2019 Reading Recap: War, Rinse, Repeat.

Six books that span the centuries; the thread that connects them is history. And war. The Hundred Years War. World War I. World War II. The Vietnam War. The Iraq War. Hell, hellish and more hellish. The fact that most of these books are fiction does not make them any less horrific or any less (or more) true. After all, much of the “history” we read these days is revisionist, so it verges on fiction anyway.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. Kindle, 784 pages. Published 1978. 5 stars.

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This was a painstaking reading journey through the Black Death, the infernally corrupt Roman Catholic Church, the Hundred Years War and the age of Chivalry. I’m a slow reader. This one took me six weeks. Absolutely worth it! No one but the sublime Barbara Tuchman could make the Middle Ages palatable and she makes it a revelation. Well-deserving winner of the 1980 National Book Award for History, this is an important read to set the stage for all that comes after. Tuchman dryly acknowledges that the 14th century was “a bad time for humanity.” By the way, nothing about this book is more brilliant than the title. We can take a look in the mirror of the 1300’s and see ourselves. “A sense of overhanging disaster…expressed in prophecies of doom and apocalypse.”

 

The Winter Soldier: A Novel by Daniel Mason. Audiobook, narrated by Laurence Dobiesz, 336 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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The year is 1915 and the setting is northern Hungary. Protagonist Lucius Krzelewski, a medical student, has abandoned his upper-class life in Vienna to enlist in the army and finds himself the only doctor in a small village hospital for soldiers on the Eastern Front. This is a war story and a love story and it is nicely told. It is also a story of the first glimmers of understanding PTSD, or “shell shock” as it was referred to in WWI and WWII. The author, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading all his books.

 

Lilac Girls: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly. Audiobook, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati, Kathrin Kana and Martha Hall Kelly. 497 pages. Published 2016.

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I thought this would be history lite, given that the WWII novel begins as an almost flippant chronicle of New York socialite Caroline Ferriday’s fairy-tale life. The fairy tale ends abruptly as the story shifts to Ravensbrück concentration camp and the horrific medical experiments conducted on the women imprisoned there. I was two-thirds through the book before I realized that while the book is, indeed, fiction, the characters were real people who came together in the most extraordinary ways. I didn’t love Kelly’s writing style – this is not great literature – but the stories told bear stark witness to the monstrous crimes against humanity of the Nazi regime.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Audiobook, narrated by Joseph Porter. 180 pages. Published 1955. 3.5 stars.

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The novel is set in 1950’s Saigon as the French begin to back-pedal from their failure in Indochina and the Americans blithely step in. What could possibly go wrong? Greene’s protagonist is a British journalist with few if any redeeming qualities but whom the author gives a moral imperative to pass judgment on the “quiet American”. Diplomat Alden Pyle represents everything the author despises about the United States’ heavy-handed entry into this geopolitical quagmire. The book was criticized for being anti-American, which it is, but it is also well-written and provides a glimpse into the pre-Vietnam War era.

 

The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Audiobook, narrated by Francois Chau. 384 pages. Published 2015. 3 stars.

A more contemporary riff on the Vietnam War, also anti-American, which is probably why it was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The author, whose family fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, seems deeply conflicted about the land of his heritage and the land where his family struggled and prospered, and these themes weigh heavily on his book, which is advertised as a “spy thriller” but is anything but thrilling. The story is framed as a lengthy confession by a Communist double agent who has long served a South Vietnamese general. There is a rambling and resentful sub-plot during which the spy is asked to consult on a film about the war, which Nguyen cheerfully admits is his “revenge” on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There is also a great deal of casual racism against the Caucasian race. Were the term “black” substituted every time for “white”, I wonder how many awards this book would have won. Cynical, alienated and over-rated, but it gets 3 stars for style. The guy can write.

Redeployment by Phil Klay. Audiobook, narrated by Craig Klein. 306 pages. Published 2014. 4 stars.

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Different decade, different war. Same horror. The short stories in this collection are like rosary beads, each one a meditation on the unthinkable damage war does to those sent to fight. A Dartmouth graduate, Klay served as a Marine lieutenant from 2005-2009 and spent thirteen months in Iraq. This book is, roughly, to the Iraq War what Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried was to the Vietnam War. Each is a beautifully written missive sent to shatter any misguided romantic notions we may harbor as to what went on. Highly recommended.

Next week: some classic book looks…

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Persons of Interest

I’m always thumbs up on reading a biography, because, honestly, pretty much anyone’s life is more interesting than mine.  With all this concern about high tech surveillance, in my case, I think the joke is on Alexa, Google and whoever else is whiling away their day in the despair of watching paint dry, aka, me unspooling my twenty-four hours.

So really, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a terrible biography/autobiography. Some may be TMI or overwrought, dry or vapid – there are all kinds of ways to go wrong. But there is always the exultation of reading about the triumphs someone achieved against all odds, or even the little pleasure of schadenfreude in beholding someone else taking a wrong path. Biographies are, in a way, the reading person’s Daily Mail, Page Six or People  magazine.

And here are the seven I tackled in my reading year:

 

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Kindle, 497 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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I found this to be a slightly odd choice of bedfellows: Kearns Goodwin strung together the lives of Abraham Lincoln, the two Roosevelts and Lyndon B. Johnson, justifying the mix by saying “They were united…by a fierce ambition, an inordinate drive to succeed.” Call me a skeptic, but maybe it also had something to do with the fact she had already written extensively on each man and with a little cherry-picking she could throw out an automatic bestseller. I didn’t mind reading this book – and I learned many things I did not already know about the quartet:

Lincoln was a fan of Shakespeare;

Teddy Roosevelt’s assertion that power “in most positions” should be concentrated “in the hands of one man”;

FDR’s passion for stamp-collecting and a thorough overview of his decisive actions during the Great Depression;

LBJ’s early political education at his father’s knee and the conditional love he received from his mother, which he adopted toward others throughout his life.

The book is well-written and often interesting. I’d say it was a good read, but not a must-read.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Kindle, 333 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.

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I’ve always been somehow immune to the national bedazzlement by the Kennedy family, but my sympathies were with them as they grappled with the challenges of a special-needs daughter against the cultural fabric of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the downside of the glare of the national spotlight they had courted. Joseph and Rose Kennedy were – just maybe a little more than everyone else – deeply flawed human beings. Unbounded privilege and success were presumed as their due, and when the third of their nine children was diagnosed variously as “slow” and “mentally retarded”, their responses varied from well-meaning to interventional to disastrous. There was no happy ending for Rosemary, but brother JFK and sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver were both spurred to a  passionate dedication for serving the needs of the intellectually disabled.

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Kindle/Audible, narrated by Julia Whelan. 336 pages.Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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Educated is like The Glass Castle on steroids. Westover’s eye-popping remembrance of her fundamentalist Mormon childhood in Idaho is a page-turning shocker. The only thing more shocking is that, having had zero formal education she managed to scrap her way into Brigham Young University and ultimately to Cambridge University. The coarse brutality she claims to have suffered at the hands of her family – particularly one of her brothers – verges on the unbelievable. And, in fact, some members of my book club wondered if the memoir might have been somewhat embellished. Yes, say members of her family. Whether or not Westover may be the most unreliable of narrators, there is no denying that this is a compelling read.

My Life in France by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme. Kindle, 336 pages. Published 2006. 3.5 stars

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A highly enjoyable read. I downloaded this book years ago while planning a literary immersion prior to a trip to France. Never got around to reading it – after all, I’d seen Julie and Julia, so what could I have missed? Plenty, as it turns out. I finally got around to reading the book (my rule is, if I paid for it, I have to read it)  and am so glad I did. A life well and robustly lived is always a pleasure to read about, and the magnificent meals, the bucolic settings and even Julia and Paul Child’s quirky marriage make this book an entertaining experience. Prud’homme, who is Julia Child’s nephew, did a good job of organizing the book and staying out of the way. Julia Child was famously enthusiastic about almost everything, but my favorite quote was her acerbic comment regarding American roast chickens: “No one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside a teddy bear.”

Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell. Kindle, 436 pages. Published 2015. 3.5 stars.

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The premise is right there in the title: did Clementine even exist other that as her identity as Mrs. Winston Churchill? Much about her, including her paternity, lies in shadow, but author Purnell attempts (perhaps a bit too assiduously – this is a long 436 pages!) to bring Clementine’s life and accomplishments into the spotlight. My book club unanimously agreed that while there was much to admire about Clementine Ogilvy-Spencer Churchill, there was little to envy. Life as Mrs. Winston Churchill was never easy, and as devoted as the two were to one another, they actually lived quite separate lives for much of their marriage. The two also spent curiously little time with their children, and, in fact, two-year-old daughter Marigold perished from sepsis while the Churchill’s were away for a weekend tennis tournament. Years later, a pregnant Clementine offered to give her expected baby away to a friend who had been unable to conceive. Other than daughter Mary Soames, the Churchill children were seen as “disastrous”.

Clementine may not have been much of a mother, but devoted herself fiercely (and fierce she was – known for having an “explosive temper”) to her husband’s political career. According to the author, “it is unlikely that any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power.” This is a detailed look at a woman who is generally viewed as an asterisk to history.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. Kindle, 318 pages. Published 2016. 4 stars.

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One thing I deduced from his long-suffering wife’s biography was that no one sucked the oxygen out of a room like Winston Churchill. Here, Candice Millard (River of Doubt; Destiny of the Republic) shines her capable attention on Churchill’s ambitious and illustrious pursuit of first fame. Churchill had an “unshakable conviction that he was destined for greatness” that led him to the Second Boer War in South Africa as a journalist. He quickly set aside his pen and picked up a gun to fend off a Boer attack on the train on which he was a passenger. His subsequent stint as a prisoner of war and Hollywoodesque escape set the stage with a flourish for Churchill’s subsequent epic career.

Victoria’s Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard. Kindle, 401 pages. Published 1999. 4 stars.

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This was my favorite biography of the year. It is first an illuminating look at how, via her children, Queen Victoria had her fingers in every pie in Europe. It is also an excellent companion read to another good book on the subject: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.

First and foremost, Victoria and Albert’s famed love match is on display here, revealing that it was really Albert who made the royal decisions. This apparently freed up Victoria to come up with strategic ambitions for her daughters. The eldest, “Vicky” married Prince Frederick of Prussia; their son Wilhelm was ultimately a catalyst for Germany’s doomed entry into WWI. From daughter Alice’s marriage to Louis IV, Grand Duke of Hesse came daughter Alix, who became Tsarina Alexandra, murdered with her husband and family by the Bolsheviks in 1918. While the  other three daughters Alice, Helena and Louise made alliances of less global impact, they nonetheless extended the reach of the royal family. While historically overshadowed by brother “Bertie” (King Edward VII) whose son became King George V, this survey of the daughters’ lives make for an excellent history lesson of the Victorian era.

 

Next week, history seen through other eyes…

 

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: This Land is Your Land?

Everyone’s view of America is his or her own. These six books span more than a century of living in the U.S.A., with characters shaped by the eras in which they live and grappling with the challenges they face:

News of the World by Paulette Jiles, audiobook. 212 pages. Published 2016. 3.5 stars.

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This was a re-read for a book club. A sweetly-told tale by a gifted writer – the author is first and foremost a poet. The themes, though, are anything but sweet – post-Civil War America is grappling with the Indian Wars and the Captain Jefferson Kidd, an itinerant news reader, is tasked with returning a white settler child to her Texas family after living as a captive with a tribe of Kiowa Indians. Injustice all around but also kindness and something like hope. Captain Kidd muses at one point “Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born, and we are never sure what it says, it may have nothing to do with us personally, but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end, handed over, sealed.” This is a good and worthy read.

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, audiobook. 272 pages. Published 2011. 4 stars.

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I intend to read every word Sebastian Barry has written, because he is just that brilliant. This novel is not of the stature of Days Without End or as lyrical as The Secret Scripture, but still, it sings through Barry’s powerful prose. The novel tenderly recounts the long life of Lily Bere, who, with her husband, fled political turmoil in her native Ireland only for it to find them soon after in their new life in 1920’s Chicago. Barry writes lovingly of both Ireland and America and chronicles Lily’s one-foot-in-front-of-the-other  life through the decades in Ohio and then New York, where, finally, she mourns the death of her grandson in the Iraq War. It is not a big book, not a perfect book, but it is a lovely book.

Ironweed by William Kennedy, audiobook.  227 pages. Published 1983. 4 stars.

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I kept coming across this title, touted as a classic of American literature and the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 1984. Not an easy or a fun read, rooted as it is in the downtrodden 1930’s. But it has stayed with me for its poignant portrayal of Albany native Francis Phelan, a once-hopeful minor league baseball player turned alcoholic bum. Who can say if his American Dream turned upside-down was due to the Great Depression or his own depression? Maybe some of both.  Francis grapples with the worst kind of guilt, speaks to the dead who seem more real to him than the living, and tries, variously and wearily, to find work, redemption, his next drink and a pair of shoelaces. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep starred in the 1987 film version of the book.

Lucky Us: A Novel by Amy Bloom, Kindle. 256 pages.  Published 2014. 3.5 stars.

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A fantastic romp in more ways than one. Bloom is a genius at the turn of a phrase. And her wild imagination takes the reader on a wild ride up to and perhaps a few clicks beyond the realm of credibility. This story eventually jumped the shark, but I forgave it for doing so because I had fallen in love with its humor and generously developed characters. The timeline is WWII and a rich backdrop of 1940’s America. The setting shifts from Ohio to Hollywood to New York to London. And the story is about pair of half-sisters who, young as they are, are more adult than the parents they leave behind to find their way and find a life of their own. Bloom’s pre-novelist career was as a psychotherapist, and it shows in her warmly and generously developed characters. An entertaining read.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, Kindle. 338 pages. Published 2014. 3.5 stars.

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America looks a lot different from the inside of a prison. Harvard graduate Stevenson’s career and life’s purpose has been about “getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America“. He is especially concerned with what he details as a disproportionate jailing of blacks, women and the mentally ill. I don’t know if there can ever be a perfect balance between justice and mercy; Stevenson tends to gloss over the savagery of the crimes committed by some of his clients. And his claim that “the racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty” is a reach for me. But he is living his life closer to these things than I ever will and he celebrates his hard and long-won constitutional ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences imposed on children convicted of homicides. His call for mercy has resonated: the book was a New York Times bestseller and a film based on it was released last year.

There There: A Novel by Tommy Orange, Kindle. 292 pages. Published 2018. 3 stars.

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A very ambitious debut novel from a talented writer whose characters, a cast of “urban Indians in contemporary Oakland, California, channel his anger at America’s treatment of Native Americans.  “All the way from the top of Canada, the top of Alaska, down to the bottom of South America, Indians were removed, then reduced to a feathered image.” Orange’s view is a dark one, fueled by drugs, alcohol, violence, resentment and hopelessness. His people have lost their way presumably because they were deprived of their history and asked instead, to equate their heritage with the TV test pattern picture of an Indian head against the background of a target. Not a happy read but a significant one as Orange seems to be the new and pre-eminent “voice” of Native American literature.

I didn’t love all these books, but am glad I read them. One of the glories of being in book clubs is being exposed to stories, times and points of view one I might not otherwise seek out. It’s good to change the channel now and then, literally and figuratively. Everyone’s view of America looks a little different – what book encompasses yours?

 

 

 

 

 

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2019 Reading Recap: Behaving Badly

There are so many reasons to read; distraction is one, edification another. And then there is the sheer joy of schadenfreude. Strictly defined as pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune, in reading it is this and more. Because you get to clutch your pearls at a distance whilst simultaneously going along for the bad ride. What could be more fun?

People behave badly in fiction and in real life, but I have to say that in a few of the books I read last year, truth was truly stranger than fiction. Here is a sextet of books with characters vile and vulgar:

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Kindle. 559 pages. Published 1992. 4 stars.

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If alcohol, drugs, arrogance and casual cruelty are not bad enough for you, add a whiff of suspected incest, blackmail and, oh, a couple of murders. A tightly knit group of students worshipping at the feet of their classics professor at a small Vermont college spiral downward individually and collectively. Author Donna Tartt (yes, you’ve heard of her – she wrote The Goldfinch) The ferociously talented Tartt graduated from Bennington College, which almost certainly was the model for the bucolic setting of the book’s Hampden College. Come for shocking turn of events; stay for the literary and classical allusions. Hinc illae lacrimae.

Ohio by Stephen Markley, audiobook, read by Caitlin Davies, Jayme Matler, Joy Osmanski, Jonathan Todd Ross, Corey Brill, Gibson Frazier. 512 pages. Published 2018. 3.5 stars.

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Another crew of young adults, these trapped by poor prospects in Ohio’s decaying Rust Belt. There are drugs, rape, and yes, murders. Arrogance, too, but mostly on the part of the author. This book has been warmly reviewed by The New York Times, NPR and their ilk, so you know it follows the party line, slathered on so thick sometimes as to be distracting. I can’t say I liked this book – trudged, trudged, trudged through the woe-is-me attitude of adult children who can’t get their acts together, because, oh, politics, and oh war and oh, the idiots who bore and raised them and the world on a silver platter failed to be delivered to them. But there are patches of brilliance and I admired the sheer magnitude of the author’s ambition. I think the Markley sees himself as a modern Thomas Wolfe, but he needed to have his Maxwell Perkins to make this book sing. I gave it an extra half star for introducing me to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus:

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The House of Mondavi: the Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty by Julia Flynn Siler, audiobook narrated by Alan Sklar. 484 pages. Published 2007. 3.5 stars.

The Mondavis most definitely put the dys in dysfunctional. It is a family saga worthy of Steinbeck but this is non-fiction. The adult Mondavi brothers, Robert and Peter, really did punch each other out and really did engage in a protracted legal battle that horrified and fascinated the international wine community. Widowed mom Rosa schemed and played favorites and reminded me of Tony Soprano’s conniving mother, Livia. It was a blessing that their father, Cesare, who had built the Mondavi wine business after moving from Minnesota to Lodi, California during the Prohibition era, had been long laid to rest before his sons’ antics became tabloid fodder. And then family history repeated itself with more power struggles between Robert’s two sons. Very bad behavior, but very good wine, including the collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

The Dinner by Herman Koch, Kindle. 306 pages. Published 2009. 4 stars.

Speaking of dysfunctional families, this one takes it to a new level. Brothers Paul and Serge meet for a fancy dinner. The entire book takes place at table but it is anything but a dull evening. You know there’s going to be trouble even before the appetizers arrive. Koch is a gifted writer and in this tightly constructed book he winds the plot tighter and tighter as the evening progresses, with a bit of comic relief from a waiter everyone can love to hate. I don’t want to give away the plot because the element of surprise is part of the experience – suffice it to say your eyes will widen. Well worth the price of admission.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, Kindle. 320 pages. Published 2018. 4 stars.

Even if you haven’t read the book you have probably heard of  Elizabeth Holmes, the ambitious and possibly sociopathic 22-year-old entrepreneur who founded Theranos, a firm that purported to revolutionize blood draw techniques. Many years and many tens of millions of investment dollars later, Wall Street Journal reporter Carreyrou scratched the surface to assert that the business was a scam and Holmes was a liar and a criminal. Her behavior was the baddest of the bad, but board member (and former Secretary of State) George Shultz doesn’t come off too well, either, after kicking his grandson to the curb for his effort to alert Gramps to the shenanigans afoot. Compelling and unputdownable.

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer, Kindle. 357 pages. 4 stars.

Just in case you didn’t believe there was any such thing as the Deep State, you might want to take a dive down the rabbit hole of CIA history that is this book. Does the MK-ULTRA program ring a bell? Every few pages I would have to cross-check to make sure that what I was reading was real and not some fabulist concoction from the author’s imagination. Fact check: all true and then some. Government checks and balances did not apply (do they now? I have no idea) to the CIA and Gottlieb, under the direction of Allen Dulles began his “illustrious” career by hiring doctors of death from post-war Japan and the Nazi regime to pick their brains about chemical biological warfare. Down the road a bit, Gottlieb decided that LSD was the key to mind control he was looking for and blithely dosed hundreds if not thousands of unsuspecting subjects with it throughout the 1950’s. I might not have believed it if I hadn’t previously read The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken which touched on the formation of the CIA from WWII’s OSS and the casual way in which the agency meddled in foreign governments and how its principals fashioned dinner-table diplomacy. Not an easy or pleasant read but well-written and gets 4 stars for being such an eye-opener. The baddest of the bad.

Happy reading!

 

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One more brief paws…

I promise we will get back to the books next week.

But today I’m on a different page, a last chapter, and somehow can’t move on until I say goodbye.

He wasn’t our dog. But he was our very dear friend. Oliver, the gentlest of giants, has taken his leave, and that has left us all so very sad.

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From a squinting distance, Oliver could easily be mistaken for a small horse. His personality was as big as he was – I always thought he must have been a knight or a nobleman in a previous life.  He was a big guy with big thoughts. Usually his own thoughts. He didn’t so much do what you told him. He took your commands under advisement. And then did more or less as he pleased. In a very dignified manner.

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Unless it was his mom saying “Leave it!” In which case he snapped to. He knew who was boss.

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Oliver loved his family so.

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And I like to think that he sort of loved ours. He was the precious link in the chain from Chloe and Soho to Lily.

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He was Lily’s first and best buddy. He taught her how to be a dog: “No, you may NOT. EVER. eat out of my bowl.”

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“Ok. Whatever you say, Ollie.”

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Bring Oliver!“, the CE would say whenever their family planned to stop by. Because everything was just better if Oliver was there.

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Oliver liked to lean. Whenever he visited, he would lean and lean against my knee. Not, likely, because he was so enamored of me, but most definitely enamored with the treats I gave him.

Oliver came to visit with us for a morning a few weeks back. We didn’t know it was the last time. The treats were on a high shelf because of Oliver’s penchant for rifling through things to get at them. One bully stick is all I gave him. And now I wish I had showered the whole bag of them upon him.

A dog’s days are so very short, and for that matter, ours as well. We should probably take more walks, eat more treats, romp in the waves at the beach and lean, lean, lean against those we love. Every chance we get.

Farewell, dear Ollie. Thank you for sharing some of your days with us.

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Hacked by a Russian!

Regret to inform you the reading recap has been temporarily interrupted by a Russian invasion:

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It’s been all cat-caphony here since he arrived. His arrival to us, from Seattle to Ontario, CA, to us was quite a caper, but nothing compared to the miles his father, Tiffanikiss Totosha of Rain City Silvers racked up traveling from Russia to the U.S.

Still, this little guy’s journey is one for the books. We learned that breeder Anne-Marie Burrell would be flying to CA from Seattle and was willing to bring him along, but it would be the same day we were flying to San Francisco. Oh no!

Our friend, Tammy, took one look at this guy’s baby photos and decided it had to happen. She called her friend, Hannah, who, with her sister riding shotgun, made the drive from LA to pick up the baby in Ontario and then deliver him to Santa Barbara.

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Our intrepid friend and house sitter, Christi, stepped right up and said she would be only too happy to deal with a coop full of hens, our dog, Lily, brand new rescue cat, The Countess, and the arrival of a baby kitten.

Here’s the crew that made it happen!

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Thanks so much, all!

Christi put in a LONG week while we were away, keeping the cats separate but equal and attending to Lily, who, oh by the way, had gone into heat. Did I mention Christi is a house sitter par excellence? We arrived home just in time to discover that our sweet, teeny tiny kitten had come up with some big ideas. Mostly in regard to open borders vs building the wall. He must be KGB.

The Countess has gone from being um are you kidding me? to horrified, to displaying an ever so mild interest. We are hopeful of detente – who needs another Cold War?

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Lily just desperately wants to play with this little fluff ball:

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So far, it has the makings of one big happy animal family:

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As for the humans, we are (happily) EXHAUSTED. “When does he slow down?”, I asked Anne-Marie about the purring tornado that has taken over our lives. “I guess I should have warned you,” she responded. “This unit does not come with an off button!!”

As a nod to his Russian heritage we’ve been thinking of calling him Mischa, although after the last chaotic 24 hours, we might go with Rasputin, instead.

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And no, there will be no further cat-quisitions. One Countess and a Russian Revolution is quite enough for us, thank you very much!

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2019 Reading Recap: Series-ously; The Aubrey-Maturin novels

Maybe I just have commitment issues. I tend to steer away from series in my reading. They go on and on, they loom over one’s reading like the house guest who never leaves. One and done is more my style.

But I did make that herculean commitment to marriage once upon a time and in the daze of those vows I somehow missed the one about “whither thou readest, I also will read“.

I should have known I was in trouble when the CE’s new imaginary friends began to people our daily conversations. “Jack has fallen on hard times – if they catch him he goes to debtor’s prison.” “Jack who?” I asked. “And is debtor’s prison a thing again?” Ignoring my question he rushed on…”And Stephen has adopted a gibbon. Her name is Cassandra.”

Hmmmm…

And then the dreaded phrase, spoken just a trifle too unctuously, so as to make it impossible to demur: “You really, really need to read these books.”

Boom. The gauntlet had been laid down. An unspoken rule in our marriage is that a few times a year one can hand a book to the other and speak those words. This is how I once opened the CE’s world to Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. It’s only fair, I suppose, that I must then sail the high seas with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, protagonists of Patrick O’Brian’s celebrated nautical novel series.

Never heard of it? Oh yes you have. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin sailed into film history with this movie in 2003:

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It was captivating, and so are the novels, even if you have absolutely no interest in 1) the nineteenth century, 2) the Napoleonic Wars, 3) the Royal Navy, 4) sea-faring arcana, 5) exotic animals and rare birds or 6) world travel.

I did struggle a bit with the original book, Master and Commander (published 1969, 457 pages). I don’t know a xebec from a felucca and the details of sail rigging are beyond me. But the opening pages set on the island of Minorca, and the unlikely friendship struck between the affable and determined Royal Navy captain Aubrey and Maturin, the ship’s surgeon and naturalist with many secrets, were undeniably intriguing. What with their banter and their spats and the spirited chamber music they played when Jack brought out his violin and Stephen his cello, the erudite author O’Brian reeled me in.

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Book two is Post Captain, (published 1972, 529 pages) which features a love triangle, the aforementioned financial woes and the simian Cassandra, as well as a fiery sea battle. Jack wears a bear suit and Stephen’s shadowy double life becomes evident.

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Third in the series is H.M.S. Surprise (published 1973, 406 pages). I finally got my sea legs with this book, sailing from France to Ibiza to Brazil to India (there is an entire online mapping project of the series for serious aficionados) and encountering hirundines (look it up – and get used to it;  you’ll spend half your reading of these books looking things up!), sloths, fruit bats and tortoises.

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Book four is The Mauritius Command (published 1977, 369 pages). With each book, the writing gets better and better, the plots more intricate, and the character development more sophisticated. Come for Master and Commander, but stay for the rest – you will soon have Jack and Stephen as your own imaginary friends! This voyage sails the Indian Ocean with dramatic naval action on Réunion Island.

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Desolation Island (published 1978, 351 pages) is the fifth book in the series, and features an homage and an echo to Mutiny on the Bounty. And, should you think it’s just more masts and rigging, keep in mind that Stephen has acquired both a laudanum addiction, and a pair of hands from a corpse that he keeps in a jar. Jack faces subversion from the crew as they encounter the doldrums off the coast of West Africa and suffer a typhus epidemic on the ship. Dare I say that this one is a page-turner?

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In all, there are twenty-one books in what has become known as the Aubrey-Maturin series. The CE, of course, has read them all and will badger me until I do, also. Next up is The Fortune of War (published 1979, 355 pages) and I can’t wait to set out on the sea again with my good friends Jack and Stephen.

 

 

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