see Tina and John, the three most beautiful girls in the world, and, of course, Wonder Dog Ace:

And no, still no idea what’s wrong with the car but hey, lockdowns, schlockdowns, they’re (hopefully) in the rear view mirror along with that tow truck. It’s a beautiful day in Newport Beach and we are ready to play!

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Fashion Fauxward: Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse.

I am probably the wrong person to go on a rant about anything approaching fashion. Disclaimers abound:

For instance, these, for the past year, are what I would call my going-to-work shoes:

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And – true confessions here – these are what I would call my dress shoes:

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Truest confession: I have worn the same sweater pretty much every day, all day long and all night long for going on a month now. Cringe-worthy, I know. But it’s been COLD here. And I’ve discovered that alpaca is actually cozier than cashmere. And the CE hasn’t actually complained (raised eyebrows don’t count, right?)

Now that we’re vaxxed and ready to roll out the roller bags, it occurred to me that it’s time to up my fashion game ever so slightly. My motivation tends to lag, because I can actually get away with quite a bit. It’s easy to look like the best-dressed one when the CE, who, for decades before the pandemic was even a gleam in Dr. Fauci’s eye, has been famous for his penchant of wearing what we all affectionately call “clown pants” The word “baggy” just does not begin to describe his favored fit.

I guess that when you’re just that handsome

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you can get away with anything.  

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Seriously, if you saw those pants of his from the back, you would instantly forgive my 24/7 sweater.

Anyway, I was about to turn over a new leaf and dig into my closet at least to find a different sweater.

And then…

I opened up The Wall Street Journal and was assaulted by their take on post-pandemic fashion.

This, they say, is where we’re headed:

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We’ve somehow endured a year of sustained low-key terror and misery, washing down our groceries, donning layers and layers of masks, squinting from twenty feet to say hello to people you can’t recognize because you’re near-sighted and they’re swathed like a mummy, and the reward for all this?

You discover that Ralph Lauren is now taking fashion cues from my husband.

Dear God, please bring back the lockdown. Permanently. I just want to put on my sweater and hide.

Posted in Absurdity, Fashion | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Spring forward.

Welp. It’s that time again. Someone, somehow, between the wee hours of tonight and tomorrow morning, creeps in and steals an hour from us. I don’t know why a measly hour bothers me after losing an entire year, but I’m already mourning its loss.

I would have known, without the reminder, that spring is sprung. Yes, it’s wintry outside. But the hens always know the score and they’ve announced that winter is over. Last summer’s molt and the short winter days are forgotten and the girls are busy.

Yesterday they spent the better part of what will soon be a lost hour poking around for the most delectable post-rain menu of bugs and worms. Time spent well and wisely, and much to show for it:

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What do I have to show for that hour, or, for that matter, the cavernous, quiet year that went before? Hmmmm, maybe better not to think about that. Let’s say it was sort of like a very long molt followed by some short winter days. Let’s call it…resting. It seems to have worked for the hens.

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The time change is a good reminder that we have an hour less and it’s time to make more of each and every one. Maybe even start thinking about flying the coop? Spring forward, indeed!

Setting my clock – and myself – forward – there’s a new season upon us!

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Lily is 2!

Finally, something to celebrate! Happy birthday, Lily, my love!

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How would we have made it through this past year without this beautiful girl? Thank goodness dogs don’t wear masks because there have been many days when that pretty face is the only thing that buoyed us from lockdown to lockdown.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we went to pick out our puppy. How to choose? We just knew we wanted the one that would cuddle up, follow us around and lay quietly at our feet.

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That, um, is not the one we got.

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We got the one that will follow bunnies, follow lizards, follow seagulls, follow gophers right down their holes and end up with a snoot full of dirt and follow treats to the end of the earth. But follow us? Meh…not so much.

And good luck following her…

Somehow, the tables got turned with Miss Lily. We’re the ones obediently trained to serve her and that’s just how she likes it.

She brings us joy every single day and wow, what a gift that has been this past year.

She is nothing we expected and everything we needed.

Today (kind of like every other day) is all about her.

Maybe, just maybe, next year there will be a Lily party.

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: The Top Ten

If you look back at 2020 as a total loss, you just didn’t spend enough time reading. For me, at least, books were the saving grace of a year of living fearfully. Books were a refuge and an escape, so much so that the CE and I actually ended up ritualizing our reading. Every day at 5 pm we meet in what was a previously dis-used living room and now must be called the reading room for a somewhat civilized cocktail hour, books in hand. Cats and dog variously add or detract from the level of civility, depending on the day, but I can think of worse reading companions.

There, as the months wore on, we slogged through dozens of books, The CE (annoyingly!) reads 100 books a year and I usually read 60, although worry and distraction cut me a bit shy of my goal last year. I’m not apologizing, however: according to GoodReads, I polished off 21,523 pages in 2020 and since I accomplished not one other thing, I’m calling that good.

The top ten reads of the year stand out for various reasons. They are the cream that rose to the top of all the year’s reading; they represent serendipity as much as excellence. Some I knew going in were winners, some came from behind to lead the pack and at least one simply took so much effort that it sits on a pedestal all its own. All of them come with my highest recommendation. I hope you can find at least one that appeals to you. Here they are, from tenth favorite to first:

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

by C. A. Fletcher

Published 2019

Audiobook, 384 pages (10 hours 49 minutes) narrated by the author

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Absolutely nothing about this book should have appealed to me. I loathe the term “Young Adult” fiction, and I have a general if peculiar aversion to science fiction and fantasy. But I kept seeing stellar reviews for this book, and, after all, the word “dog” is in the title, so that softened me up.

I read it before the plague hit, so the fact that it takes place in a dystopian post-pandemic civilization (or what’s left of it) in the British Isles was not of particular concern although I certainly have thought back on it through the COVID journey. Griz is a young teen whose family is bravely subsisting in the isolation of a de-populated world. Griz’ dog, Jip, is stolen and thus an odyssey begins with many coming-of-age lessons and some very surprising plot twists along the way. The book is always engaging and never cloying and thus should not be limited to a YA shelf, although it would indeed be a sensational read for teens. 4 stars

The Temporary Gentleman: A Novel

by Sebastian Barry

Published 2014

Audiobook, 320 pages (7 hours 22 minutes) narrated by Gerard Doyle

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Sebastian Barry has been one of my greatest finds in recent years. He spins language into pure gold with an Irish accent. Some reviewers of this book gave it fewer stars because they found it “just too sad”. And oh, how sad it is. Jack McNulty met Mai in 1922 and was instantly transfixed by the “undertow of kindness in her voice”. What a grand love story this could be – but ah, remember – they are Irish. Mai suffers from depression and then from alcoholism. Jack is a profligate gambler and spender. And also a drinker. “How is it that for some people drinking is a short term loan on the spirit but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul?” It is a deeply sad story with, for me, an unsatisfying ending, but otherwise stays true to itself even as the story moves from Ireland to Ghana and also remains true to the question it poses: “What is it that starts to bind one soul to another?” 4 stars

Psalms

Commentary by Dr. Bill Creasy

Released 2011

Audiobook, 16 hours 41 minutes, lecture format

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We were in that brief window between lockdowns and I had gone to dinner with a few friends, one of whom remarked that listening to James Earl Jones read the Bible had been a source of great consolation to her in the previous months. What a great idea, I thought, and went in search of it on Audible. I didn’t end up finding James Earl Jones because the Logos Bible Study series caught my eye. Dr. Bill Creasy is a retired UCLA professor and former U.S. Marine who now, to the best of my understanding, leads a seven-year-study of the entire Bible, which has been made available via Audible. I think it can also be accessed on YouTube. Creasy introduces the study as one based in literature rather than theology, although he is clearly a believer.

I’ve read through the Psalms in the past and, having memorized a few, thought I could claim a familiarity with them. I now realize I’d been driving on back roads without a map as far as the Psalms went. I can say that I have never been as enthusiastically engaged in The Word as I was listening this presentation. Dr. Creasy reads through the Psalms with an explanation of what they mean in terms of Hebrew poetry, where they occur in history and geography, and what they tell us about the nature of God. This was an absolute highlight of my reading year. 5 stars.

The Wars of the Jews: Or, the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem

by Flavius Josephus

Written A.D. 75

Kindle, 312 pages

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As long as we’re delving into ancient history, here’s a colossus of the genre. We were supposed to go on a tour to Israel last fall and I had asked around about what I should read to be prepared for a journey to the Holy Land. This was the undisputed No. 1 recommendation. Josephus was a Jew who was captured by and defected to the Romans during the Jewish Revolt of A.D. 66. His historical chronicle of the events leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple parallels Biblical history and narrative but is independent of it. King Herod, the Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, a number of Roman commanders and a legion of warring Jews endlessly smiting one another all have a role culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple as prophesied by Jesus in the Book of Mark “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down”

This was the longest 312 pages I think I have ever read. Only recently did I discover that the Kindle edition I read is a nineteenth century translation that has been made much more readable in an updated Penguin Classics edition pictured above translated by G. A. Williamson. I give it 5 stars, both for the significance of the work of history that it is – and the fact that I actually made it all the way through!

Delta Wedding: A Novel

by Eudora Welty

Published 1946

Kindle, 338 pages

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Nine-year-old Laura McRaven, grieving the recent death of her mother, takes the “Yellow Dog” train up from Jackson to the Mississippi Delta plantation of her mother’s people, the Fairchilds, to attend the wedding of her cousin. I made a note about this book after I finished it: “Nothing happens but there is so much going on.” There is something about good Southern literature that elevates the small lives of ordinary people to high drama. As Welty muses of the characters she has created “It is because people are mostly layers of violence and tenderness – wrapped like bulbs, she thought soberly; I don’t know what makes them onions or hyacinths”. The time period is generations past the Civil War, yet the relationships between the whites and blacks in this book seem oddly suspended in an Antebellum frame of mind and way of life. But at least one character looks beyond life in the Delta, as Shelley writes in her journal: “Why are you thinking your line of trees the indelible thing in the world?” 4 stars

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

by Patrick Radden Keefe

Published 2018

Kindle, 455 pages

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I don’t know much about the author Patrick Radden Keefe beyond the fact that he is Irish and that he writes for The New Yorker magazine. I suspect he has more than a slight sympathy for the revolutionary and is thus the ideal person to write what is the first comprehendible explanation I have ever seen of “The Troubles” that turned Northern Ireland into a war zone for three decades from the late 1960’s through the 1990’s. It was an unrelenting low-level war pitting Catholics against Protestants in a conflict of religion, economic class and nationality that dated back to the 17th century when “Protestant emigrants from Scotland and the North of England filtered into Ireland and established a plantation system in which the Gaelic-speaking natives became tenants and vassals on land that had previously been their own”. Doulors Price, Brendan Hughes and Gerry Adams are among the IRA figures viewed, depending on point of view, as terrorists or heroes. It’s easy to see why this lucidly written book was long-listed for the National Book Award for Non Fiction. Keefe takes an extremely serpentine and complicated period of history and sorts it out brilliantly. 4 stars.

The Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Published 1966 (censored)

Audiobook, 384 pages (16 hours 52 minutes) read by Julian Rhind-Tutt

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“Cowardice is the greatest sin” says the brave author in this book, which was considered so dangerous in its allusions to life under Communist rule in Russia that it could not be published in full until 1973, although it was written between 1928 and 1940. It is brilliant and more than a little fantastic, with characters like Behemoth, a demonic cat and Satan himself slumming in Moscow. (In fact, this book was the inspiration for The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”.) There is a book within the book that brings the character of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Christ so vividly to life that they seem to be occurring in the present rather than the past. I know, it sounds complicated – because it is. But it’s right up there with the greats of Russian literature and an important read, especially in a culture where political differences currently get books banned and people canceled. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”

Song of Solomon

by Toni Morrison

Published 1977

Audiobook, 384 pages (15 hours 28 minutes), narrated by the author

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Well, better late than never, right? This was a book perpetually on my “to-read” list. Now it is on my “to re-read” list because I wanted to start right over again at the beginning as soon as I finished it. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece of literature. Of black literature, of course, but truly also of American literature. It is too good to be pigeonholed. “Milkman” is a young black man living in Pennsylvania whose life is shaped, for better and for worse by his ambitious father Macon, his mystical aunt Pilate and his vengeful former friend, Guitar. The story is beautifully crafted and deeply felt. I loved this book. 5 stars

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

Published 1850

Hardcover (Penguin clothbound classic) 882 pages

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I’m on a Dickens of a mission: trying to read one of his books each year. I started with Great Expectations, then on to Bleak House – both fabulous, by the way – and this was next in line. David Copperfield is said to have been Dickens’ favorite of all his works and it is unquestionably the most autobiographical. Young David must find his own way in the world much as did young Charles Dickens. The character Mr. Micawber languishes in debtor’s prison as did Charles Dickens’ own father. Many of the locales are places where Dickens lived and worked. As always, the characters are masterfully developed and this book is worth reading just to meet the inimitable Aunt Betsy and the despicable Uriah Heap. It is an absolute classic. 5 and a half stars!

Arctic Dreams

by Barry Lopez

Published 1986

Paperback, 415 pages

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A book to be read slowly and savored, one page at a time and then to grieve when you have come to the last page and there is no more. It won the 1986 National Book Award and while it is actually listed in the genre of “travel” it is about so very much more. Natural history, human history, geography, art, science, exploration and the cold, cold Arctic. Lopez writes from remote locations in the furthest reaches of Alaska and Canada and Greenland. I learned words like quviannikumut which is an Eskimo term for “to feel deeply happy” and which is exactly how I felt while I was reading this magnificent book. How he loves the land: “I wish the order of my life to be arranged in the same way I find the light, the slight movement of the wind, the voice of a bird, the heading of a seed pod I see before me. This impeccable and indisputable integrity I want in myself.” 5 and a half stars and how I wish I could read this book again for the first time!

I hope at least one of these recommendations makes it to your bookshelf. Happy reading in 2021!

“I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts – the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.”

-Penelope Lively, Dancing Fish and Ammonites

Posted in Books and Reading, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

2020 Reading Re-Cap: The Realm of the Real

It’s hard to know what to call non-fiction anymore, given that everything seems to be written with a slant in some direction. Maybe that’s why it’s just easier for me to reach for a novel. But ultimately, the “real” world is just too interesting to resist – here are the rest of my non-fiction reads for the year:

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West

by David McCullough

Published 2019

Kindle, 353 pages

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One could grouse that this is a long telling of a small piece of American history (which I initially did) but one would ultimately come to realize (as I did) that the real story is about more than the settling of the Northwest Territory and what became the state of Ohio. It’s about two of the linchpins of the “American Ideal”: freedom of religion and a push for quality public education. In 19th century Ohio: “The curriculum consisted of reading, spelling, writing and arithmetic, and in some districts a rule prohibited the teaching of anything more.” There was a third linchpin that, one could argue, essentially assured the outcome of the Civil War: the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787 – which specifically excluded slavery. Because it’s McCullough, the book is well-organized and readable. Recommended. 4 stars

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge

by David McCullough

Published 1972

Hardcover, 608 pages

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I began 2020 with McCullough’s Pioneers and closed it out with his The Great Bridge. Any year that is bookended by two McCullough reads is a good year! The Brooklyn Bridge was a colossal undertaking, begun in 1869 and completed in 1883, at which point many viewed it as the eighth wonder of the world. It had an immense, and grave, impact on the the father and son -John and Washington Roebling – who conceived, designed and executed a masterful architectural triumph in an era before the telephone and electric light had been introduced. Yes, I learned more than I ever really want to know about wire cable, and the political machinations of the time (the utter and complete corruption of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were all too reminiscent of current events), but it was still a great read. Recommended. 4 stars

Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War

by Samuel W. Mitcham

Published 2018

Kindle, 418 pages

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Way back at the beginning of 2020, in a pre-pandemic world, the CE and I made plans for a trip to the South which would include a day at Vicksbug, Mississipi. Of course that and every other trip was canceled, but at least I had plenty of time to read this book.

Given that it was conducted as a siege, the conquest of Vicksburg was different from any other Civil War action. The hardships of civilians driven to sheltering in caves and reduced to eating mule meat and rats while fending off lice and swarms of mosquitos is a sobering reminder of the abject misery endured in the war. The author, who makes no effort to conceal his sympathies, is strenuously protective of Confederate General John Clifford Pemberton, who was from Pennsylvania but chose to fight for the South out of loyalty to his Virginia-born wife. General Robert E. Lee and General Joseph E. Johnston come under the author’s scathing criticism for prioritization of Pennsylvania over Mississippi. He quotes historian J. F. C. Fuller who wrote “It is not too much to say that had Grant been decisively defeated (at Champion Hill [Vicksburg Campaign] the South would have won the war.” Ironically, the South’s surrender at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg occurred on the same day – July 4, 1863. I wouldn’t call this an objective read, but it was an interesting one. 3.5 stars

The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America during World War II

by Mary Jo McConahay

Published 2018

Kindle, 319 pages

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This was a somewhat complicated, but thorough read, of how sympathies and aspirations in Mexico, central and South America contributed to the geopolitical intricacies of World War II. The author states: “What I discovered was that a shadow war for the Western Hemisphere reverberated in every country and that Latin America influenced the global war.” Germany had established an agricultural presence in South America in the 1850’s, which strengthened after WWI, and achieved a powerful head start on the second World War thanks to their access to Mexican oil. Oil and the rubber tapped in Amazon rain forests, were the coveted resources from which war was waged, and the Allies invested heavily in spy craft to court influence in the Latin American countries rich in those treasures. The OSS and the CIA come under the author’s express scrutiny for their meddling in Latin American politics, but she departs from an otherwise objective tone to express unabashed enthusiasm for Salvador Allende’s Marxist reign of Chile. 3 stars

Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

Published 1946, updated 1979

Paperback, 214 pages

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It’s never too late to learn, right? And after following some of the big names of fintwit for the past few years, there seemed to be a consensus that this is a “classic” read for the novice. At the end of each chapter, I would reflect and think to myself, “well yeah, isn’t that basically just common sense?” And I think it is, but the principles – and principals – of today’s economics have taken a very different direction. Hazlitt’s overriding directive is that “the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Hazlitt is pro-free market, anti-Keynesian, anti-printing money, anti-tax, anti-minimum wage, anti-rent control and anti-government price fixing. Bottom line – lucky for him he isn’t here to see what’s going on today. My favorite line from the book: “When Alexander the Great visited the philosopher Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes is said to have replied: ‘Yes, stand a little less between me and the sun.’ It is what every citizen is entitled to ask of his government. 4 stars

American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland

by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Kindle, 416 pages

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I don’t even know if I can say I liked this book, but it has stayed with me for the months since I read it and I ponder it often. The author is a self-admitted atheist and proud “coastal elite” whose ease with those labels is troubled only by an atavistic tie to land in Nebraska where her family has farmed wheat for more than a century. We’re not talking a field or two – we are talking about corporate farming and big money.

As a journalist by trade, she undoubtedly saw the allure of a story where she tags along with the crew that has long traveled from Lancaster, PA to harvest her family’s crop. Eric Wolgemuth is the evangelical Christian descended from Anabaptists who heads up the crew of harvesters, which includes his wife, son and other relatives. The book is about the land, about farming and, pointedly, about religion. The author, bereft of familiarity with the tenets of Christianity, says she would “feel suspicious of any God who would kill off his only son for me.” Eric, on the other hand, is stoically tolerant of every sling and arrow she aims at his beliefs. He doesn’t react to Mockett’s barbs or her gleeful prying into his son Juston’s rebellion against his father’s Evangelical faith.

Mockett accompanies them to a “cowboy church’ in Texas, a megachurch in Oklahoma City and a home worship service in Nebraska, writing more or less like an anthropologist observing the rituals of a primitive tribe, which of course, is what she assumes them to be. “I am a modern person”, she says, “and can’t know the real God, because he doesn’t have a place in my world of information and human-controlled experiences.” The jumble of belief systems against the backdrop of America’s wheat belt makes for a provocative read. 3.5 stars

Next week: my Top 10 for 2020

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: More Purely Fiction

Many’s the time I’ve been admonished that reading fiction is an indulgence, a waste of time. I see the point. But there’s the rub, I might say (and keep in mind whom I quote). You miss some things along the way if you overlook literature, as MSNBC talking head Andrea Mitchell learned this week.

Mitchell went after Texas Senator Ted Cruz for attributing a quote to Shakespeare and mocked him for all to see on Twitter.  Cruz had cited Shakespeare in referring to impeachment trial: the sequel as being “full of sound and fury, and yet signifying nothing,”​ “No. That’s Faulkner”, said Mitchell, and legions of blue checkmarks instantly rose up in her support.

But, um, they were wrong. She was wrong. Apparently Ted Cruz got a better education at Princeton than she did at U Penn. The title of Faulkner’s magnum opus, The Sound and the Fury, is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And while I knew from whence the quote came, I was reminded that I have never actually read Macbeth, so I’m queueing it up as a 2021 read. Maybe Andrea would like to read it with me.

So, hopefully, a bit more respect for fiction going forward. Here are ten more of my 2020 reads in that category:

The Hamlet

by William Faulkner

Published 1940

Kindle, 432 pages

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Ah, yes, the great William Faulkner. this was my sole read from him last year. I set out to read the entire Snopes trilogy at the urging of the CE, who has read and re-read everything Faulkner has written. By the time I finished the first in the series, I needed a break. The Snopes family is as prolific as it is detestable and I had to come up for air. It’s bad enough that the sultry Eula Varner ends up marrying Flem Snopes but then there’s Ike Snopes, who falls in love with a cow and the grubbing Armstid who digs and digs and digs in the night for riches he will never find. I will go on to The Town and The Mansion in due time because once you’ve discovered Faulkner, you can’t stay away from Yoknapatawpha County for long. 5 stars, because, you know, Faulkner.

The Weight of Ink

by Rachel Kadish

Published 2017

Audiobook, 592 pages (23 hours 19 minutes) read by Carrie James

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I kept seeing recommendations for this book and dragged my feet a bit. Was I really up for 592 pages of Jewish history? For the first 100 pages, the answer was nope, nope, nope. The prim history professor, Helen Watt, on whom the story turns, is dull and drab and woeful. But ever so gradually I was drawn into a tale that encompassed the Inquisition and subsequent dispersal of Sephardic Jews to Amsterdam and then to seventeenth century London. The story is fascinating, and in the end, so is Helen Watt. Highly recommended. 4 stars.

American Dirt

by Jeanine Cummins

Published 2020

Audiobook, 400 pages (16 hours 43 minutes) read by Yareli Arizmendi

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Here’s a book that came un-recommended. There was quite a kerfuffle when it was published – accusations of cultural appropriation because the author, lacking Hispanic heritage, was seen as unworthy. I shrugged at that, but tend to steer clear of the latest shiny thing in fiction. So I groaned inwardly when it was chosen for a book club read. Long story short, middle-class Lydia and her young son, Luca, are not your typical refugees but they end up in the crosshairs of a drug cartel and must flee Mexico via La Bestia, the perilous train route taken by the most desperate immigrants. And, long story short – I ended up liking it! Yes, the reader is required to accept Lydia’s unlikely acquaintance with a drug lord and the almost preternatural precocity of son, Luca, which not every reader will. But I found it to be a page-turner. Recommended. 3.5 stars.

What Maisie Knew

by Henry James

Published 1897

Audiobook, 352 pages (11 hours 10 minutes) read by Juliet Stevenson

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This is a remarkably contemporary story given that Henry James was just a breath away from being a Victorian. The insufferable and supercilious Ida and Beale Farange divorce and Maisie is “the little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them”. A classic cautionary Jamesian tale told with his usual barbs for all the foolish adults but with genuine empathy for young Maisie. 3.5 stars

City of Thieves

by David Benioff

Published 2008

Audiobook, 258 pages (8 hours 28 minutes) narrated by Ron Perlman

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This was a re-read and I loved it just as much the second time around. Except for the odd moment of horror. When I recommended it to my very proper friends as a book club read, I remembered it for the historical setting -siege of Leningrad during World War II – and for the buddy story between the male characters and for the laugh out loud humor. But I completely forgot about the incessant talk about sex, sex, sex and the incessant cursing and, um, well, that little passage about cannibalism. Thank goodness my friends are good sports and forgave me. Some of them even liked it. Fabulous, page-turning story by the co-creator of the Game of Thrones series and Perlman’s narration is superb. 4 stars

We Were the Lucky Ones

by Georgia Hunter

Published 2017

Audiobook, 418 pages (15 hours 36 minutes) read by Kathleen Gati and Robert Fass

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Georgia Hunter does a more than creditable job weaving the story of her family’s harrowing experiences as Polish Jews during World War II. It brought to mind for me Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge in which she fictionalized the World War II experience of her Hungarian Jewish grandfather. Orringer’s book is more literary, but Hunter’s, while perhaps more simply told, is apt and powerful in its own way. Each member of the Kurc family experience the war differently but all are called upon to exhibit tremendous courage in the face of Nazis, who annihilated 90% of Poland’s three million Jews. 3.5 stars

The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

by Lisa See

Published 2019

Kindle, 384 pages

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I had never before heard of Jeju Island or of the haenyeo, the matriarchal “sea women” who dive to depths of up to twenty meters with no oxygen supply to catch seafood, collect seaweed and find pearls. The characters are fictional but the history is real, punctuated by the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War and the post-war unrest with an American occupation determined to quash a nascent Communist movement in South Korea. It’s a place and a period of history that was a complete blank for me. Worth the read. 3 stars

Dear Ann: A Novel

by Bobbie Ann Mason

Published 2020

Audiobook, 352 pages (8 hours 20 minutes), read by Janet Metzger

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This was a quirky read, sort of a literary love letter to the 60’s. Academia, The Beatles and the Vietnam War, told against a Kentuckian backdrop and seen in the rear view mirror by a woman considering her present and past grief. I liked it. Quote: “You could slow down a day; make it timeless. Each moment is only now; the only now.” Bobbie Ann Mason is a very, very accomplished writer. 3.5 stars

What Are You Going Through: A Novel

by Sigrid Nuñez

Published 2020

Audiobook, 224 pages (5 hours 36 minutes) narrated by Hillary Huber

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Sigrid Nuñez can do no wrong as a writer. That said, I didn’t love this book quite as much as The Friend, her 2018 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. The tone here is similar, unflinching in the face of every disappointment life can throw at you, including the final one, which is death. She explores the ultimate act of friendship, agreeing to serve as a witness for another woman who prepares to take her life in her last days with terminal cancer. The title is taken from a quote by Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through’?” I’ll read anything Nuñez writes. 4 stars

The Heart’s Invisible Furies

by John Boyne

Published 2017

Audiobook, 592 pages (21 hours 10 minutes), read by Stephen Hogan

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This is meant to be a sweeping epic of a novel. Its very close focus on the gay experience in 20th century Ireland limits the sweep a bit and while Boyne is a very gifted writer (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), his primal scream of all the considerable damage done by the hypocrisy of church and state could perhaps have stood just a bit more editing. His memorably drawn characters have a somewhat fantastic knack for showing up at exact places and times in history to play a part, sometimes tragically, in its unfolding, to wit, the 1966 IRA bombing of Dublin’s Pillar of Lord Nelson and the 1980’s AIDS crisis in New York City. Running gags about the unsuitability of protagonist Cyril’s adoptive parents ran just a bit thin for me but then. Boyne would probably say that if you don’t laugh you would have to cry at the challenges a gay man faced in those times. 3 stars

Next week: nonfiction only!

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