Chillin': NYC in February

Have you heard? It is COLD in NYC!

Sheep Meadow in Central Park under a winter blanket of snow.

Sheep Meadow in Central Park under a winter blanket of snow.


When I’m in California, immersed in drought tactics, sunscreen and poultry antics, I engage in wishful thinking, imagining that when I get to NYC I will be transformed into a sophisticated urban creature who does not have pine shavings hanging from her sleeves. I will blend right in with the other New Yorkers, chatting about the latest theatre reviews over a glass of say, white burgundy, or, perhaps, a simple Cote du Rhone,  in a cozy booth at Balthazar.

Well, scratch that.

For one thing, the sky is falling at Balthazar, or at least a ten foot mirror. Last week, as I was feeling ever so slightly sorry for my uptown self that we were headed to Cafe Luxembourg for dinner instead, I clicked my news app to discover it was the best possible day not to be dining at my favorite downtown NYC bistro. One of the restaurant’s giant mirrors toppled on patrons there, resulting in no serious injuries but possibly making it temporarily ever-so-slightly easier to get a hard-won reservation there.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: one of these toppled onto diners at Balthazar last week. (image from

Mirror, mirror, on the wall: one of these toppled onto diners at Balthazar last week. (image from

For another thing, no one I have encountered here in the past two weeks is discussing anything but THE WEATHER. I’m sure people have many witty and wise observations on other topics, but their jaws are too clenched and their teeth too chattery to chat about anything but the unyielding cold. This month will go down as the coldest February in New York City since 1934.

This was the cheery temp reading one day last week.

This was the cheery temp reading one day last week.

Instead of reading up on theatre reviews, I have recently been researching frostbite and cruising sale racks on a mission to find warmer scarves and gloves.  The good news: depending on temperature and wind chill, you have a good 30 minutes of exposure before you have to worry about frostbite. The bad news: forget about texting in sub-zero wind chill conditions.

On the positive side, I am actually blending in well with the other New Yorkers. We are all of us in our puffer coats, faces covered like bank robbers in scarves and hoods, bracing against the wind with a steely resolve. And talking, all of us, incessantly, relentlessly about the weather. On past visits, including last year’s Polar Vortex, I eyed a thermometer reading of anything below 25 degrees as a reason to stay inside. This trip, we have celebrated any day that registers above 4 degrees as a big win and an excuse to head outside.

The day we left California, it was 80 degrees. When we awoke here the next morning, it was 8 degrees. It took me a few days to develop perspective and a sense of humor, but by this week I saw nothing daunting about walking across the Park in 12-degree weather.

This little guy in Central Park almost jumped the fence in search of a handout.

This little guy in Central Park almost jumped the fence in search of a handout.

There are moments of frustration: trying to navigate the moats that appeared at every Upper West Side crosswalk last weekend was a challenge. But there is a peculiar, frozen magic about the city this month. A pair of ducks gliding comfortably in the heated Milstein Pool at Lincoln Center. A soft, flaky snowfall in Soho. Some of my favorite city memories will have been spun from this trip. But for the sake of the ducks and the squirrels and all those beleaguered New Yorkers, I’m hoping for an early spring!

Why migrate when the pool is heated: ducks at Lincoln Center in February.

Why migrate when the pool is heated: ducks at Lincoln Center in February.

Someone in Soho had a very cool ride home last weekend.

Someone in Soho had a very cool ride home last weekend.

Snowfall in Soho: you can't get this in California.

Snowfall in Soho: you can’t get this in California.

Posted in Annoyances of Life, New York city, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Doggone It.

I have three words for you if you can’t think of a good reason to visit NYC in February:  Westminster Dog Show.

Yes, you can see it well, and certainly closer up, on TV, but there is just something about being at Madison Square Garden, gazing down upon that sea of green, yellow and purple.

The 2015 Westminster Dog Show

Judging at the 2015 Westminster Dog Show

And can you think of a better crowd? 20,000 dog-lovers and icy cold draft beer – pretty much a perfect evening.

Proof we were there: ticket to the 139th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

Proof we were there: ticket to the 139th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

We attended this year because 2015 was the Westminster debut for a breed that’s near and dear to our hearts: the Coton de Tulear. We think Soho would have taken top dog if she had been there, but Ch Moi-Toi’s Burberry Justincredible was an acceptable proxy.

Soho is a winner every day at our house.

Soho is a winner every day at our house.

But Westminster thought this Coton was "Justincredible"

But Westminster thought this Coton was “Justincredible”

We passed on the daytime judging at The Piers, but attended both evening events and we were there to see “Miss P” the 15″ beagle in all her glory. Yes, she definitely had that ineffable dash of moxie that it takes to be Westminster royalty. When it came to the final moment, all of Madison Square Garden crackled with excitement as the judge drolly played up the suspense. Would it be the Standard Poodle? The Portugese Water Dog? The crowd roared with approval as Miss P took the honors.

Miss P basks in the glory of her triumph at Westminster (npr photo)

Miss P basks in the glory of her triumph at Westminster (npr photo)

But did you hear what happened next? A group of the canine competitors traveling home from Westminster temporarily vanished! Was it a doggie Rapture? A canine kidnapping caper? No – just a Delta Airlines snafu. Several owners aboard a Delta flight from New York’s JFK airport bound for Seattle realized just prior to take-off that their darling dogs had not been loaded into the cargo hold. (I would have thought Westminster dogs travel first class, but apparently not so.) Several hours later, the pups turned up, but as yet Delta has no explanation for their un-whereabouts other than that the dog-goned dogs “remained in Delta’s constant care” for the duration.

Lost and Found: Paris the Poodle is re-united with its owner (Reuters image)

Lost and Found: Paris the Poodle is re-united with its owner (Reuters image)

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. We know all dogs go to heaven, but I’m just glad this group made it to Seattle.

In closing, I have just one teeny tiny bone to pick with Westminster: in 139 years, a Golden Retriever has never been named Best in Show. Seriously? I’m keeping my fingers crossed for 2016…

Always a winner in our book, but let's have a Golden win at Westminster!

Always a winner in our book, but could we please  have a Golden win the gold at Westminster?

Posted in Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, New York city, Spoiled Pets | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Smacked a Chicken.

I really, really do not like mean girls. Oh, I know, they are legion and that in real life they will continue to maraud with impunity, but I will not tolerate them in the coop. I guess our sweet Summer must have been the linchpin in flock harmony, because everyone got along so well until she was plucked by a predator.

Summer was the rug that pulled the room together.

Summer was the rug that pulled the room together.

Since then, it hasn’t been pretty. Miss Ginger, our EE (Easter Egger or mutt Ameraucana for the uninitiated) has gone rogue and has started picking on Pippa. Yes, Pippa, who gave several long weeks of her life to raising Ginger and her sisters. I just won’t have it. No, no, no, you may NOT pick on Pippa.

Leave Pippa alone!

Leave Pippa alone!

I was there, and I can tell you that Ginger had an idyllic childhood. Pippa was a magnificent mama to her adopted chicks so this is not a Mommie Dearest situation. Like Tulip in the former flock iteration, Ginger was the most skittish of the chicks, and in both cases the least confident bird  turned into the most aggressive one. (Any behaviorists who can attest to this in human populations?)

The mean girl: Ginger

The mean girl: Ginger

Tulip was also fearful and skittish and she, too, grew up to be aggressive.

Tulip was also fearful and skittish and she, too, grew up to be aggressive.

Pecking order is a fact of barnyard (and real) life, so I generally don’t involve myself in hen squabbles, but when I came out to the pen last week and saw Ginger peck Pippa so viciously on a foot that Pippa was limping, I instantly went from laissez-faire to wrath-of-God. I believe I may have thrown something at Ginger, whose vulture-like appearance, by the way, does absolutely nothing to promote her cause.

She even looks kind of vulture-ish mean, doesn't she?

She even looks kind of vulture-ish mean, doesn’t she?

Breed does not necessarily dictate aggressive tendencies. Our other two EE’s, Coco and our beloved Autumn, were both gentle souls. Most likely, Ginger is simply taking advantage of the destabilization of the flock and is making a run at being a dictator.

Yeah, well, she’ll have to get through me first if she wants to be Mussolini.

If you have hens, you know that sundown is a key moment in their social behavior. There is a reason for that phrase about “who rules the roost”. On high alert after the foot-pecking episode, I stepped into the coop as the girls settled in for the evening and, sure enough, Ginger went after Pippa. Worse – and sadly, another corollary to human behavior – the other hens followed suit, even Luna who has long been Pippa’s soulmate.

What to do?

Conventional wisdom directs that the caretaker resist intervention except in a “potentially lethal situation”, but some of us cannot resist a penchant for social engineering. The most effective technique is probably to put the head hoodlum into time out, separating her from the rest of the flock for a week or so until the dynamic has shifted and she has to re-enter the group on a lower rung of the social ladder. But I was in no mood that day for long-term solutions. When Ginger pushed her way past Lola on the roost to get at Pippa and peck her so hard that Pippa yelped, I chose the more immediate shock and awe approach: I smacked Ginger hard enough to knock her off the roost.

I guess there was evidence early on that Ginger was going to walk all over Pippa.

I guess there was evidence early on that Ginger was going to walk all over Pippa.

Unperturbed, she jumped back up and did it again. Okay, now it was personal. Again, I thwacked her off the roost. Same result. She’s apparently working from Vladimir Putin’s playbook. It took two more thwacks before she got the message and retreated to one end of the roost and the four hens settled peaceably for the night.

Poor little Pippa keeping her distance from the flock.

Poor little Pippa keeping her distance from the flock.

I would like to say that a few thwacks did the trick, but while I am determined to win the war, there are still some ongoing skirmishes. We have temporarily decamped to the frigid East Coast, so Ginger may get to be a mean girl for another fortnight. But I’m putting her on notice with this quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “We will accept nothing less than total victory!”

Oh, and this one from The Terminator: “I”ll be back.”

Can't we just all get along?

Can’t we just all get along?


Posted in All Things Poultry, Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, Annoyances of Life, Chicken Facts | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Sky Really is Falling: Summer

As my witty sister-in-law, Gail, quipped, we had a holiday of “drama and trauma”. I deeply regret following up the post about Birdie’s passing  with more tribulation, but that’s just how it has been going. As the Oracle said in her gravelly voice, to Neo, in The Matrix, “You have a good soul, and I hate giving good people bad news.” But sometimes, sadly, Henny Penny is right. The sky really is falling.

We’ve had just enough rain to soften the dirt over by the lane next to our fence where the orange-clock vine blooms. It’s loamy and ripe with grubs and the like, just the way chickens like it.  Whenever I open the pen gate, the hens march over there straightaway to pedal the ground, sifting through it like they are panning for gold. And, for a hen, a juicy earthworm is akin to gold, I suppose.

The orange-clock vines where Summer took her last stroll.

Summer took her last stroll amidst these orange-clock vines.

And there they were, peacefully plying their trade in the middle of the week in the middle of the day when tragedy struck. An unknown predator – coyote? bobcat? – must have come over the fence and staged a blitzkrieg attack so sudden that there was no sound from any of the flock. Chloe, who was outside –  presumably on guard – never moved from her favored post by the kitchen door. Summer was only six months old, a gorgeous golden beauty; she probably was targeted because she was the largest of the flock.

None of us, including Chloe, heard a thing.

None of us, including Chloe, heard a thing.

Nearly every seasoned flock keeper has been saddened by the sight of a pile of feathers and an absent hen. Unless you keep your hens Fort Knoxed 24/7, something like this will happen along the way. It has happened to us, now, twice. It does not get easier.

How much grief is one permitted for a pet, and specifically, for a chicken, when one is well known to polish off a good portion of said species at any given dinner? I’ll just say that Summer embodied all the serene and noble characteristics of her breed. She was calm and good-natured and beautiful, and I miss her.

Summer is the little fluff ball.

Summer is the little yellow fluff ball.

Summer with her sisters.

Summer with her sisters.

One of my last photos of her.

One of my last photos of her.

Now they are four.

Now they are four.

The flock has re-grouped. Less free-ranging; more supervision, but they know how carry on. I’m thinking today of dear friends who have suffered a loss far more tragic than ours. I know they, too, will re-group and carry on, but oh, how the heart hurts. Much love to Julia and family…

“You are loved, you are golden

And the circle won’t be broken

When you sail into the shadow of the storm

Every son, every daughter

When you’re out on troubled water

Just hold on, just hold on

You are loved, you are loved

You are loved, you are golden

You are golden

You are golden….”

- Amy Grant


Posted in All Things Poultry, Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, Friends, Pain and Misery | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments


birdie closeup enh

He was five ounces of bravado, perched on my shoulder. He would have celebrated his 17th birthday (bird-day?) this year.

He loved humans, parties and wine. Red or white. Champagne, too. Wouldn’t touch hard liquor, though. He had his limits.

He hated crows. Tolerated cats with a hiss here and there if they got too close. Dodger always got too close.


Birdie and Dodger: "We don't eat our roommates, got it?"

Birdie and Dodger: “We don’t eat our roommates, got it?”

Birdie wasn't all that impressed with our first flock of chicks.

Birdie wasn’t all that impressed with our first flock of chicks.

He might have loved me best, but there were many close seconds. First and foremost, the CE. Phyllis. Our kids and grandkids. Pamela and Kirk, who endured years and years of Birdie’s antics, always with good humor. Chadd, Lauren, Bryson, Lori and Dan were very special friends. Dave and Karen. Grant and Julia. Andy and Alexandra – oh, how Birdie loved Andy! Birdie glommed on to Billy and Josh – I guess he liked men. Although he loved Katherine, too. Which might be a good time to bring up the fact that although Birdie was initially presented to us as a “he”, we were later apprised on good authority that Birdie may have been a she. No matter. Birdie was Birdie. Pint-sized imperiousness, running the entire household from his perch. The ultimate watchbird, peeping piercingly that a car was approaching well before the dogs ever pricked up their ears.

Chadd and Birdie, way back when.

Chadd and Birdie, way back when.

Birdie liked to join in every soiree. Here, with Josh and Sunday in the CE's library.

Birdie liked to join in every soiree. Here, with Josh and Sunday in the CE’s library.

I used to threaten Taylor and Daniel that I would bequeath Birdie to them if they didn't behave.

I used to threaten Taylor and Daniel that I would bequeath Birdie to them if they didn’t behave.

Birdie with a much younger Thomas.

Birdie with a much younger Thomas.

Birdie had so many close scrapes over the years. Our first dog, Peaches,  couldn’t resist capturing him in her jaws. Fortunately, she was a Golden Retriever, soft-mouthed, and Birdie lived to tell the tale. He escaped once from Granny’s house and was miraculously rescued by a UPS driver who encountered the bird waddling furiously and awkwardly across the street in front of his truck.  There were many Birdie tales to tell, including the time he inexplicably flew into our pool and I was thus required to leap in after him, fully clothed. Dripping wet, I rushed him to the vet, who pumped the water from  his little air sacs (cockatiels don’t have lungs) and didn’t even charge me for the emergency visit. (Dr. Sellers, Cat & Bird Clinic)

I took Birdie in to see Dr. Sellers not too long ago. He seemed to be slowing down a bit. Arthritis, she said. But also, as a yellow Lutino, he was past his expiration date. “They die by age 15,” she said, implying that we needed to be ready for him to go at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Yet he seemed to have caught a second wind of late. He was bossing us around just like in the old days. But something went wrong. I wasn’t there when he needed me and I will never forgive myself. Birdie met a tragic end just a few days after Christmas.

When I brought Birdie home back in 1998, I had not done my homework. I thought he would live two or three years, like a parakeet. Little did I know that he would become our companion of a decade and a half, peeping incessantly for Cheerios, a bath in the sink,  a shoulder ride, neck rub or a sip of wine.

How he loved his sink baths!

How he loved his sink baths!

He annoyed me to no end, and I miss him more than you can  imagine. I know the world is full of far greater tragedies, but the loss of a pet is a keen misery I wish we all could be spared. My heart literally aches, every single day.

Thank you to all who embraced Birdie as your friend, many of you who cared for him in our absence over the years. Small but mighty, he will long live on in our memories. Rest in peace, dear little bird.



Posted in All Things Family, Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, Spoiled Pets | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Beautiful, Beautiful Book Soup, Part III: July through December

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Mock Turtle sings of “beautiful, beautiful soup”. To me there is none more beautiful than the kind of a little of this and a pinch of that stirred in to make a year’s worth of reading. I just don’t know, is reading a virtue or an affliction? If the former, I’m on my way to perfection; if the latter, I’m in in the soup. Book soup, that is.  Taking up where I left off last week, here is the second half of my reading year’s list:

Book soup, anyone? (image from

Book soup, anyone? (image from



***  Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour by Lynne Olson 496 pages

Olson traces the experiences of three prominent Americans who spent most of or all of WWII in London: journalist Edward Murrow, political animal Averell Harriman and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John Gilbert Winant. Through their sometimes harrowing encounters, the reader learns of the courage and steadfastness summoned up by Londoners through the Blitz and draconian years of food rationing, as well as the ambivalent sentiments Brits felt toward the 1.6 million American troops who flooded the city of London prior to the D-Day invasion. What I learned: F.D.R. did nothing to help Jews emigrate until 1944; too little, too late. Of Churchill and Roosevelt, Churchill’s daughter said “being with them was like sitting between two lions roaring at the same time…”

****A Room with a View by E.M. Forster 196 pages

Like everyone else, I thought, I’ve seen the movie, why bother to read the book? Wrong. This is an absolute treasure.  But oh, how I wish I had saved it to read in Italy (one of these days…) Incisive and brilliant at every turn. Quote: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practise.”

An iconic scene from the book  was also transferred to the screen in the film version of "A Room with a View".

An iconic scene from the book was also transferred to the screen in the film version of “A Room with a View”.

*** The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucille Lagnado 368 pages

The second memoir I have read about Jews fleeing Egypt after the Suez Crisis. The first was entitled Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt by Jean Naggar. Somewhat different in time and experience, both remembrances are highly personal. Neither are great literature but both make you wish you could have experienced Egypt the way these women did during their childhoods.

1/2 In the Mirror by Kaira Rouda 200 pages

I give this half a star because Ms. Rouda went to the effort to write a book and I admire that. But this was a terrible, horrible book. Pairing chick lit and cancer is not my idea of a good read.  My book club concurred; bad, bad medicine.

***** For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For a long time, I was more Team Fitzgerald than Team Hemingway. Then I read this. Wow. Living your whole life in four days. Don’t quibble about the thees and thous – anyone who knows Spanish understands the formal address and if you don’t, just let it go and keep reading.  This is life and death all compressed into the valley and the hills beyond and Robert Jordan and Pilar and Pablo and Maria. Que va.

Read this book! (image from

Read this book! (image from


**** Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson 592 pages

I can’t remember a time when I so enjoyed reading an almost 600 page book. It made me 1) want to re-read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own account of his experiences; 2) angry at Winston Churchill for his blunder of the Dardanelles operation during WWI (see the film Gallipoli if you want a quick primer) and 3) throw up my hands at the British and, especially, the French at the maneuvering over the Middle East which undoubtedly contributed to  the perennial upheaval in that region. Okay, a little bit mad at the U.S., too, for Standard Oil sneakiness. Big Bonus: learning about  Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn’s paving of the way to a Jewish homeland in Israel. Quote: Woodrow Wilson’s “new world order” rested on a bedrock of ignorance.”

The remarkable and prescient T.E. Lawrence (image from The Daily Beast)

The remarkable and prescient T.E. Lawrence (image from The Daily Beast)

*** Bel Canto by Ann Patchett 336 pages

My first Ann Patchett read. I wanted so much to love it, since her recommenders are so passionate. Truthfully, I admire her skill – she is a good, better than good, writer; but I did not love it. It is based on a factual event, the  1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru, and interwoven with Patchett’s adopted love of opera. Quote: “The French had very little experience in being deferential.”

*** To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel 304 pages

Questions for you: did you know that there are approximately 9,600 species of birds on earth? That only two birders have (as of publication of this book) seen 8,000 species? That oology is the study of collecting of birds’ eggs? That the Dusky Seaside Sparrow went extinct in 1987? Of the existence of the Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle? If not, you need to read this book.

Yes, there is such a bird: The Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle (image from

Yes, there is such a bird: The Philippine Monkey-Eating Eagle (image from


*** The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera 312 pages

I am an unabashed fan of Kundera ever since The Unbearable Lightness of BeingBut…I did not like this book.  I did not like the  baseness of the characters or the brutal misogyny posing as eroticism. I struggled with the tinge of magic realism. It gets three stars simply because of its intellectual timbre, which cannot be denied. John Updike said of Kundera, “(He)…was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs–‘the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half”–who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: “And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down.”   Quote: “You begin to liquidate a people…by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history.”

*** Banker by Dick Francis 341 pages

I read this book at the urging of a friend. I expected to hate it. Wrong. It was a great read! If you love intrigue, horses, England, and a fast read, this is for you. Lots of fun!

*** 1/2 The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown 416 pages

Rowing = pain. This is a book worth reading. A young man abandoned by his family after the 1929 Crash rows with his teammates to success in the 1936 Olympics. Tags: 1936 Olympics, University of Washington Rowing; Husky Clipper; Joe Rantz; courage; persistence; Nazi Germany

The 1936 team from University of Washington that rowed into history. (image from

The 1936 team from University of Washington that rowed into history. (image from


**1/2 Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst  by Adam Phillips 182 pages

A psychoanalytic biography, and only just okay. I was left with more questions than answers about the man who “sees modern adults as people who cannot recover from their childhoods”. Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Time might be a better choice if you want to read about the founder of psychoanalysis.

*** The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 848 pages

My first mistake, probably, was to “read” this via audiobook.  Yikes. It was really, really, long. A Booker Prize winner, this novel is set in Victorian New Zealand. Catton weaves a complex web of characters and motivations but the ending fizzled and made me wish for my twenty-seven hours back.

*** Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes 940 pages

Published in the early 1600’s, this is considered the definitive novel of the time and a national treasure of literary Spain. They can have it. I know, I know, I’m a heretic. But once you get past the tilting at windmills, it’s all silliness and repetition. Three stars for its place in literary history, but only two from me as far as the pleasure of reading it.  I am, however, respectfully mindful of Cervantes’ cautionary nudge: “with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”

Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: not my favorite read (image from

Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: not my favorite read (image from


** The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer 448 pages

This book has generated a lot of buzz. Packer’s deft use of character sketches personalize the 2008 financial crisis and trace his version of its origins. The narrative would be more affecting had it been more objective. Four hundred pages of bankers depicted as Snideley Whiplashes and all the unions wearing white hats. And somehow,  Barney Frank is never mentioned? Quote: “…most people in bankruptcy weren’t irresponsible – they were too responsible.” Huh?


**** The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien 839 pages

This made my top ten list for the year. O’Brien chronicles the odyssey of Josip, a Croatian boy orphaned by the Communist incursion into then-Yugoslavia at the end of WWII. Lyrically written, but the teensiest bit flawed by the fact that it lapses into weary pontification toward the end. Quote: “We are born, we eat and learn, and die. We leave a tracery of messages in the lives of others, a little shifting of the soil, a stone moved from here to there, a word uttered, a song, a poem, left behind. I was here, each of these declare. I was here.”

"Where are you going?" asks the lastavica (swallow) in "Island of the World".

“Where are you going?” asks the lastavica (swallow) in “Island of the World”.

*** The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon 226 pages

The protagonist is a teen whose humanity glows despite an Aspergers-like affliction.  He and Toby, his pet rat, persevere, while his parents and neighbors  end up looking like the village idiots.

*** Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather 87 pages Cather’s first novel, published in 1912, is a must-read for her fanatic fans but probably not for anyone else. Tags: hubris

**** Tinkers by Paul Harding 191 pages

Oh, what a beautiful book this is! After numerous rejections, Harding’s novel was accepted by Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher affiliated with NYU Medical School.  Initially ignored by the literary world, it was lofted by word of mouth to become a surprise winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If I tell you the book is about death, you won’t want to read it, so I’ll just tell you that it is about life, which is equally true. Highly, enthusiastically recommended!

*** The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy  by Douglas Adams 224 pages A sci-fi romp through space firmly entrenched in pop culture since being made into a popular film in 2005. You’ll never look at a mouse in quite the same way after reading this.

Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell and Mos Def starred in the film version of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell and Mos Def starred in the film version of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”


*** 1/2 Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson 656 pages

A splendidly-written biography of the man whose cold stare and obsession with industrial design brought us the i-everything.

(image from

(image from


***1/2 The Sea Wolf  by Jack London 244 pages

London pits philosophical materialism against idealism on the high seas. Four stars for the book’s memorable characters, but I subtracted half a star for the sappy ending. London writes masterfully about adventure; less so when he takes on romance.

** 1/2 Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline 288 pages

More than 250,000 orphans from crowded eastern cities were transported to foster homes in the Midwest in a seemingly misguided welfare program of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The subject matter is worthy but the maudlin execution of this novel makes it more appropriate as a young adult read.


*** The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl by Martin Windrow When The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are in wild agreement, I sit up and take notice. They both loved this book and so did I. The author recounts the fifteen years he spent as devoted guardian of Mumble,  a Tawny Owl.

Selfie: Martin Windrow and Mumble, the Tawny Owl.

Selfie: Martin Windrow and Mumble, the Tawny Owl.


*** Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxas 352 pages

I wanted to love this book. I wanted it to be the book I drop at the door of all my unbelieving friends. But Metaxas’ abundant enthusiasm for his subject matter does not sufficiently  convince me that a pair of lost car keys that suddenly materialize on a dashboard constitutes a miracle. He is more persuasive in his exposition of the overwhelming scientific evidence for design in the universe.

***** Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 504 pages

There’s a reason why classics remain classic a hundred and fifty years later. Pip and Joe and Miss Havisham and Estella are among Dickens’ many great gifts to literature. This is a delicious read.

One impressive lady who does not back down: Sharyl Attkisson (image from

One impressive lady who does not back down: Sharyl Attkisson (image from


**** Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington by Sharyl Attkisson 432 pages

Despite the confrontational inclusion of the current president’s name in the title, this is an important book for readers on either side of the political aisle. Attkisson objectively and unblinkingly shares the cautionary tale of our government’s threatening intrusion into her digital and professional life. Highly recommended.

**** The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert 512 pages

I know, you all love to hate Elizabeth Gilbert because she went slightly over the edge of self-absorption in Eat, Pray, Love. But this is not that book. This is a fine, skillfully-written novel that will take you from Pennsylvania to Tahiti to the Netherlands and manage to pique your interest in moss along the way. Highly recommended. Quote: “What a stark and stunning thing was life – that such a cataclysm can enter and depart so quickly, and leave such wreckage behind.”

Gilbert writes of Human Time, Divine Time, Geological Time and Moss Time. (image from

Gilbert writes of Human Time, Divine Time, Geological Time and Moss Time. (image from


**** Lila: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson 272 pages

We should all read anything Marilynne Robinson writes. Period. That said, this book was a burden for me to read. So much sadness, hurt and trouble. Her Lila always on the verge of leaving Ames in the same way we are always on the verge of turning away from God. A gentle, somber fever dream of a book.

*** The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry 96 pages

Classic short stories by the author known for his ability to end things with a twist. These are period pieces, but they have a timeless moral center.


**** The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 698 pages

I’m not sure which was the greater achievement, the building of the Panama Canal or the writing of this book. At times, even reading it seemed like an insurmountable task but it was absolutely worth the effort. Tags: geopolitics, Ferdinand de Lesseps, yellow fever, Theodore Roosevelt, mud, mud and more mud.

"Tell them that I am going to make the dirt fly!" said Teddy. (image from history

“Tell them that I am going to make the dirt fly!” said Teddy. (image from history


**1/2 The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks 416 pages

Not my cup of tea but I’m sure everyone else will go see the movie that is made from this implausible mash-up of bull-riding, art collecting and, of course, romance. Complete with a happy ending and a falling star on the last page.

*** Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott 304 pages

I like Anne Lamott, even though, in this book largely about forgiveness, she repeatedly disrupts her narrative and spews a most ungracious form of venom toward anyone who does not share her political views.  I hope she will take her own very sound and original advice from another of her excellent and highly readable books: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

I will hurt you if you don't read this book!

I will hurt you if you don’t read this book!


**** 1/2 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr 544 pages

The reading year ended on a high note with this original,  luscious, ethereal, redemptive, compassionate triumph of a novel about a young French girl and a young German boy whose lives intersect in WWII France. So. Achingly. Beautiful. So highly recommended that I will hunt you down and maim you if you don’t read it.

Onward to books of 2015. Happy reading!

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Book Soup, Part II: Stirring the Pot, January through June

Nothing is yummier than a big pot of Book Soup. My own recipe involves lots of cooks in the kitchen: I’m in three book clubs, so many of the books I read last year were chosen by others. Sometimes that leads to great discoveries and sometimes not, but the pleasure of sharing a camaraderie with other book-lovers outweighs the occasional dud.

My cooks’ tools include that increasingly-rare object: an actual book with pages to turn, along with lots of Kindle offerings and the occasional audiobook. My sentiments toward audiobooks are akin to my ambivalent feelings about Justin Bieber: I’m sure there’s a good reason for him to be in this world, but I’m just not sure I want to listen to him. Audiobooks are both a convenience and a scourge; the scales can tip either way. On the one hand; passive listening, on the other hand; a malevolent ear worm. You choose…

So starts the 2014 book list:


1. *** 1/2 Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Lynn Haupt 192 pages

Absolutely charming. You don’t have to be a serious birder to enjoy this book. And, by the way, did you know that if you drummed your bill against a tree with the force of a woodpecker your brain would liquefy in less than a minute?

The Snowy Owl is one of the enchanting subjects of Haupt's book (wikipedia image)

The Snowy Owl is one of the enchanting subjects of Haupt’s book (wikipedia image)


2. **  The Little Book of Valuation: How to Value a Company, Pick a Stock and Profit by Aswath Damodoran 256 pages

One in a popular series of “little books” on finance but it wasn’t “little” enough for me. Maybe that’s why I’m not killing it in the stock market.

3. ** 1/2 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn 432 pages (audiobook)

I’m not much for best sellers but wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I downloaded and listened to this. Mildly entertaining. Maybe the movie was better?

First edition cover of Absalom, Absalom (wikipedia image)

First edition cover of Absalom, Absalom (wikipedia image)

4. ***** Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner 304 pages

This was a tough but gobsmacking read. Not just stream-of-consciousness but cartwheels and pirouettes of consciousness. You probably won’t like Colonel Thomas Sutpen, but you will never forget him. Oh, and according to the 1983 Guiness Book of Records, chapter 6 includes the longest sentence in literature.

5. **** for illustrations; ** 1/2 for text In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell 302 pages

Spectacular illustrations but the narrative can’t decide if it wants to be a book or a term paper. I didn’t buy the authors’ co-evolution theory but my respect has immeasurable increased for those forty-six species of raucous, grudge-holding, tool-using crows around the planet. This one must be read in book form so that you can marvel at Tony Angell’s artwork.

Tony Angell's illustrations make this book a worthwhile read (image from

Tony Angell’s illustrations make this book a worthwhile read (image from

6. **** The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien 233 pages

You’ll find this book on most “best of” lists about the Vietnam War. Is it fiction or non-fiction? You’ll have to decide for yourself, as O’Brien isn’t telling. Painful to read; masterfully written. Quote: “I survived, but it’s not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.”

7. **** A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 148 pages

Endless thanks to @sundayrarebooks for inspiring me to read this wonderful book by the remarkably modern and clear-headed Woolf. A quote she includes from Duchess Margaret of Newcastle: “Women live like bats or owls, labour like Beasts, and die like worms…”

8. *** The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thaddeus Carhart 304 pages

My book club gobbled this one up. It helps to have a musician’s familiarity with the piano but is not absolutely necessary as long as you have a passion for Paris. And who doesn’t?


9. **** Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by the Sieur Louis de Conte : The Complete Version by Mark Twain 262 pages

Twain originally requested that the serialized work be published anonymously since the historically accurate novel was such a departure from his usual oeuvre. It is a faithful re-telling of the spiritual and historical life of The Maid of Orleans, which Twain, a non-believer who was noted for hating Catholics and the French, nonetheless declared his favorite work.

A good read: the improbable but true story of Joan of Arc as retold by Mark Twain

A good read: the improbable but true story of Joan of Arc as retold by Mark Twain

10. **** The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson 443 pages

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. You think you are reading a dystopian fantasy until you realize that, while fictionalized, the crushingly bleak events in this novel, set in North Korea, are based in truth. And terrifying. Johnson, an associate professor of creative writing at Stanford, is a huge talent. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

11. *** The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides 416 pages

The remarkably clever Eugenides almost out-clevers himself here with his somewhat unwieldy 19th century”marriage plot” motif.  But if you have a good handle on semiotics and/or attended Brown University, this novel is most definitely for you.  I, for one, preferred Middlesex.

12. **Brooklyn by Colm Toibin 262 pages

How could it go wrong? Enterprising young Irish woman emigrates to New York and somehow the story is a bore? How can a tale so full of Irish Catholics be so soulless? An easy and somehow empty read.


13. ***The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 775 pages

I would have given it 4 stars if Ms. Tartt would promise to edit the book’s cumbersome midsection during which the protagonist is stranded amidst much fear and loathing in Las Vegas. The first 50 pages of this sprawling story may be its best, but the characters are well-enough drawn that you want to persevere to see how it ends. Quote: “Because here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe.” Tags: art, furniture restoration, bad parenting, sailing, unrequited love, drugs, New York City

Fabritius' painting took on a new life with Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" (huffington post image)

Fabritius’ painting took on a new life with Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” (huffington post image)

14. *** Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber 687 pages

A serious and well-written biography so I probably shouldn’t say this but my final take is that Karl should, after all, be lumped in with Groucho, Harpo and Chico. A failed academic who can’t balance his own checkbook decides he should dictate world philosophy and economic policy? Marx was a philanderer, agitator and self-loathing Jew who hated Jews. He was an atheist who sent his children to Catholic school. Without Friedrich Engels’ daddy issues and daddy’s bankroll, these two clowns would have remained in well-deserved obscurity. Sperber rightfully argues that the Eurocentric Marx is most relevant when he is contained to the 19th-century European worldview of his times.

15. *** The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman 368 pages

Very interesting study of a cross-cultural train wreck that occurs when a Hmong child in Merced, CA is diagnosed with epilepsy.

16. *** 1/2  Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore 528 pages

Grippingly well-written account of Stalin’s youth and rise to power. One wonders what might have happened if the former Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili had gone on as planned to become a priest instead of changing his name and becoming a thug, bank robber and mass-murderer who slaughtered 20-25 million of his countrymen. Quote: “Throughout his life, Stalin’s detached magnetism would attract, and win the devotion of, amoral, unbounded psychopaths.”

A photograph of the young Josef Stalin (wikipedia image)

A photograph of the young Josef Stalin (wikipedia image)


17. ***  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 192 pages

The narratives don’t quite hold up but the character of Sherlock Holmes (and thus Gregory House) is a keeper.

18. ** 1/2 Winter of the World by Ken Follett 940 pages

The weakest of Follett’s potboilers of historical fiction.

19. ** 1/2 Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink 256 pages

A few good ideas, stretched over-far to sell a book. He surveys the concepts of “intrinsic motivation” and “flow” and observes that economics is more about human behavior than about money.

Recommended. (image from

Recommended. (image from

20. ***  Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick 352 pages

Charming and often heartbreaking memoir of Dame Sheldrick’s life in Kenya, where she kept a veritable menagerie of bush pets and persevered to develop a formula that could sustain the milk-dependent elephant calves orphaned by culling and poaching. She quotes from Gandhi: “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.

21. *** The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story by Richard Preston 256 pages

Don’t read this if you want to sleep any time in the next two weeks. An interesting and terrifying book from the New Yorker writer and author of “The Hot Zone”. Everything you never wanted to know about smallpox (massive Russian stores of smallpox are rumored to now be in North Korea?) and anthrax.



22. ***  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows 290 pages

The last third of this book, with its arresting remembrances of wartime privation and atrocities, provided backbone and poignancy to this otherwise syrupy and cloying WWII story. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the very capable Juliet Mills.


23.  ****  The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty 648 pages

Welty is yet another star in the brilliant sky of Southern authors. Reading all of her stories is a worthy task, but if you are hesitant to make a commitment to the entire collection, you must at least read “The Wide Net” “A Still Moment” and O. Henry prize-winner “The Burning”. 

Eudora Welty was a national treasure (wikipedia image)

Eudora Welty was a national treasure (wikipedia image)

24. ** 1/2 March by Geraldine Brooks 280 pages

This fictionalized Civil War war experience of a character from fiction – the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, just didn’t work for me, although it has been a very popular book with other readers. Brooks gives us no reason or opportunity to admire the character she has created, based in part on Alcott’s own father.

25. ****  Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler 491 pages

Hessler, who served in the Peace Corps in China and began his illustrious journalistic career as a “clipper” for the Wall Street Journal there in the late ’90’s,  has a gift for insightfully interweaving the country’s history, politics and culture. He never falters in his dual roles of meticulous historian and bemused observer. Recommended.


26. **** To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway 272 pages

I wasn’t really a Hemingway fan, but reading this book while visiting Key West tipped me into Papa’s camp. If you’ve seen the film, you need to know that director Howard Hawks shifted the setting to Martinique. The book’s setting is Cuba, so maybe a timely read?

If you can, read it in Key West. (wikipedia image)

If you can, read it in Key West. (wikipedia image)

27. *** 1/2  The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 304 pages

1995 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this lovely novel examines the unexamined life of one Daisy Goodwill and the ways in which she is shaped by her heritage, culture and time. Backdrops include Manitoba, Canada; Bloomington, Indiana and Sarasota, Florida.

28. **1/2  Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Ann Rinaldi 336 pages

I’m glad someone wrote a biography of the young black slave whose poetry came to the attention of George Washington. Unfortunately, since so little documentation was available, the book, a young adult read, is largely fictionalized, which doesn’t strike me as a good idea for a biography.

29. **1/2  Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World by Bob Goff 240 pages

This book has been wildly popular in Christian circles. Bob Goff, who rose from slacker to successful attorney implies that you can have it all with God and a positive attitude. Don’t get tangled up in scripture or theology, he suggests, but live life “palms up” because “Maybe Jesus wants us to be secretly incredible”. It all sounds good, but I’m still scratching my head…

30. ** 1/2 Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain 368 pages

Another pop science/psychology book that has some interesting observations but could have accomplished its work in a magazine article of readable length rather than an over-important, over-stuffed book.  In a culture that celebrates extroversion, Cain sings the praises of the introvert.

The worm turns. Dune, by Frank Herbert, is a sci-fi classic (image from

The worm turns. Dune, by Frank Herbert, is a sci-fi classic (image from

31. *** Dune by Frank Herbert 883 pages

A science fiction classic and well worth the read.  Quote: “A leader, you see, is one of the things that distinguishes a mob from the people. He maintains the level of individuals. Too few individuals, and a people reverts to a mob.”

32. *** The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan 352 pages

Other than the over-arching title and Egan’s annoying political commentary, this was an interesting read about the beginnings of the U.S. Forest Service and a whopper of a 1910 fire the size of Connecticut.

The 1910 forest fire swept through Washington, Montana and Idaho (image from

The 1910 forest fire swept through Washington, Montana and Idaho (image from

33. *** Fin and Lady: A Novel by Cathleen Schine 288 pages

Light reading, but winsome characters. Orphaned Fin grows up under the dubious guardianship of his free-spirited half-sister, Lady, to whom men “were a kind of fuel. They singed their poor, battered white wings. And Lady glowed and shone.” Fin was “a boy in a world of crazy, selfish, violent adults.” Backdrops of 1960’s Greenwich Village and the island of Capri. Throw in a collie named Gus and you have a nice summer beach read.

Next week, my July – December reads of 2014.





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