Birds of a feather.

Just when I was thinking that I might not have the best husband in the world.

(Background: he is balking at recovering some twenty-year-old furniture. Some chairs that are tattered to ribbons. Shredded from age and shedding their nether parts every time they are touched.  Sofa pillows so stained from some unidentifiable substance – animal? vegetable? mineral? that we should probably call in a hazmat team. Yet he is immovable: “They’ll just get faded again anyway”/ “the cats will scratch them just like they did the last ones”/”no one ever sits there anyway”)

So, I stomped my feet and stalked off to calm down (the alternative was to seize any blunt object in the room and do bloody battle and then we’d have some real stains on the furniture). I was in my office, sulking, thinking he might not be perfect after all (a shock, truly, after thirty-six years) and then he comes roaring in, calling my name. I am hopeful! A change of heart? New chairs on the horizon?

No. He was distraught, and not about furniture. It had been one of our less favorite signs of spring. A huge thump against the window, a bird slamming into the glass with such force that you could feel the vibration. Sometimes it is a hawk, occasionally a songbird; this time it was one of the acorn woodpeckers that carouse in our palm trees. Spring invariably renders the neighborhood birds temporarily insane and a few of them pay heavy consequences. Each year the rites of spring sadly include a few losses – a nest perched too precariously or too accessible to predators; a sparrow too curious about the inside of the chicken coop and can’t find its way out, and on this day, a woodpecker that crashes into our window at mach speed.

We rushed out to the bushes below the window and there he lay, completely still. “Is he dead?” I asked. “No, you can see his eye is blinking”.  So beautiful close up, the crimson head, the obsidian beak.IMG_3858.jpg

And then I watched my husband, who five minutes before had NOT been my favorite person in the world, gently cradle the fallen bird and fashion a little nest of safety for him to lay in in the bushes, in the faint hope that he might just be stunned. He stood over the bird, fretting earnestly over its prospects. And I was dangerously close to forgiving him for the furniture debacle.

An hour later, we went back outside to check on the little guy. We approached the bushes with a sense of dread. We could see that he had not moved. My implacable, unrelenting, stubborn, furniture-allergic husband bent gently over the bird and in that moment, two things happened: first, my grudge against him dissolved. Who could stay angry at a man who cares so tenderly for a fallen creature? And secondly, just as he reached again for the woodpecker, it started suddenly, jerked its head and in an instant, flapped its wings and flew to the top of a nearby palm tree.

We shared a moment of giddy joy. We felt ridiculously triumphant over a tiny event in nature at which we were no more than bystanders. But a bird flew, and our spirits soared. Crisis averted. Marriage saved.

If this was fiction, my husband would then have looked at me and said “Let’s go buy some new furniture.” Regrettably, that’s not what happened. But we did go out to lunch. Two old people, like two shabby old chairs – faded and worn and tattered but somehow, apparently,  just not replaceable.

Happy spring!

img_3857

 

Posted in Absurdity, All Things Poultry | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Buckets and buckets and buckets!

Just when it seems your prayers are never heard, the skies just open up and the benisons pour out. Yesterday it was a torrent, a deluge of blessings to soothe our long California drought.

It rained. Oh how it rained! According to our rain gauge, almost five inches of precious water showered down upon us. It was a day of sandbags and drains and puddle-splashing.

img_3744

It was also a day of house arrest. We tried to leave twice, only to be turned back by impassable roads. In some places puddles had turned into rivers; in others, felled trees blocked the roads.

img_3748

At first we felt trapped. The lights flickered and the power went out, but only briefly – just long enough to consternate all the electronics and give the CE another project in addition to his role as plenipotentiary of sandbags and drains.

img_3746

But as the long, sodden day unspooled, we began to grasp the wisdom of the Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward.” A mid-afternoon fire glowed in the fireplace, a signal to the cats to come lounge beside us and purr while we sat and read. And read and read…

The rain lessened just long enough for us to take the dogs on a soggy walk, so even they were content. Everyone was happy. Except for the chickens, whose feathers and spirits were ruffled by the wind-whipped storm. You’ve heard the saying “mad as a wet hen?”

img_3741

Grilled cheese for dinner. Early to bed. And then, this morning, I rose in the dark and took the dogs outside where it was not raining. The moon was veiled in clouds but still, some stars shown through. I could hear the pounding surf a half mile away, and a chorus of frogs sang their matins from somewhere under the tree ferns. We are cautioned that the drought is not over, but this storm counted for many, many drops in the bucket. And, at least for today, everything is so green!

img_3738

 

Posted in Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, Spoiled Pets | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Finale.

That sound? Sometimes it ticks and tocks, sometimes it whooshes. It was another year, flown by, and me no closer to my goal of reading EVERYTHING. I am as guilty as anyone of reading fluff, ephemera, and the National Enquirer that my husband faithfully brings home from the grocery. But in my (highly delusional) mind’s eye, I am on a quest to read All The Important Stuff. The grim reality: if I continue at my pace of reading one Shakespeare play a year, I am on par to finish around my 98th birthday. We’ll see.

I squeezed in just over 70 books in 2016; an average of just under 6 each month. I was reaching up to pat myself on the back for this when the CE mumbled a little humblebrag: “Oh, seventy-one? That’s nice. I read a hundred and ten.”

A HUNDRED AND TEN?

Sigh. Maybe I’ll do better this year. Maybe I’ll spend less time scrolling through my Twitter feed and playing Words With Friends. And maybe pigs will fly.

Anyway, here are my reads for the waning months of 2016:

NOVEMBER

The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Tea Obreht. Kindle. 352 pages, published 2011. (National Book Award Finalist for Fiction) Sometimes there is such a flurry of buzz around a book that I download it to read later. In this case several years later. It sat gathering dust in my Kindle library, and even once I started it, it failed to grab me for a hundred pages or so. But it was worth the wait – this is a haunting and beautiful story. The essence of the novel can be gleaned from the author’s personal history. Born in then-Yugoslavia, the Serbian-American Obreht was raised by a single mother and was very close to her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a Roman Catholic; her grandmother was a Muslim and this gives the very talented Obreht a singular perspective for her novel, which is set against the backdrop of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s. Yes, there is an actual tiger. It takes awhile to tease out all the threads of this novel, part fable, part magic realism, part family history, but in the end, highly recommended.

Image from The New Yorker review, which is inestimably better than mine:

090608_r18543_p646-1115x1200-1459193252

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Audiobook, narrated by Peter Francis James. 181 pages, published 1958. On many “must read” lists, this novel set in an unnamed country that is  almost certainly the author’s native Nigeria. The proud Okonkwo must grapple with the shift from pre to post-colonial life and, indeed, things do fall apart. This book is considered the preeminent novel in African literature and is a staple of African Studies courses around the world. The audio version is magnificently narrated but maybe I should have read it in book form; I never truly sank into this story. Neutral on recommending it.

thingsfallapart-jpg-crop-article250-medium

The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. Kindle. 353 pages, published 1982. Everyone has their genre, and a book club friend’s is British crime fiction. Set in the 1920’s this murder mystery features Charlie Chaplin, the Lusitania, a cast of broadly drawn characters and various plot twists. Not my cup of English Breakfast so I cannot recommend.

DECEMBER

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Audiobook, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith. 480 pages, published 2016. I logged many extra miles of walking just so I could keep listening to this wonderfully entertaining and poignant book. Towles, who is also the author of the excellent Rules of Civility: A Novel, covers thirty-some tempestuous years of Russian history from an attic room in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The story begins in 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov,  whose family’s fortune was lost in the Russian Revolution, narrowly escapes a death sentence for his crime of being an aristocrat and is placed under house arrest. His charm, impeccable manners and deep friendships carry him through the ensuing decades. A joy to read. Highly recommended.

unknown

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Kindle. 353 pages, published 2014. A wry take on a  Swedish widower and curmudgeon bent on committing suicide. Everyone loves this book, except me. Yes, the writing is clever, maybe too clever. There is one excellent chapter about a cat that survives a snowdrift, but otherwise, meh. Not recommended.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Audiobook, narrated by Rich Orlow. 497 pages, published 2013. Set during a single summer in a small town in Southwestern Minnesota, this is a gently told story woven around themes of family and faith and fragility. And death. Recommended.

prologue-to-ordinary-grace

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Kindle. 880 pages, published 1991. I had a hate/love relationship with this book. Three hundred pages in, I thought of abandoning it. Four hundred pages in, I realized that Helprin is a genius and that I should probably start re-reading the book as soon as I finish it. I haven’t, but I will, because it is that good. Set in Italy, 1964, the elderly Alessandro Giuliani sifts through the events of his life, many of which center on his experience as a soldier in World War I. His assignments to the River Guard on the Isonzo and later to the mountains between Italy and Austria could not be more different in their setting or more alike in their futility. These are contrasted with an idyllic boyhood in his beloved Rome, the “city itself… like a family, like girlfriends, lovers, children. I can’t tell you exactly why, but it unfolds before you with the grace of water streaming from a fountain. I think that of Rome because for so many years I was either a child, a lover, a father, or a friend, in Rome, and it echoes and echoes, and I’ll hear it until I die.” Very highly recommended. I developed a great affection for The Tempest, a painting by 16th century Italian master Giorgione, which features prominently in the book:

giorgione-675554

They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince, and that goes for reading, too. Many of the books I read in 2016 were good, a few were terrible, but at the end of the day – or year – here, in order, are my Top Ten:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Just Kids by Patti Smith

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson

 

fullsizerender

 

 

Posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Part 5

Nothing good can come from trying to read in a car. And I have the queasy memories to prove it. Among them, “I’m hot, Mom”, moaned my then seven-year-old son, who had surreptitiously hauled a stack of books into the back seat on a drive to LA. I was distracted, trying to navigate a freeway exit.”How can you be hot? It’s raining. It’s cold.”

“I’m hot, Mom,” he whimpered. And then I realized it had nothing to do with hot and everything to do with carsickness. “Roll down your window!!!” I yelled. Too late. Nope. Can’t read in the car.

We spent most of September on the road, and I spent most of that time with my eyes on the horizon, looking neither right nor left lest the familial curse of carsickness strike, even  during our drive through the bucolic Texas Hill Country:

img_0377

Thus, I read only two measly books that month. But one of them was The Alamo, and we were in Texas, so that almost made up for the dearth of reading opportunities. It is one thing to visit The Alamo; it is another to stand before it knowing some of the historical background. “As it happened, Spain and France had never got around to settling just here Texas left off and Louisiana began.” And knowing just how fiercely General Antonio López de Santa Anna intended to exploit the general sense of confusion around the boundaries and status of this wild west place called Texas. And knowing how Tennessean Davy Crockett had lost his Congressional seat and said defiantly, “You can go to hell, and I will go to Texas”, which placed him with Jim Bowie (yes, that Bowie) and Colonel William (“line in the sand”) Travis at The Alamo, where their bravery and sacrifice breathed life into the flailing Texas Revolution. Today, they are depicted on a stirring monument that stands in front of The Alamo:

img_0447

“Remember the Alamo” was the war cry that preceded Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto a few weeks later and heralded the beginning of The Texas Republic.

img_0503

Here are the paltry reads for September and October:

SEPTEMBER

The Alamo by John Myers Myers. Kindle. 244 pages, published 1948. The tone is folksy; you can almost hear a Texas drawl. It may not be the best book on The Alamo, and it doesn’t make Phil Collins’ (yes, that Phil Collins!) list of Top Five Alamo Reads but it was an apt place to start. Recommended.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin. Kindle. 384 pages, published 2016. A different sort of revolution. It was a macabre kind of circus and with Toobin as ringmaster, you can finally make some sense of what went down with Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose run struck me as a sort of Black Muslim-fueled joyride by misdirected disaffected young people with guns. Their ideology seemed based on nothing but narcissism and the adrenaline rush of revolution, which pings disturbingly of current circumstances. My book club was divided as to whether Patty Hearst was a sympathetic victim or a lying, manipulative brat. Judge for yourself. Recommended.

unknown-5

OCTOBER

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. Kindle. 400 pages, published 2003. A kinder, but not gentler tale than the ones above. Alan Brennert writes historical fiction about Hawaii, and this novel focuses on the struggle and courage of some eight thousand Hawaiians who were confined on Molokai’s leper colony during the first half of the twentieth century. The story follows the main character’s near lifetime of sequestration until antibiotic treatment became readily available in the 1950’s. The book is well researched, but the prose is not sophisticated. I learned a lot but I am neutral on recommending it.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Audiobook,  read by Christopher Timothy. 450 pages, published 1972. A truly kind and gentle read. The author, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, collected vignettes of his experience as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England, in a series of books of which this is the first and best known. His calm, compassionate and humorous observations of bovine, equine, canine, porcine and human behavior are sweet but not saccharine.

unknown-6

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund DeWaal. Paperback. 354 pages, published 2010. Fascinating look at nineteenth and twentieth century art and history through the travails of the Ephrussi banking family and a collection of Japanese netsuke that survived, more successfully than the family itself, the savage vicissitudes of World Wars I and II. Highly recommended.

unknown-7

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen. Kindle. 432 pages, published 2016. Intelligent young know-it-all moves from socialist Finland to NYC and gets her nose out of whack because America is not Finland. The tone is strident and more than a touch condescending. Note: the population of Finland is a homogenous (here, by the way, is their strategy on refugees)  5.4 million; the population of the United States is a diverse 320 million or so. The premise of the book is frankly inane, so not recommended.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Kindle. 290 pages, published 2016. Such a pleasure to read this book! Jahren grew up in Minnesota, remembering the blue spruce of her childhood. She teetered between becoming a literature major or a science major, and lucky for us excels at both passions. This book is a wise and gorgeous memoir of her career as a paleobotanist. She interweaves stories of the survival of plants “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet” with her own survival as a female scientist doing “curiosity-driven research” in the desert of academia. Highly recommended.

unknown-8

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Audiobook, narrated by Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, and Richard Ferrone. 326 pages, published 2005. Well, this was just a disappointment. The author’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, is one of my favorite reads ever, but my tag for this post-9/11 novel has to be “not his best work”.  The premise is compelling: a nine-year-old boy loses his father in the attack on the World Trade Center and tries to find meaning in it, just as his grandparents also continue to sift through their memories of the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Despite the precocity of the protagonist, or maybe because of it, for me this novel did not illuminate. It was roundly hailed by the critics, just not by this one. Not recommended.

unknown-6

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. Kindle. 160 pages, published 2010. A brief and brilliant read. Like a meteor sailing through the sky, it is there and then gone, but the memory remains brightly lit. I avoid McCarthy in general because of the violence and cruelty – fine if people want to kill each other but couldn’t he leave the animals out of it? But this play is completely different from his other work. An unnamed black and white man debate the meaning and value of life and their differing opinions regarding the existence of God. Pithy and profound and you could almost read it in one sitting so there is no excuse not to. Highly, highly recommended. Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson starred in the film:

unknown-2

 

I covered more miles than pages in September and October. Texas, Virginia, Michigan, Chicago, back to California, then to New York and back to California again. I love being on the road, but have to admit it was nice to get back to my favorite reading spot: fluffy pillows, fire in the fireplace; purring cat in the crook of my elbow, golden retriever at my feet. Beats being car-sick any day!

Dodger says we need to wrap this up – just one more post to come for November and December reads…

reclining-dodger

 

 

 

Posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Part 4

July was a challenging month for reading. Not the least because the languorous summer days hold so many other temptations. It was also because I had decided to read that brick, that tome, that substitute-for-a-doorstop that is entitled Vanity Fair. And no, I am not talking Condé Nast, I am talking Thackeray. It was a beast, but I got through it. Ever. So. Slowly.

It was a Penguin that saved me. I read most of my books via Kindle App or Audible, but my heart beats wildly for Penguin clothbound classics and I swear it was only the sweet powder-blue cover and satin ribbon bookmark that persuaded me to stay with the saga of the invidious (but unforgettable!) Becky Sharp. Oh Penguin, how I love you…that block on the far right is Thackeray’s opus, also known as the summer of my discontent:

img_3394

Here are my reads for July and August:

 

JULY

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. Audiobook, narrated by Anna Massey. 416 pages, published 1938. I read this eons ago, but as it kept popping up on “the best of” lists, I decided to give it another go, this time via Audible. I think its meticulous construction may be what has endeared this novel to the heart of so many readers over the decades. Entertaining if not edifying. Recommended.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Hardcover. 809 pages, published 1848. I made a note at page 600, saying “I am finally starting to care about what happens to these people.” So it was a long haul. The irredeemable Becky Sharp is a timeless character and Thackeray’s social satire equally so, but so arcane are the customs and quirks and manners of early nineteenth century England that it required more study than I was willing to give it. Would have thrown it across the room if it wasn’t so heavy and might have injured a slumbering cat. Still, recommended. What can I say – it’s a classic.

The Night Manager by John LeCarre. Audiobook, narrated by David Case. Published 1993. There was so much buzz about my bae Hugh Laurie’s turn as Richard Roper, “the worst man in the world” that I wanted to read the book before I indulged myself in the miniseries. Le Carre is great at riddles wrapped in enigmas and this lifts his work above others in the spy fiction genre. Recommended.

unknown-1

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Kindle. 240 pages, published 2015. This is a puff piece paean to the crusty Supreme Court Justice. A glib but interesting read. It might surprise you to learn that she and Antonin Scalia were dear friends and opera buddies. The Kindle version does not include the clever graphics of the hardcover version.

unknown-3

The Voyage of the Narwhal: A Novel by Andrea Barrett. Kindle. 400 pages, published 1999. I have no idea where I came across this tale of a failed polar expedition. It is carefully researched and shadows the actual voyage of Sir John Franklin’s quest in 1845 to find a northwest passage. Not a fast read, but an engrossing one. The Narwhal sails from mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia to Greenland, where the ship and its crew are locked in for a winter by ice and immediate survival depends on eating larvae from caribou skins. The genius of the author is her uncanny ability to make the reader a fellow traveler. I read this in July but felt the polar chill of every page. Concurrent with the adventure is the telling of the expedition leader’s megalomaniacal quest for fame and fortune and the ways in which it plays havoc with the lives of those around him long after the survivors return from their journey. Recommended.

narwhal-sun

 

AUGUST

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Kindle. 336 pages, published 1927. The brilliant Willa Cather wrote this novel set in her beloved Southwest, based loosely on the life of missionary Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who traveled in 1850 to establish a Roman Catholic diocese in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is not my favorite of Cather’s exquisite novels, but it does include one of my favorite quotes: “Where there is great love there are always miracles”. As always, Cather explores the deep connection of the people to the land. In her prose, Shiprock and the Sandra mountains take on the sanctity of cathedrals. Highly recommended.

attachment

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. Audiobook, read by Marisol Ramirez and Thom Rivera. 496 pages, published 1982. I wanted to love this book. I didn’t. Purportedly autobiographical, it is the generational story, infused with magic realism, of a family caught up in the cultural and political upheavals of an unnamed country that is almost certainly Allende’s native Chile. Critically acclaimed by pretty much everyone who can read, so who am I not to recommend it?

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. Kindle. 354 pages, published 1993. This was a re-read and although I was slightly less enchanted with it the second time around, Proulx’s characterization of the downtrodden Quoyle (so brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey in the film) and the bleak landscape of Newfoundland are ample reasons why this book was so well-deserving of the 1993 National Book Award and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is a story of brokenness that rings so true that the reader is astonished to find that hope also resides within. Highly recommended.

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan. Advance PDF copy. 264 pages, published 2016. I follow @andrewklavan on Twitter and signed up to receive an advance copy of this courageous memoir, which I reviewed but which I think I am going to read again because I find myself thinking about this book so often. The title pretty much says it all, but Klavan’s generosity in sharing personal experiences as well as thoughts about faith crafts a relatable read .  He is a gifted writer and a grounded, pragmatic thinker, which makes his conversion of faith all the more compelling. Recommended.

unknown

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Audiobook, narrated by the author. 320 pages, published 2010. Listening to Patti Smith narrate her National Book Award-winning memoir was a, if not the, highlight of my summer. The fact that I listened to much of it while on foot in New York City was a joyous bonus. Smith’s unflinching account of life and art in late ’60’s, early 70’s Manhattan is a loving remembrance of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, told against the backdrop of the Chelsea Hotel. Everything you expect is there – Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, drugs, sex and rock and roll, but there’s more: Rimbaud, Genet and Smith’s direct but gently luminous style. Highly, highly recommended.

2d946c9a

And just like that, summer came to an end. Those long summer days wound down and fall began to stingily steal light from the sky. All the better for reading, I suppose.  I bid a reluctant farewell to Patti Smith but I cannot tell a lie – it was a relief to heft Becky Sharp and Thackeray back onto its shelf! You’re free to borrow it – indefinitely – if you’d like.

Onward to fall…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Shelf Life: 2016 Reading Retrospective, Part 3

It was the fall of 1986 and we had driven from Paris to Dijon. I can’t imagine it now – no Google Maps, no TripAdvisor, no knowledge of the French language and no hotel or dining reservations. We were armed with nothing but wanderlust and enthusiasm and relative youth and that was apparently enough to move even a steely French innkeeper to take pity on us. He directed us to an unassuming-looking restaurant where he promised the finest meal we would ever eat. He was absolutely right. Eleven courses later, at least three of which were desserts, we surrendered in awe and gratitude.

images

My May and June reading comprised just such a feast, which is what made me remember that long-ago trip. One after another, the guilty pleasure of each course tasting better than the one before. Books, books and more books. Here is the menu:

MAY

Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Booth Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris. Kindle. 752 pages, published 2014. This is actually the second volume of a very fine biography, the first being Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce. Beautiful, talented,voraciously ambitious and deeply flawed, Luce was an accomplished author, Congresswoman and U.S. Ambassador to Italy. She was also selfishly reckless in her personal relationships, opportunistic, haunted by her humble beginnings and an early dabbler in LSD. You can’t make this stuff up – it’s a terrine composed of history, politics and gossip – a juicy read. Recommended.

unknown

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Audiobook, narrated by the incandescent Ruby Dee. 180 pages, published 1937. If you are only ever going to listen to one audiobook, let it be this one. This book is exquisitely written and magnificently performed by Ms. Dee. It is the tale of Janie, born black and poor in “old” Florida. “Time makes everything old, so the kissing young darkness became a monstropolis old thing while Janie talked. Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf…dawn and doom was in the branches.”One of my favorite books of this or any year. Highly, ever so highly, recommended.

unknown-1

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell. 258 pages, published 2013. Oops – one bad apple in the reading feast. There was so much buzz about this collection of short stories by the author of Swamplandia! but it just didn’t work for me and I resented what seemed like an effort to compensate for undeveloped characters by adding a large helping of shock value. The common thread seemed to be mothers who are dead, dying, unemployed, depressed or checked out. Not recommended.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. Kindle. 786 pages, published 2010. A novel and an homage to the author’s Jewish, Hungarian grandfather, whose life and dreams are catastrophically disrupted by the rise of Nazis and World War II.  For me the book started slowly, but staying with it brought great rewards. Recommended.

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives Of Birds and what they Reveal about Being Human by Noah Strycker. Paperback. 263 pages, published 2014. This talented young author set a 2015 worldwide “Big Year” birding record so he knows his stuff. Here he writes breezily about hummingbirds, pigeons, starlings (did you know Mozart kept one as a pet?) turkey vultures (some of the details may be appetite-suppressing), snowy owls (which have been known to take a full-grown feral cat and tried to take a Yorkie still attached to its leash), flamingos (“terrible at keeping commitments, with a chart-topping divorce rate of 99%”)…and, oh yes, chickens! Heartily recommended.

chicken

On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Audiobook, narrated by Will Patton. 308 pages, published 1957. Another hurrah for the audiobook format – Will Patton’s performance of this iconic ode to hipsterism is tender and wondrous. I know, you’ve probably already read it, but have you listened to it? Kerouac and his motley clan, which included Neal Cassady,  Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs, consume drugs and roam the continent. Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Texas, Mexico, and, of course, New York City. Antic and brilliant and holds up over time thanks to Kerouac’s mastery of language. “…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” Highly recommended.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass. Kindle. 126 pages, published 1845. Okay, so this is more of an “eat your vegetables” than a dessert course, but here’s to a balanced diet. Douglass was born into slavery, of a white father and a black mother from whom he was mostly separated. He speaks frankly of the ill-treatment of slaves by harsh masters and of his unflagging efforts to learn to read and write. He eventually escaped to the North, where he became a famed abolitionist and statesman. Worth reading.

unknown-3

Crooked Heart: A Novel by Lissa Evans. Kindle. 293 pages, published 2014. London, 1939-1941 is hardly a setting for an amusing tale, but Evans is a very clever writer and kind, too, as she allows Noel, her young protagonist, and Vera, his unlikely protector, to live happily ever after. An amuse-bouche for your reading menu.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Audiobook, narrated by Simon Prebble. 258 pages, published 1989. Yes, I know you’ve seen the movie, but this book, oh, this book! So masterfully constructed, such an exercise in restraint, yet so deeply felt. Themes of dignity, duty and sacrifice are explored through the choices made by Ishiguro’s “unreliable narrator”, the butler, Mr. Stevens. Deserving winner of the 1989 Booker Prize. So highly recommended I can’t even begin to tell you…please just read it.

unknown-5

JUNE

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. Kindle, 352 pages published 2016. It used to be called “stick-to-it-iveness” but that wouldn’t cut it at a TED talk, which is where Duckworth and her study of “grit” got its buzz. The book was an instant best-seller, and definitely has some nuggets of wisdom, although I guess I would caution that there isn’t really anything new under the sun. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness and a dollop of optimistic self-talk. Recommended if you are inclined toward the latest in the “self-help” genre.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Audiobook, narrated by William Hurt. 251 pages, published 1926. Pamplona. Bull-fighting. Champagne. (You can always count on Hemingway for the drinks menu) Trout-fishing. Bad behavior. Dissipation. Pretty much everything you need for a Hemingway masterpiece. Autobiographical, of course. I wasn’t 100% sold on Hurt’s interpretation; he may have intended world-weary but I heard cynical. Still, highly recommended.

unknown-4

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. Audiobook, narrated by Colin Firth. 210 pages, published 1951. Graham Greene was popping up everywhere I turned last year so I decided to give him a listen. He is often referred to as a “Catholic” author, and faith and religion do play a central part in this book. Greene famously suffered from depression and so, I think, does this story. Love, jealousy and Jacob wrestling with the angel. On the fence as far as recommending this one.

The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman. Kindle. 511 pages, published 1962. Reading this book was a little like downing a large bowl of oatmeal. You know it’s good for you, but it is dense and extremely filling. The first month of World War I is covered in exemplary, and at moments, excruciating, detail. Won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize.  Recommended.

unknown-6

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller. Kindle. 288 pages, published 2011. This was a re-read. I was asked to officiate a wedding, so I had marriage on my mind. Keller does not sugar coat the complexity of the journey: “Marriage is glorious but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet it is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories.” All true!  Keller is the renowned founder and pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC. His how-to for a successful marriage is biblically based: “Start here, Paul says. Do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus, and the rest will follow.” Recommended.

images

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Audiobook, narrated by Jake Gyllenhaal. 176 pages, published 1925. Another re-read, because even though Fitzgerald’s masterpiece doesn’t change, we change, and Tom and Daisy and Nick looked very different to me than when I first met them. Plus, I listened to much of it while I strolled around NYC and that was a big bonus. Jordan Baker: “I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it, overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hand.” Recommended, still and again.

There you have it: fifteen courses and nary a calorie among them. Reading is the most sumptuous of feasts; you can devour page after page, completely guilt-free. Although, truth be told,  I would give anything to find that little restaurant again in Dijon…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Shelf Life: 2016 Reading Retrospective, Part 2

I remember March and April of 2016 for the harsh glare of the California sun. In theory, endless days of sunshine sounds like a good thing, but amid our waning hopes for rain it felt like a dusty curse. Some years we get a “March miracle” storm, but it was not to be, and, caught in the grip of deepening drought, we grieved the loss of fruit trees in our orchard and pitied the sad moon crater that used to be our small neighborhood lake.

Fortunately, there were books, and the glorious coincidence of art intersecting life with one of my favorite reads of the year. An audio re-read of East of Eden during the parched month of April gave me comfort as John Steinbeck’s memories of historic drought in California’s Salinas Valley provided perspective. “…but there were dry years, too, and they put a terror on the valley.”

attachment-jpeg

Steinbeck wrote East of Eden as a gift to his two sons, weaving the Steinbeck family history into his epic about the Trask and Hamilton families.  The book is filled with visual details of the Salinas Valley but was actually written in New York and I listened to the last chapter as I walked across Central Park to the Upper East Side to take a peek at the building on East 72nd Street where Steinbeck lived and sifted through old newspapers from Salinas to fuel his memories of California.

unknown-2

Of course, one cannot always duplicate the setting of a book. My March and April reads were set variously in Paris, Naples, Tunisia and Asteroid 325, but, you know, so many places and so little time and rocket fuel. Here is the list:

MARCH

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter. Kindle. 528 pages, published 2010. The three world leaders were variously related through Queen Victoria and all were more interested in shiny medals and what to wear for dinner than in ruling their respective countries, hence WWI. A bit of a slog, but recommended.

The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Kindle. 323 pages, published 2014. A lighter and more entertaining but well-researched take on history as it unfolded at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The hotel opened in 1898 but most of the action is focused around the years of World War II, when Coco Chanel did or did not collaborate with the Germans and Ernest Hemingway “liberated”the hotel bar.ritz-paris-exterior-windows-large

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Kindle. 260 pages, published 2007. This was a re-read for a book club. Just as breathtakingly beautiful and austere as the first time. Highly recommended.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Audiobook, narrated by Hillary Huber. 331 pages, published 2012. Ferrante, as everyone now knows, is the pen name of translator Anita Raja and her pearl strand of “Neapolitan novels” have been wildly popular. I can’t say I loved this read, the first in the quartet, but its deeply evocative portrait of a complicated friendship in  post-WWII Naples has stayed with me. Recommended, maybe.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kindle. 306 pages, published 1920.  Sometimes I think that Fitzgerald’s work is too frothy or too self-loathing or just plain outdated, but then there are moments of sharp relevance. “Modern life,” began Amory again, “changes no longer century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before — populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic interdependence, racial questions…” Recommended, although The Great Gatsby is still the go-to.

attachment-1-jpeg

 

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. Audiobook, narrated by Dan Stevens. 264 pages, published 1939. My first Agatha Christie and possibly my last because I could not bring myself to care whodunit. Not my cup of tea and thus, not recommended.

Burial Rites: A Novel by Hannah Kent. Kindle. 353 pages, published 2013. Based on a true story of a woman charged with murders in 19th century Iceland. The depiction of the harshness of the landscape was fascinating, the book overall somewhat less so. Neutral on the recommendation. There is an interesting photo essay on the book and its location that might pique your interest.

burial-rites-kornsa

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Audiobook, narrated by Humphrey Bower. 98 pages, published 1943. So embarrassed that I never read this classic, so I decided to listen to it. Big mistake. I think the meaning of the story must be inextricably linked to the illustrations because I thought it was a big dud and can’t recommend it, at least not the audio version.

unknown

APRIL

Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini. Kindle. 225 pages, published 1969. Possibly not the most readable biography of Old Hickory, but I learned a lot. He was a teenaged POW in the Revolutionary War, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, known for the 1829-1837 Bank War, his temper, political incorrectness and being an all-around wild man. I recommend the story, if not the book.

unknown-1

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. Audiobook, narrated by Frances McDormand. 256 pages, published 1938. There are occasional stumbles in my quest to choose “listenable” books and this was one of them. Mildly clever but dated and just not that interesting. Not recommended.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Hardcover. 228 pages, published 2016. Diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in his early 30’s, Dr. Kalanithi used the precious months left to him to pen this heartbreaking memoir. Highly recommended.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Kindle. 288 pages, published 2013. This was a re-read of a book I didn’t like much the first time around, but apparently I am in the minority as it is very popular with book clubs. The mid-19th century social experiment of transporting children from New York City to the Midwest via “orphan trains ” was horrifically fascinating; this particular book less so. Anodyne, but not recommended.

orphan-train

Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd. Kindle. 897 pages, published 1987. I am a sucker for Rutherford’s doorstop-length historical fiction. Sarum is the ancient name for the city of Salisbury, England. The ambitious Rutherfurd begins his story during the Ice Age and takes it all the way up to the twentieth century. Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral figure prominently. Recommended.

salisburycathedral-wyrdlight-eastext

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Audiobook, narrated by Richard Poe. 601 pages, published 1952. A book to be read and savored over and over again. So very highly recommended.

The Tremor of Forgery by Patricia Highsmith. Kindle. 292 pages, published 1969. Graham Greene and Francine Prose loved it. My note at the end was “What the hell was this about?” I was enthralled by the Tunisian setting but very unclear as to what Highsmith was trying to say. The ex-pat characters are uniformly brittle, cynical and unlikable. I guess I’m not smart enough to recommend or not recommend what Green called Highsmith’s “finest novel”.

That does it for the first quarter of 2016. Onward to spring reading…

 

 

 

Posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments