Reading Recap: At Tens and Elevenses

I was going to entitle this the Top Ten, but I must have been at tens and elevenses that day. Because it turns out that it is actually ten plus one that crowd the tippy-top of my list. One so far above the rest that it probably deserves its own post, but I can see you rolling your eyes and saying enough already with last year’s reading.

So here they are, in ascending order, up the staircase to the empyrean:

10. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (496 pages, audiobook, narrated by Barbara Caruso. Published 1920, Harcourt, Brace and Howe.)

I struggled with this book. It does not sing with the poetic cadence of Winesburg, Ohio. It is as dull and plodding as its characters from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. But long after I finished it, I found myself still contemplating Carol Milford Kenicott of the quince-blossom skin, and the invidious town gossips with their “fangs and sneering eyes” whose life purpose is to keep her and others like her in check. And yet, it is not all as simple as that. Carol, a bit vain and self-absorbed, is not exactly the heroine we might have hoped for. Things happen as we expect and then not as we, or at least I, expected. This is far from my favorite classic but still, it is a worthy classic. An e.e. cummings quote that perfectly fits this book: A world that is “doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else.

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9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (468 pages, audiobook, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith. Published 2016, Viking)

This was a joyous re-read. Towles’ Count is truly the perfect gentleman, his literary pedigree is impeccable thanks to the surname of Rostov (not to mention the hotel cat’s moniker of Marshal Kutuzov!) and I found myself thinking that a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow would not be the worst fate imaginable.

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Sometimes my thoughts drift to the roof there where he communes with the hotel handyman and the bees whose honey tastes of the apple blossoms from Nizhny Novgorod. The reader is also given some gentle history lessons along the way; he manages to slip in a reminder that Walter Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for whitewashing Josef Stalin’s systematic starvation of Ukrainians in the early 1930’s.

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (480 pages, audiobook, narrated by Rosamund Pike. Published 1813, T. Egerton, Whitehall)

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Another re-read. I have to say that I might not have been quite as enchanted with Elizabeth Bennet this time around and most certainly not with her fatuous mother, Mrs. Bennet. But Mr. Darcy comes off well, if only because I had the image of Colin Firth at hand throughout Rosamund Pike’s fine narration of this classic. On some levels this book can seem simplistic, but it is so finely knit and so tantalizingly paced and so sharply observant of human character that I willingly fell once again under Ms. Austen’s captivating spell.

7.Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere by Here by Angela Palm (273 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie. Published 2016, Graywolf Press)

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This book. Wow. Let me just say that I agree with this author about almost nothing but I am in awe of her writing. This is a memoir created from a series of essays threaded together to make a book. It works. Angela Palm could write about putting on her socks and it would shine. I was initially drawn to her book because she writes about growing up in nowhere, Indiana, a plight to which I could relate. In spades. And on a river, as did I, although she has makes the homely Kankakee River shimmer as if it is the center of the universe. Her story is immensely personal but she has the gift of standing outside herself to convey it. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

6.Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (964 pages, audiobook, narrated by Lee Horsley Published 1985, Simon and Schuster)

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Not my century. And most certainly not my genre. A 19th century Western? Are you kidding? And yet, listening to this book was one of the happiest months (it’s a long book!!) of my year. I forced it upon the CE and he loved it, too. Just dive in – I promise you will like it! This 1986 Pulitzer prize-winner is fiction, but the character of Captain Woodrow Call is based on real-life Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight and Augustus “Gus” McCrae on Oliver Loving.

Newt and Jake and Pea Eye and Lorena – they will all become the best friends you wish you’d had, and the cattle drive from Texas to Montana is an odyssey that verges on an epic. Adventure, humor and pathos. This is a great, great read.

5.Silence by Shusaku Endo (256 pages, audiobook, narrated by David Holt. Published 1966, Peter Owen Publishers)

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There was a bit of fuss over a film adapted from this book a year or so ago. I didn’t see it, but I remembered hearing that director Martin Scorsese had read and re-read the book a dozen or so times over the years and was long dead set on making a film of it. That piqued my curiosity so off I went on the true-life 17th-century misbegotten journey of Brazilian Catholic priest missionaries to Japan. You probably don’t want to know what the Japanese did to these visitors or to their Christian converts. But the conundrum of faith and how it is best expressed and served, is brilliantly explored in this slim volume. I can see why Scorsese has read it again and again, because as often as one revisits the subject as presented by the Japanese Roman Catholic author, the answers continue to elude.

4. Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers ( 179 pages, audiobook, narrated by Susan Sarandon. Published 1946, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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Long ago I read and was dazzled by McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But somehow I never got around to this one. I’m glad I waited, because Susan Sarandon’s narration of this classic was truly a gift. Sarandon is McCullers’ partner in brilliance in this sweet coming-of-age tale set in small-town “the noon air was thick and sticky as hot syrup” Alabama. The black cook Berenice is a study in race relations from a simpler time but one filled with great wisdom.  She longs for a world with “no killed Jews and no hurt colored people.” McCullers, a contemporary of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, reportedly irritated and alienated others with her sense of self-importance, but there is no denying her gift. This book is a treasure.

3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (418 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons. Published 1945, Chapman and Hall)

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It is difficult to separate the personality of author Evelyn Waugh from his books, but I am going to go out on a limb and claim that Brideshead Revisited stands on its own merit. Yes, I suppose it is in a some ways a memoir masquerading as a novel, but it is also so much more. Waugh’s stand-in character Charles Ryder becomes entwined first with his Oxford classmate Sebastian Flyte and later with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I wonder if they are two sides of the same character in Waugh’s remembrance. Roman Catholicism and the ravages of World War II figure prominently in this complex and exquisitely constructed novel. Et in Arcadia ego.

2. Suite Françaiseby Irène Némirovsky (448 pages, Kindle. Published 2004, Denoel)

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There are scores of novels written about World War II and The Holocaust. I don’t think I have read one more compelling than this. Partly because it is a good story. It is a descriptive tale of the various ways in which Parisians dealt with the 1940 Nazi occupation and its aftermath. But it is when the novel abruptly ends that the real story begins. Author Némirovsky, a well-known novelist of Jewish-Ukranian origin who had converted to Roman Catholicism, was arrested in Vichy France as she was writing this book and sent to Auschwitz where she perished shortly thereafter. Heartbreaking. This is an important book.

1. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (313 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jennifer Connelly. Published 1949, John Lehmann)

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What an extraordinary book this is. And it is another one that is greatly enhanced by an impeccable narrator – Jennifer Connelly’s narrative performance here is superb. In a post WWII funk, Kit and Port Moresby attempt to heal their troubled marriage by traveling to the Algerian desert. So much sand. And heat. And struggle. “Reach out – pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky. Take repose.” This book is dreamlike, yet hauntingly real. We join Kit in her uneasy journey toward awareness: “Someone once had said to her, that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above.” 

And the plus one? The book that towered effortlessly above the other ten? It was no contest. Best book of my reading year, by a long way:

War and Peaceby Leo Tolstoy (1399 pages, Kindle. Serialized, 1865-1867, The Russian Messenger)

I first tried to read this book back in the 1970’s. Set it aside after a few chapters. Picked it up again when son Taylor was assigned it as a summer requirement for AP high school English. (What were they thinking????) He managed to read it, or pretended to. I couldn’t. Too many horses and soldiers and generals. Fun fact: there are 500 characters in this novel!

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I don’t know what clicked for me this time around. Sheer determination? Probably not. I am sadly lacking in such qualities. Perhaps enough accumulation of historical knowledge to gain a bit of a grasp of the Napoleonic Wars, which furnish the backdrop for this great novel. But there is so, so much more. I took pages and pages of notes on this book as I plowed through it this time, so let that be a warning to you. Mention War and Peace to me at your peril! Just take my word for it that this novel is one of the greatest literary accomplishments EVER and that every one of its nearly 1400 pages was a gift. So what if it’s a month or (in my case) six weeks out of your life. Time well spent.

Here’s the thing about reading. Whatever odious thing may be lurking about on a given day, a book gives you a trap door, a detour, a free pass out. I may be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway but I have a secret exit. I can think back to Lonesome Dove where Peach drawls to Roscoe “You aint got the sense that God gave a turkey” and have a good laugh. Or maybe I’m transported to Carson McCullers’ Alabama where “it was the end of an afternoon in late November and in the east the sky was the color of a winter geranium.” Life seems to throw things at us almost daily that make no sense, but even then there is the comfort of Tolstoy, reminding us sagely that “The only thing we can know is that we don’t know anything.”

In other words, books make life bearable. And as regretful as I am to let go of these eleven, remnants of them will stay with me always. And there are easily eleven more out there awaiting me – and you! – this year and next year and beyond. Happy reading!

“There is no friend as loyal as a book.”  – Ernest Hemingway

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Reading Recap: My Lucky 13

Oh, I am a jaded reader. Even time-honored classics don’t make my top ten these days. But after the way I savaged some people’s favorite books and then summarily dismissed others, this should surprise no one. I’m a slow reader and time is moving faster, faster, faster. Frank Zappa’s dilemma hangs over me like a constant cloud: “So many books, so little time.” So yes, I get a bit cranky when I commit to a read and it behaves like a bad houseguest, overstaying its welcome or reveling in dullness, vapidity or hubris.

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Luckily, such books are in the minority. I read so many good books this year that some of the greats fell shy of my Top Ten list. I don’t want to be the one to tell Ernest Hemingway he was only a runner-up, but that’s just the way the milk spilt this time around. Here are thirteen of my almost-best reads, in no particular order, some “keepers” from 2017:

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A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (370 pages, Kindle, Edward Arnold, published 1924) One of my greatest reading fears is that I will come to the end of books to read by E. M. Forster. I guess I can always start re-reading them; they are that good. Even though his characters can be a bit cartoonish, this novel is compelling in its gentle but probing examination of the clash of British and Indian culture and the Christian and Muslim religions.

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The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara (355 pages, paperback, McKay, published 1974) This was a re-read of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that put Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on the map. I have described it as the gateway drug that will take you down the very deep rabbit hole of Civil War study, so you read it at your own risk! It inspired our visit to Gettysburg and an entire shelf of Civil War arcania on the CE’s bookshelf.

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (352 pages, Kindle, Charles Scribner’s Sons, published 1929) This WWI novel set in northern Italy might be my least favorite Hemingway but of course, at his worst, he is still better than almost anyone else. The submissive one-dimensionality of the Catherine Barkley character and the unwarranted deference of all to Hemingway’s self-referential Frederic Henry give me fits. But the all night rowing trip from Stresa to safety in Switzerland and the ensuing chapters are unforgettable. This book is the source of the great Hemingway quote “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” In this re-read, I happened to count, apropos of nothing, at least sixty-three references to alcohol. That’s a lot of grappa.

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Some Luck: A Novel by Jane Smiley (416 pages, Kindle, Anchor Books, published 2014) Midwest Gothic is how I would describe Smiley’s work. It ambles along to the rhythm of corn growing in the fields and then out of nowhere, lightning strikes. Literally, as it happens, in this book. A sweeping multi-generational family saga, this novel reaches across time from the 1920’s to the Dust Bowl to the Cold War years. If you’re only going to read one book by Jane Smiley, it should be A Thousand Acres, but if, like me, you ache now and then for the cornfields, this one works, too.

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Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks (323 pages, Kindle, Penguin Books, published 2002) I don’t know why I like this book. Anna is a peculiarly contemporary heroine set in 17th-century plague-ridden England. The story is somewhat unruly and almost literally gallops off at the end like Anteros, the horse on which Anna escapes to – Algeria? Didn’t see that one coming! But for some reason, this book stuck with me. Brooks stirs a very interesting cauldron of puritanical Christianity and of superstition and witchcraft as a village tries to come to terms with the ravages of the plague.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (194 pages, Kindle, Ballantine Books, published 1953) When I finished the re-read of this classic, my first thought was that it didn’t hold up. Bradbury didn’t waste a lot of time developing characters or polishing dialogue and the book read for me like flat champagne, yellowed and a bit viscous. But then again, Bradbury was going for something bigger than character and dialogue. His prescient themes have stayed with me, along with his very apt quoting of Hugh Latimer, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s political correctness. And since they are still banning books in 2018 maybe we all need to reread Fahrenheit 451 now and then. My favorite quote: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.”

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State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (362 pages, Kindle, Harper, published 2011) Thank the Lord, I finally found an Ann Patchett book that I like! I was all meh about Bel Canto and like ummm about Commonwealth but this one, set in the Amazon jungle, pleased me. Patchett keeps the volume up high with the throbbing pulse of the river and the the bugs and the snakes and the fevers, and thus I found her quirky characters much less intrusive than usual. The gist of it is that a hapless research scientist heads into the jungle and sheds a lot of baggage – literally and figuratively – along the way. Bonuses include bullet ants, anacondas and one of the most beautiful dust jackets in recent memory.

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Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (448 pages, Kindle, Knopf, published 2013) Wright can take the most serpentine of subjects and tease out a thread for the reader to follow. He did it with The Looming Tower and he has done it here with this survey of L. Ron Hubbard and the “religion” of Scientology. Don’t let the page count daunt you – this National Book Award finalist reads like a thriller.

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Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips (331 pages, Kindle, E.P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, published 1984) This novel is one of the loveliest books I’d never heard of. Came across it by chance; one of the best surprises of my reading year. Set mostly in West Virginia, it is a period piece, exquisitely paced, capturing and encapsulating middle-class American life from post-WWII to the Vietnam War.

 

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles (224 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Grover Gardner; William Morrow, published 2016) This National Book Award finalist reads simply but there is some beautiful turning of phrase as grizzled war veteran and itinerant news reader Captain Jefferson Kidd is beset in the year 1870 with the task of shepherding a ten-year-old girl recently rescued from abduction by Kiowa Indians. Quotes like this one make this book sing: “…overhead, nightjars moved and sang their low and throaty songs. They swept low like owls, and carried the light of the stars on their backs.”

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Since We Fell: A Novel by Dennis Lehane (432 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Julia Whelan;  Ecco, published 2017) This is not my genre and these are not my people. But Dennis Lehane is a good storyteller and an excellent craftsman. I choose books to listen to differently than I choose books to “read”, and this book was a good “listen”. I guess you would call it a “crime novel” or a “thriller”. I looked forward to putting in the earbuds every time I set off on a walk and listened to it. A little scary and fun and I imagine the movie will be coming out soon.

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Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (290 pages, Anchor, published 2000) Anne Lamott probably bristles every time she is lumped in as a “Christian writer” because she will be the first to loudly tell you how little she has in common with many Christians. “Most Christians“, she notes, “seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren’t. But while she gives the side eye to Christianity in general, Lamott unabashedly loves Jesus. Here, she shares her journey out of alcoholism and into faith and motherhood. My favorite quote of hers is in this book: “In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

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An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn (321 pages, Knopf, published 2017) What a sweet and brilliant read this was! A classics professor at Bard College, Mendelsohn interweaves the poignant history of his own relationship with his father against the backdrop of Odysseus and son Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. There are entertaining moments when Mendelsohn’s father decides to audit his class course on the Odyssey and then accompany him on a cruise that mimics Odysseus’ voyage. Along the way we gain so many insights into the epic that it gave at least this reader the courage to tackle it anew. But the most precious insights are about family and love and loss. Mendelsohn gives the reader a most generous gift in this book. Highly recommended.

Next week…finally...the Top Ten from my reading year.

 

 

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Reading Recap: Creature Comforts

When all seems lost, pet a dog. Or a cat. Or maybe an octopus. I promise it will make you feel better. And if you don’t happen to have an octopus nearby, you can read about one and that will make you feel better, too.

One of the best books I read about animals last year was The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (272 pages, audiobook, narrated by the author. Atria Books, published 2015)

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A finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, this book taught me first and foremost that the plural of octopus is not octopi but octopuses; that the octopus has three hearts and more brain neurons than a rat; and that the average octopus lives only two or three years. But the great joy of this book is Montgomery’s ability to convey the almost spiritual connection she experiences with these creatures whose outer skin layer is basically the same as the lining of the human gut. From the New England Aquarium to the shallows of a Moorea lagoon, Montgomery pursues her passion for the reclusive mollusks and shares the tender kinship she comes to feel with them. And yes, she pets them! A quote: “Perhaps this is the pace at which the Creator thinks, in this weighty, graceful, liquid manner, like blood flows, not like synapses fire…” Highly recommended.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina (480 pages, Kindle.  Henry Holt and Co., published 2015)  was a less graceful read, but I came to accept that its discursivity had purpose. Safina could have written three more easily digestible books here rather than one. But he ardently desires his reader to follow the thread he stitches across various species, celebrating their magnificence and despairing in the often horrific fate they experience when their paths cross with those of humans. The thread, roughly, is the complex philosophical concept of theory of mind, but for those of us of less lofty mind let’s just say that Safina makes a compelling case for the intellectual and communication abilities of animals, focusing primarily on elephants, wolves and killer whales.  Safina occasionally waxes fanatic but this is still a worthy read. Safina apparently keeps chickens, so in the end he’s all right by me.

New York Times photo:

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Speaking of elephants, one of the great joys of my reading year was Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Croke (368 pages, Kindle. Random House, published 2014) The subject of this New York Times bestseller is World War II legend James Howard “Billy” Williams; the other main characters are the Texas-sized country of Burma and the elephants that Howard harnessed in a harrowing evacuation from Japanese-held territory.

National Geographic  review of the book is accompanied by this photo of a mahout astride an elephant hefting a massive teak log:

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Williams entered the jungles of Burma after World War I as a teak logger, where he forged an uncanny connection with the elephants used to transport the mighty teak logs. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, and emerged a hero. Highly recommended. (For another fascinating read on WWII Burma (minus the elephants) please consider Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.)

I am an unrepentant lover of almost all creatures furred and feathered, but I struggle mightily with coyotes. So, just as I did when I faced up to my ambivalence about crows , I decided to seek out a book about the wily “prairie wolf”. Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores (288 pages, audiobook, narrated by Elijah Alexander. Basic Books, published 2016)

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I certainly learned a thing or twelve about coyotes, although my relationship with them remains uneasy at best. Author Flores, on the other hand, is most definitely on team coyote, seeming to hold them in as high esteem as the Native Americans and Aztecs for whom the canid served as a deity. Well researched and written, if a bit starstruck over his subject, Flores’ book is worth reading if you really, really, really want to know about these ubiquitous predators.

A book is at its best when it absolutely transports the reader, which is exactly what The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (304 pages, paperback, Published by Allen Lane, 2015) did for me. The author is a third-generation sheep farmer in England’s wondrously beautiful Lake District. Rebanks is justifiably proud yet just the slightest bit self-consciously combative about his post-Oxford decision to continue in the tradition of his father and grandfather in raising Herdwick sheep. The book’s title is a riff on the 1910 novel A Shepherd’s Life by William Henry Hudson, presumably in a nod to the timelessness of his career choice.

The Telegraph photo of Rebanks:

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Rebanks hails from the same county in Cumbria as Beatrix Potter and like her, he makes one wants to linger there forever among the fells and the fields. He loves the land, he loves his family and he especially loves his border collies. You can follow him on Twitter @herdyshepherd1 and be treated to almost daily photos, along with his unreservedly strong opinions about politics and the ethics of farming.

All these blessed critters illuminated my reading experience. I hope they will likewise illuminate yours.

Love the animals. God has given them

the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled.

Don’t trouble it, don’t harass them,

don’t deprive them of their happiness, 

don’t work against God’s intent.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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Reading Recap: Some of the Most Interesting People I Met Last Year.

I traveled seven centuries to make some new acquaintances in my 2017 reading. A dozen biographies, memoirs and historical portraits illuminated my tiny canon of knowledge of history, art, politics and literature. Some of these books were a bit like oatmeal; a little dense and somewhat chewy, but they stick to the ribs!

In time-travel order, here they are:

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. Kindle. 624 pages. Published 2017, Simon & Schuster. One of the best books I read last year, but if you are not a student of art history, it’s a bit of work. Isaacson taught me how to really look at a painting. Not the easiest thing for me, as I am the person who likes to flit through the Louvre in half an hour. But very much worth it and the reproductions of Da Vinci’s art, even in the Kindle version, are excellent. Did you know, by the way that illustrator John Tenniel modeled the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland after one of da Vinci’s grotesques?

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Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick. Kindle. 443 pages. Published 2016, Viking. I rate Philbrick just a teensy bit below David McCullough and Erik Larson for bringing history alive, but he chooses irresistible subjects that are must-reads. Here, he draws a painstaking portrait of Benedict Arnold and the factors that led a Revolutionary War hero to turn traitor. Philbrick’s treatment of George Washington here is a bit less sympathetic than Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life and that reminds me that history, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Mary Chesnut’s Diary by Mary Boykin Chesnut. Kindle. 388 pages. First published (posthumously) 1905. Penguin Classics, 2011. The CE read this book, a Civil War classic, and pressed it upon me – “You have to read this!” Chesnut was a southern “society lady”, part of Mrs. Jefferson Davis’ entourage throughout the war. Fiercely loyal to the South, she writes “Slavery has to go, of course, and joy go with it. These Yankees may kill us and lay waste our land for a while, but conquer us – never!” The diary she kept is a poignant chronicle of loss – by war’s end, she is selling her clothes for food.

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Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Kindle. 636 pages. Published 1999, Knopf. Colette was one of the most fascinating women of her or any time, but this bio was a bit of a slog although well worth the effort. She electrified French literature with her sexually candid novels, happily shocked audiences by appearing topless on stage, lived with men, lived with women, yet remained relentlessly anti-feminist. Of her improbable life and irrepressible spirit, John Updike once quipped “In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted ten rounds with Colette.”

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Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life by Gretchen Rubin. Kindle. 336 pages. Published 2004, Random House. Hundreds of books have been written about Sir Winston Churchill. He wrote forty three himself. There are 650 extant biographies of him. Where to even begin? I went for one of the slimmer volumes, this faceted overview that includes both heroic and critical views of “the last lion”. He failed spectacularly at Gallipoli in WWI but is considered by many to have “saved Western civilization” in WWII. Not a definitive biography but a fair one and a good place to start.

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By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill by Arthur Gelb, Barbara Gelb. 886 pages. Published 2016, Penguin Group. In one of my book clubs, the members never look at the page count prior to assigning the book. And that’s how I ended up reading almost 900 pages about Eugene O’Neill. The Gelbs basically devoted their professional lives to writing about O’Neill and this is the culmination of their work. It is indisputably thorough. Every detail of O’Neill’s turbulent life, loves, plays and uncanny instinct for accumulating fabulous real estate are here. Excellent book if you are willing to put in the time.

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The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson. Kindle. 400 pages. Published 2016, St. Martin’s Press. This was a terrific read! The Mitford sisters were born in England between 1904 and 1920 and were, variously to be tagged as writer, countrywoman, fascist, Nazi, communist and duchess. This book explains as well as any I have read the curious affinity many upper-class Brits had for Adolf Hitler and his aims. Highly recommended.

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The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington by Gregg Herken. Kindle. 529 pages. Published 2014, Vintage. Nothing can really surprise us anymore about politics, so learning that a significant amount of Cold War policy was formulated not at the U.S. Capitol or the White House but at the Georgetown dining table of journalist Joseph Alsop is, I guess, no big deal. George Frost Kennan, Phil and Kay Graham, Frank Gardiner Wisner and others played fast and loose with geopolitics and the nascent CIA.

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen. Kindle. 319 pages. Published 2012, Penguin Group. The subject is fascinating but the narrator is shockingly unreliable. Moscow-based journalist Masha Gessen has a personal anti-Putin agenda (well, who doesn’t?) and moreover, sees everything through a somewhat narrow LGBT lens, which unfortunately limits the value of this biography. No question that the guy is sinister, but I can’t recommend this book.

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Kindle. 273 pages. Published 2016, Harper. Just in case you are one of the three people who has not read this book, it is a heartfelt survey of the making and breaking of white, working-class America. For Vance, “hillbilly” is not a perjorative term but a descriptive one of the predominantly Scots-Irish denizens of Appalachian America, many of whom were drawn to mid-20th-century Midwest factory jobs. He knows his subject and draws heavily on his own childhood experience in a “hillbilly” family. Vance recently moved back to Ohio – I predict he will be declaring political candidacy in 3, 2, 1…

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In the Shadow of the White House: A Memoir of the Washington and Watergate Years 1968-1978 by Jo Haldeman. 464 pages. Published 2017 by Rare Bird Books, a Vireo Book. This might be the best memoir you didn’t read in 2017. As the wife of Watergate figure H.R. Haldeman, Jo provides a lucid, even-handed retrospective of the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. Recommended.

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Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family by Daniel Bergner. Kindle. 321 pages. Published 2016 by Little Brown and Company. You don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy Ryan “Speedo” Green’s unlikely journey from juvenile delinquent to internationally-celebrated baritone. Green was pushed, pulled and lifted along his way by a series of “angels” who refused to let him fail. A plus of this highly-readable book is a behind-the-scenes look at the machinations of the Metropolitan Opera.

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Next week: the recap continues…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading Recap: ten books I wish someone else had read.

It’s not them, it’s me.

Books that everyone loves but me. Books that are hyped, heralded; even a couple of classics among them. How dare I not like them? Collectively, they represent a couple of months of my reading year that I would rather have back. Not terriblejust less than I had hoped.

The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison. Kindle. 366 pages. Published 2014,  Lake Union Publishers. Fresh off a Midwestern driving trip, I fell for the reviews on this novel set in fictional Port Manitou, Michigan. “A jewel box of a novel!” “Moving…rife with tension!” Tension that, for me, devolved into a soap opera. In the end, I struggled to care about the characters, although I do still love Michigan.

Me Before You by Jo Jo Mayes. 448 pages. Audiobook, narrated by Susan Lyons, Anna Bentink, Steven Crossley, Alex Tregear, Andrew Wincott, Owen Lindsay. Published 2012, Michael Joseph. I was looking for something light to listen to and thought this British “romance novel” would fit the bill. Louisa Clark is sort of a Bridget Jones type and Will Traynor is Hugh Grant and Colin Firth combined into a single, wheelchair-bound character. You know what happens, or you think you do. There are plot twists. Deftly and sympathetically written, just not my cup of English Breakfast. Someone must have liked it – they made it into a film:

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Before We Were Yours: A Novel by Lisa Wingate. 352 pages. Audiobook, narrated by Emily Rankin, Catherine Taber. Published 2017, Ballantine Books. This was a NY Times best-seller. An engaging novel about a serious subject – decades of child trafficking by Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate goes to great effort to wrap the horror in an engaging Southern-belle-meets-her-man plot, and that’s where it went a bit wrong for me.

The Water is Wide: A Memoir by Pat Conroy. Kindle. 320 pages. Published 1972,  Houghton Mifflin. I tagged this under “not his best work”. Pat Conroy is a deservedly celebrated writer, but this tale – confusingly listed in the frontispiece as fiction but also titled a memoir – is just the tiniest bit disappointing. Maybe it’s because Conroy casts himself a bit awkwardly as the hero, recollecting his youthful, quixotic stint as an elementary school teacher on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island. It was adapted into the 1974 film Conrack:

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The Mighty Franks: A Memoir by Michael Frank. Kindle. 320 pages. Published 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Michael Frank is a polished, compelling writer. His family, specifically his “Aunt Hankie”, is cringe-inducing. Harriet Frank, Jr. along with her husband Irving Ravetch, was a successful Hollywood screenwriter (The Reivers, Norma Rae) and a pathological something or other who ran roughshod over her extended family. This was a painful read.

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Commonwealth: A Novel by Ann Patchett. Kindle. 336 pages. Published 2017, Harper. I’m so embarrassed when I don’t love Ann Patchett. Everyone runs out to buy her latest book, and so I did with Commonwealth, even though I had failed to be enthralled by Bel Canto. (“What? You didn’t love Bel Canto???”)  I was transfixed by the first couple of chapters of Commonwealth. The Keating family in all its dysfunction made for an irresistible read – but somewhere along the line they just all jumped the shark for me. As families will, I suppose. Also, a very unsatisfactory ending. As families can have, I suppose..

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Kindle. 450 pages. Published 2014, Viking. I loved, loved, loved The Secret Life of Bees and everyone told me that this book was even better. So I guess I had set myself up for disappointment. I also failed to do my homework and didn’t realize until I was halfway through that this was actually a work of historical fiction. Sarah Moore Grimké was a real person whose incredible life as an abolitionist and feminist are detailed here in a novel that did not quite work for me.

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Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel by George Saunders. 368 pages. Published 2017, Random House. Audiobook, narrated by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July, Lena Dunham et al. As an author, Saunders does something very original here. A moment of history – Abraham Lincoln’s grief at the death of his young son, Willie – is examined from the multiple points of view of a collection of graveyard ghosts.  It won the 2017 Man Booker Prize so my opinion doesn’t count but for me it was a little bit like Dante’s Inferno meets The Walking Dead meets The Sixth Sense. I admired it; I just didn’t exactly enjoy it.

The God of Small Things: A Novel by Arundhati Roy. 337 pages. Published 1997, Flamingo. Audiobook, narrated by Sneha Mathan. Another Man Booker prizewinner, Roy’s novel, set in the Indian state of Kerala, is on every must-read list, so I finally read it.  Doggedly, as it went on and on and on. There is a darkness, not just to the fates of the book’s characters, but to the author’s outlook, that weighed me down. Perhaps that was the point.

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Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition by Walt Whitman. Paperback. 145 pages. Published by Penguin Classics. When Whitman’s opus was originally published, Ralph Waldo Emerson said “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson came to re-think his opinion of Whitman and boy oh boy, so have I. I approached this read ever so smugly, sure that I would sink into English major heaven. I despised every page. Yes, Whitman was an original voice. Yes, he broke all the rules of verse and all the social constructs, crowing about eroticism and homoeroticism. Yes, he may have been the most enthusiastic booster of the United States of America in his time. But his poetry reads, for me, alarmingly like a never-ending list of lists. Biggest reading disappointment of the year.

Next week: up the list to the middling reads…

 

 

 

 

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I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.

I’m so sorry, but must pause the reading recap, slip a bookmark in it until next week.

Because this is a week of grieving in my community, and to the extent that a blog is a sort of ship’s log, there is an obligation to record the events that shape the journey. Even when the journey is a sad one.

(Santa Barbara News-Press photo):

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Who could have known that for bucolic Santa Barbara, the real tragedy was to be not the fire, but the flood?  That a fiercely dedicated army of firefighters would save Montecito only to see it drown in mud a few weeks later?

By now you’ve probably seen a hundred shots of Oprah in her wading boots, surveying the damage to her Montecito mansion.

(TMZ photo):

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Part of the long-time fascination with Montecito is its roster of celebrity residents. People who could afford to live anywhere in the world often choose to live in Montecito. Yes, Oprah, of course; I waited next to her for coffee once at Pierre Lafond, the iconic emporium in Montecito’s upper village. I also glanced up one time to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus rifling through the sale rack next to me at a dress shop.  Another day, I had a nice chat with actor Malcolm McDowell in a local antique store. Rob Lowe, Jeff Bridges, etc. etc. etc. live there. As do many people whose names you would not recognize, people who have simply had the good fortune to live in an exquisite setting betwixt the mountains and the sea.

The rains came Monday night. And as a freakishly intense storm bore down over the recently-charred mountainside, it triggered a debris flow that tore ferociously down the canyons into the heart of Montecito, just blocks from the chic little shops and restaurants on Coast Village Road. There were evacuation warnings, but the epicenter of the destruction was an area under only a voluntary rather than mandatory order. And there was evacuation fatigue. People had already been away from their homes for days or weeks during the fire. The worst was over, they thought.

They were wrong. The emergency alerts didn’t go out until after the mudslide had begun, and then it was too late. In the dead of night, more than half an inch of rain fell in just five minutes over the burn area. The torrent swept down Montecito Creek carrying boulders the size of automobiles. Crashing trees were grotesquely deployed as battering rams, crushing everything in the mile-wide torrent of mud and debris.

Here is a photo by Greg Villeneuve of what looks like a river, but is actually Highway 101, the only artery between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles:

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And here is a Noozhawk photo of a damaged home. It is by no means the worst of what occurred:

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 Debris flow is a new and wholly unwelcome addition to my vocabulary. For the definitive description of it, see John McPhee’s October, 1988 New Yorker piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”. Therein, he provides a description that became a prophecy for what happened here this week: “In geology, it would be known as a debris flow. Debris flows amass in stream valleys and more or less resemble fresh concrete. They consist of water mixed with a good deal of solid material, most of which is above sand size. Some of it is Chevrolet size. Boulders bigger than cars ride long distances in debris flows. Boulders grouped like fish eggs pour downhill in debris flows.”

And in that flow last Monday night, good people died. At this writing, the death toll stands at 18; the number of missing has been mercifully revised downward to 5. It has been, at least for me, a faith-testing catastrophe.

In his excellent biography of Holocaust hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxes wrote that Bonhoeffer’s mostly secular family gave a nod to their Christian heritage each year when his mother read Psalm 90 aloud as a New Year’s Eve tradition. I made a stab at memorizing the psalm awhile back and failed miserably,  but one remnant of it has stayed with me and has haunted me this week:

“He doth sweep men away; they are like a dream…”

That dream became a nightmare this week as so many were literally swept away.

(Montecito Inn photo by Gary Goldberg)output-19

We don’t live in Montecito, so we were spared the destruction. But we are not spared the grief. Those who survived are without power or potable water. It will take months, or more likely years, until there is any semblance of normalcy. Our hearts go out to everyone there who is on this sad journey.

“Return, O Lord! How long? 

Have mercy on thy servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 

Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us and as many years as we have seen evil.”

– Psalm 90, verses 13-15

 

 

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Reading Recap: A High Point and Some Lows

Another year has passed without turning on the television. Not even once. We just can’t seem to do it, sinking into our books every evening while the remote gathers dust. I believe the CE may have read 100 books this year and I hate him for it just a little bit.

My own reading moldered; I am a slow reader at best and I took on a few tomes this year that were worthy, but slowed down my reading challenge, which I failed to meet. I think my final tally was 58 reads, respectable certainly, but far behind last year’s achievement of 70. Hey, I read War and Peace this year, so back off with the arched eyebrows!

There were many transcendent reading epiphanies this year, most of them passed in solitude, but we got to enjoy one special moment of bookish communion with others. Son Taylor stopped through town with his friends Megan and Ashley, who astonished us by volunteering for a tour of the CE’s library and then proceeded to astonish us further by acknowledging that they had read a fair portion of the titles therein. They are less than half our age and have read almost as much as us! Yay for the Millennials!

Here they are with the CE admiring a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

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But with the high points must also come the lows. So let’s start out the 2017 Reading Recap with my unfavorites. And yes, I know you will raise those eyebrows even higher, because there is some heresy in my list. Some of these books were considered hot reads and are by authors viewed as literary darlings. Just not by me. Sorry not sorry.

Five I could have done without:

Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life by Sally Bedell Smith. 624 pages. Published 2017, Random House. The author suggests that Prince Charles has lived a life of frustration, but not one moment of it could be more frustrating than the time spent reading about him. Let’s cut to the chase, he’s a ninny. A spoiled, indulged, ridiculous ninny. I wish him the best, but God Save the Queen!

My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One by Elena Ferrante. 331 pages. Published 2011. I’d read it – or rather, listened to it, as an audiobook – a year or two back and didn’t love it. When the novel of two childhood friends growing up in post-World War II Naples was chosen as a book club selection, I gave it a second try and listened to it again all the way through.  For me it did not improve with age. There is soo much love for this book, so much fuss and hype over Ferrante’s identity  and her work, but I will never make it to book two in the series.

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1) by Graeme Simsion. 295 pages. Published 2013 by Simon & Schuster. Mildly entertaining and somewhat instructive on the subject of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is dealt with mostly in broad humor. And which completely missed the mark for me. Can’t recommend it.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. 480 pages. Published 2001 by William Morrow. I know, I know, this book is considered a modern classic. “You HAVE to read it,” said someone whose opinion I greatly respect. So I did. And mostly wished I hadn’t. The genre is fantasy with a liberal sprinkling of Norse mythology and maybe it just isn’t for me.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain. 320 pages. Published 2012, Ecco. This book was a National Book Award finalist, but I would only vote for it if I could retitle it Billy Lynn’s Long, Miserable, Mud-Slinging, Cynical, Swaggering, Arrogant Trudge. It went on far too long and it was terrible. Billy Lynn is a sympathetic character held hostage by a bitter and mean-spirited author.

You think I didn’t like those listed above? They were manna from heaven compared to the WORST book I read this year:

My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. 372 pages. Published 2015 by Atria Books. Here’s how I think this happened. Backman’s (not that great) A Man Called Ove became popular and the publisher must have said “Quick – we need a follow-up to capitalize on your success!” and then Backman must have pulled this hot mess out of a file drawer in the back room and thus materialized the worst book of my reading year. My book club mostly agreed with me – I think almost everyone was thumbs down on this one.

It gets better, I promise. Next week we move on to better reads from 2017…

 

No matter how busy you may think you are,

you must find time for reading,

or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” – Confucius

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