2020 Reading Re-Cap: The Realm of the Real

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

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

by David McCullough

Published 2019

Kindle, 353 pages

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

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

by David McCullough

Published 1972

Hardcover, 608 pages

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

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

by Samuel W. Mitcham

Published 2018

Kindle, 418 pages

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

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

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

by Mary Jo McConahay

Published 2018

Kindle, 319 pages

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

Economics in One Lesson

by Henry Hazlitt

Published 1946, updated 1979

Paperback, 214 pages

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

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

American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland

by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

Kindle, 416 pages

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

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

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

Next week: my Top 10 for 2020

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: More Purely Fiction

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

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

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

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

The Hamlet

by William Faulkner

Published 1940

Kindle, 432 pages

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

The Weight of Ink

by Rachel Kadish

Published 2017

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

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

American Dirt

by Jeanine Cummins

Published 2020

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

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

What Maisie Knew

by Henry James

Published 1897

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

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

City of Thieves

by David Benioff

Published 2008

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

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

We Were the Lucky Ones

by Georgia Hunter

Published 2017

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

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

The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

by Lisa See

Published 2019

Kindle, 384 pages

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

Dear Ann: A Novel

by Bobbie Ann Mason

Published 2020

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

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

What Are You Going Through: A Novel

by Sigrid Nuñez

Published 2020

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

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

The Heart’s Invisible Furies

by John Boyne

Published 2017

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

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

Next week: nonfiction only!

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: Purely Fiction

A lot of what passes for reality today seems made-up, so why not just bury ourselves in some good novels and hope for better days. Ten to consider:

The Bell Jar: A Novel

by Syliva Plath

Published 1963 (England)

Kindle, 288 pages

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This is another “Angie made me read it”. I think this was my third re-read of this book and my hot take is how different my perspective was on it reading it as an old lady versus as a young woman. Dewy-eyed ingenue writer goes to find her fortune writing for Mademoiselle magazine in 1950’s New York City.

First time around, oh so romantic, oh so tragic. Third time around, Plath (because this book is only ever so thinly disguised as fiction) just strikes me as being irritably self-centered and – per today’s buzz word – “privileged”. Still and all, it’s a classic and of course a textbook timeline of clinical depression and the literary prologue to Plath’s suicide. 3 stars.

Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel

by Mark Helprin

Published 2017

Kindle, 400 pages

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Mark Helprin is a majestic writer. I haven’t yet read his popular Winter’s Tale but A Soldier of the Great War is an absolutely towering achievement. So the fact that I didn’t adore this novel reflects more on my shortcomings than his. My impression was that it was more of a philosophical sketch than a novel. It felt hurriedly conceived.

An aging protagonist is trying to make a final bargain for good, discovers that disillusionment of the past and the betrayal of friends has no expiration date. He falls in love. He commits a crime which may or may not be justified, depending on one’s concept of justice. I thought the May-December romance was clumsy and perhaps an aging novelist’s wishful thinking. But still! Even at his less-than-great, Helprin is great. This quote: “Having an aging body is like living in a big house. Something is always going wrong, and by the time it’s fixed, something else follows. Very old age is when the things that go wrong cause other things to go wrong, until, like sparks racing up a fuse, they finally reach a pack of dynamite.” 3 stars.

Virgil Wander

by Leif Enger

Published 2018

Audiobook, 320 pages (10 hours 37 minutes) narrated by MacLeod Andrews

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Like Helprin, Enger is worth reading even when it is not his best work.

Small-town guy in small-town Minnesota wakes up after plunging his car over a guardrail (possibly intentionally?) and finds he is not at all the same person he was. “The previous tenant”, as he refers to his former self.

The first half of the book was incandescent, verging on the miraculous. “It’s a new Winesburg Ohio”, I mused after this line: “Greenstone was full of people who could make you sad just by strolling into view.”. Then something changed. The whole thing went off the rails, or – more apt to the plot – over the guardrail. I wonder if someone told the author he needed to juice up the plot for a movie deal. I still have to recommend it, although if you are only going to read one of Enger’s books, let it be Peace Like a River. Favorite quote: “Existence is great, but don’t read so much into it.” 3 stars.

The Dutch House: A Novel

by Ann Patchett

Published 2019

Kindle, 352 pages

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I am so often on the wrong side of Ann Patchett. I am the only person on the planet who didn’t love Bel Canto so you have to take me with a grain of salt. Commonwealth I liked, grudgingly, State of Wonder more so. As I sank in to The Dutch House I had a feeling that Patchett and I were finally going to make our peace.

She writes masterful dialogue. She redefines the iconic brother-sister relationship in this book. She creates the most wicked of stepmothers you could ever hope for. This is a very readable book – with one glaring dealbreaker for me. The entire underpinning of the book depends upon accepting that a loving, capable, financially secure mother could abandon her children and saunter back into their lives many decades later. Patchett herself does not have children so perhaps the impossibility did not trouble her. Read it and decide if it works for you. 3.5 stars.

Watership Down: A Novel

by Richard Adams

Published 1972

Kindle, 458 pages

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This was a re-read for me. The catalyst was a brainstorm that it would make a good family read as the March quarantine descended upon us. I think Tina and I were the only ones who followed through, both glad we did. I’m still trying to talk the CE into reading it – “You will never look at bunnies the same way once you’ve read it!” I tell him. A sweet story, edging on the profound. Classic. 5 stars.

The Night Watchman: A Novel

by Louise Erdrich

Published 2020

Audiobook, 624 pages ( 13 hours 32 minutes) narrated by the author

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Erdrich is a truly gifted writer. Sly and deft, she introduces subjects through the back door and then fleshes them out thoughtfully as she goes along. This book was a labor of love for her, a fictionalized remembrance of her grandfather, who was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota. I find her writing more engaging than I did the story. Her take is political, as the destiny of the Chippewa tribe was in the hands of politicians. But I was more than a little surprised by what appeared to be her almost celebratory recounting of the 1954 U.S. Capitol incident when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on a session of Congress and injured five people. Gifted writer, yes, but perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. 3 stars.

The Fortune of War

by Patrick O’Brian

Published 1979

Kindle, 280 pages

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This is the sixth in the long and gratifying series of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, the best known of which (although not the best book in the series) is Master and Commander. The story progresses against the backdrop of the War of 1812 from Indonesia to Cape Town and beyond, and O’Brian even manages to insinuate his heroes into the 1812 battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Java. There is plenty of intrigue and the story culminates with the 1813 surrender of USS Chesapeake to HMS Shannon in the Battle of Boston Harbor. You don’t have to be interested in either ships or war to enjoy these books, which the New York Times called “the best historical novels ever written”. 4 stars.

The Spectator Bird

by Wallace Stegner

Published 1976

Audiobook, 224 pages (7 hours 52 minutes) narrated by Edward Herrmann

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Wallace Stegner is the colossus of the fiction of the American West. Not western, as in cowboys, but the chronicling of lives lived in Western states. The land, the history and the destiny – manifest and otherwise – are rich themes in his work, which is generally superb. If you’re only going to read one, Angle of Repose would be it, although The Big Rock Candy Mountain is also a contender. I would call The Spectator Bird a lesser work, although not shabby given that it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977. The story is told from the point of view and remembrance of things past by the aging Joe Allston who is “just killing time till time gets around to killing me”. There are numerous backward glances, many of them rueful and some tragic: “The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callouses.” 4 stars.

The Joy Luck Club

by Amy Tan

Published 1989

Audiobook, 288 pages (9 hours 5 minutes) narrated by Gwendoline Yeo

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Yes, I was quite late to this party, but better late than never. I downloaded this as what I expected to be a “beach read”. It exceeded all expectations. A truly exceptionally told story of three generations of Chinese families and the tension between the way of the ancestors in China and the pull of modern American life in San Francisco. Nothing but praise for this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 4 stars.

A World Lost: A Novel

by Wendell Berry

Published 1996

Audiobook, 112 pages (4 hours 2 minutes), narrated by Michael Kramer

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I’ve been meaning for a long time to sidle up to Wendell Berry and start making my way through his work, all of which is set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. I decided to start small with this one, which felt almost more like a vignette than a novel, although an admittedly powerful vignette. Kirkus reviews aptly called it “an elegiac celebration of the end of innocence”. Protagonist Andy Catlett, now 60, recalls the day when he was nine years old and his idolized Uncle Andrew was shot and killed. The adult Andy sifts through memories in an ongoing effort to square the events and relationships of his childhood that led up to that cataclysmic loss. “The truth about us, though it must exist, though it must lie all around us every day, is mostly hidden from us, like bird’s nests in the woods.” 4 stars.

Next week: ten more.

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: A few more voices

I suppose it is my own prosaic life that draws me to read biographies and memoirs. If I were doing anything more interesting than cleaning the chicken coop I wouldn’t have so much time on my hands to read. Here are four books in that genre that let me, figuratively, fly the coop this year:

Seven Years in Tibet

by Heinrich Harrer

Published 1952

Audiobook, 329 pages (11 hours, 38 minutes) narrated by Mark Meadows

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One of those “classics” everyone has heard of and no one (at least not me) has read. Is it worth it? Yes – both for the inherent adventure story and as a background to understanding the geopolitics around China’s merciless subjugation of Tibet. You may be more familiar with the Hollywood version of the story starring Brad Pitt.

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Pitt, of course, played the title role of Heinrich Harrer, an accomplished climber and explorer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was an Austrian in India in 1939 and was captured and imprisoned by the British in the wind-up to World War II. Not only did he manage to escape a POW camp and trek across the Himalayas but he also slipped into the then-hermit kingdom of Tibet, where he became tutor to the young Dalai Lama. They remained friends up to Harrer’s death in 2006 at age 93.

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An absorbing read. Recommended. 4 stars. And should be followed up with Barbara Demick’s Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town

No Surrender: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier’s Extraordinary Courage in the Face of Evil

by Christopher Edmonds

Published 2019

Kindle, 512 pages

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This is a curiously homespun account of the author’s father, Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds. It evolved out of a school project coupled with the author’s longing to track down the details of his recently deceased father’s experience in World War II as a member of the 422nd Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division, known as the “Golden Lions”.

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Roddie Edwards was, first and foremost, a man who lived his Christian faith and the book is written through that lens. His son tracked down fellow soldiers with whom Roddie served to discover his father’s heroism as an inmate of the Berga Nazi POW camp near Schlieben, Germany. The younger Edmonds is not a professional author, but the story is authentic. This one man, a prisoner, stood up to the Nazis in faith, and won. 3 stars.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

by Kai Bird

Published 2014

Audiobook, 448 pages (14 hours, 47 minutes) narrated by René Ruiz

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Robert Ames, when queried by a high school classmate as to his work, replied mildly “I do stuff for the government”. Few knew that he was a high level CIA operative deeply embedded in the hotbed of 1970’s Middle East geopolitics. He died in the 1983 Beirut truck bombing of the American Embassy that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans.

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This is an interesting read, especially for people like me who are fuzzy at best on the background of the PLO and the byzantine coil of loyalties and betrayals of those (or any) years in the Middle East.

I was probably more than halfway through the book before I picked up a whiff of hagiography. The author (winner of a Pulitzer prize for his book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) was forthright about Ames’ sympathy to the Palestinian cause but less so about what appears to be his own. As The Wall Street Journal noted in its review of the book, “Ames was an impressive enough intelligence officer that Mr. Bird should have been satisfied with telling the story of his life without exaggerating its importance.” 3 stars.

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird

by Joshua Hammer

Published 2020

Audiobook, 336 pages (8 hours, 23 minutes) narrated by Matthew Lloyd Davies

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A neighbor mentioned this book in passing and I marched straight home to download it. I’m a sucker for books about birds and this one had the added intrigue of being listed not in the “nature” category but in “true crime”.

I did not know there was such a thing as egg thievery but it turns out to be a highly lucrative trade stoked by the big money behind falconry devotées in the Middle East. Jeffrey Lendrum, the subject of this book, began stealing eggs as a teenager in what was then Rhodesia. The author tracks Lendrum’s subsequent movements around the globe invading the habitats and nests of peregrine falcons, Saker falcons and the highly prized gyrfalcon. He is caught, imprisoned, released – and steals again.

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 The book is well-researched and well-written. It never flags in its pacing so even if you aren’t a bird fanatic you won’t get bored. 3.5 stars.

Next week – since real life is tough to bear we’ll focus on fiction.

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: Other Voices

As a child, I lived in an inauspicious neighborhood in a small, inauspicious Midwestern town. Everything about my life was inauspicious, really.

Which made my school library, such as it was, seem like a palace. I still remember the day I found a battered blue-covered biography of Amelia Earhart in those shelves. I’d never been anywhere near an airplane but soon I was soaring. All the photos were in black and white, of course, but Amelia Earhart had a technicolor smile. Nothing inauspicious going on there.

(Newscom TagID: giphotosrm001711.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

I still thrill to the idea of reading a biography or memoir, although I’m a bit prickly about my choices. I’m not sure I’ve read a biography that I truly loved since Judith Thurman’s Isak Dineson: The Life of a Storyteller. Which, I suppose, is why each of the following five books in that genre that I read last year were chosen for me by others. Each of them features a uniquely American voice, although the journeys could not be more disparate.

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Published 2018

Audiobook, 672 pages (23 hours) narrated by Cassandra Campbell

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Yes, this is technically a novel but it reads like a biography. It is painstakingly stitched to its history although it isn’t until the author’s note at the end that I discovered just how much license was taken in reconstructing the notable life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton.

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Still, it was a memorable and largely plausible account of what it must have been like to be the wife of Alexander Hamilton and to live in the period of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Best perk of reading this book: I was well-prepared for viewing the Disney streaming of Hamilton – I would have missed a lot otherwise as I have not read the Chernow biography. Nitpick: the writing occasionally veered a bit too close to sounding like what I would call a “bodice-ripper”. And I was left with many questions about Mr. Hamilton. Did he have an affair with Eliza’s sister? What, exactly, was the nature of his relationship with John Laurens? Could the duel with Aaron Burr have been avoided? Perhaps I need to read that Ron Chernow biography after all… 3 1/2 stars

Grant and Twain: The Story of an American Friendship

by Mark Perry

Published 2004

Kindle, 336 pages

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Wait, what? Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain were friends? Everyone but me seems to have known that Mark Twain was the man who published Grant’s memoirs, which were the runaway best-seller of the time.

It was a rare commercial success for both men, who were notoriously bad businessmen, each leaving a string of failures in their wake. Each was raised on what was then the frontier – Grant in Ohio and Twain in Missouri – and each was the son of “proud, successful and often indifferent fathers”.

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Twain had long admired Grant’s Civil War achievements and came to his rescue when Grant fell into illness and precarious financial straits after the spectacular 1884 failure of the investment brokerage the former president had backed. Grant was dying of throat cancer and feared his widow would be forced to live in penury when Twain proposed the arrangement. Julia Grant ended up a very wealthy woman and Twain’s publishing house eventually went bankrupt.

This was a two-for-one in the biography department and while not a fascinating read, still a worthy one. 3 1/2 stars

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey

by Candice Millard

Published 209

Kindle, 442 pages

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This was a re-read, but darned if I didn’t enjoy it at least as much the second time. I’ve read all of Candice Millard’s books and each one is superb.

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While this book takes place in the wilds of the Amazon, Teddy Roosevelt is on of the most uniquely American characters in history. It was after his third-party run for the White House that he embarked on the journey to conquer previously unexplored territory of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida. This time around I was particularly struck by how careless and detached Roosevelt was regarding the planning and details of the expedition, almost as if he didn’t care if he survived it. And he almost didn’t. It was a harrowing journey and an excellent read. 4 stars.

The Yellow House: A Memoir

by Sarah Broom

Published 2019

Audiobook, 304 pages (14 hours), narrated by Bahni Turpin

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I am an inveterate “tagger” of books and one of the tags I track is “house as a character in a book”. Broom’s memoir of growing up in New Orleans East centers on her childhood home as the center of her family and her being. It was interesting, but sometimes repetitive, and veers off on the occasional tangent, including political mismanagement of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and her foray into working for a global nonprofit in the East African country of Burundi.

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It often read like a magazine article that had been stretched ever so thinly to be called a book. Indeed, Broom had previously worked as a writer for O Magazine, where it seems this might have been better suited. Still, an entertaining and sometimes introspective read, although I remain just a bit puzzled at its having been awarded the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction. 3 stars.

Sway

by Matthew Bocchi

Published 2020

Audiobook, 207 pages, (7 hours 25 minutes) read by Timothy Andrés Pabon

“Nooooooo. I don’t want to!” I wailed, when my stepdaughter Angie pressed me to read the memoir she had just finished. If Angie has read it, you can bet it will be dramatic, probably dark and definitely heart-wrenching. I hate being dragged down that rabbit-hole, but once again she prevailed and I downloaded the book.

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Matthew Bocchi was nine years old when his father died in the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. His close-knit family dealt as well as they could with the tragedy but there was more coming Matthew’s way. As a vulnerable teen, still struggling with his father’s death – he became obsessed with viewing videos of “jumpers” from the Twin Towers – he was sexually preyed upon by a trusted uncle.

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Matthew coped as well as he could, ultimately with the help of uppers, downers and especially, oxycontin. His account is stark and does not look away. From any of it. This was a hard book to read, but his voice is authentic and does not waver.

Two detoxes, a few car crashes, an arrest and a job loss later, Bocchi found his way to New Hampshire’s Granite House, where he also found sobriety. This was a compelling read. (But don’t make me read another one of these, Angie!!!) 4 stars.

Next week: a few more bios and memoirs…

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Some fizz and some fizzles.

One of the great things about being in a book club is that one ends up being exposed — well, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming — to a different genre, a new point of view, a stretch of one’s reading universe.

I’m all for it. Except when I’m assigned a book that is actually, truly, seriously a different genre, a new point of view, a stretch of my reading universe;-) And I can’t always blame others, occasionally I will choose a misstep on my own. And since I always, always finish whatever book I begin reading (I am planning to studiously avoid these top ten longest novels ever written, by the way) I grimly carry on, no matter what.

These are not terrible books. They are just the books that did not appeal to me. You might like them!

First, the fizz:

The Code of the Woosters: Jeeves to the Rescue

by P.G. Wodehouse

Published 1938

Kindle, 263 pages

This one is so light and airy that I actually forgot to include it in last week’s list. I’ve always intended to get around to reading Wodehouse, especially since my Hollywood crush, Hugh Laurie, made a splash as Bertie Wooster in a 90’s television series long before he became Dr. House.

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So I was game for this one when it was assigned, enthusiastic to finally meet Bertie and his man, Jeeves.

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Let’s just say the enthusiasm dwindled a bit as I discovered the entire book was a series of pratfalls based on air-headed aristocrats vying for an eighteenth century cow creamer. It wasn’t my cup of cream but I recognize I might well be in the minority. Evelyn Waugh, who I greatly admire, was a huge fan of Wodehouse. The Queen Mother was said to keep his work by her bedside. So who am I to criticize? If you decide to dive in, just know there are eleven Jeeves novels and thirty-five short stories in all, so you’ll be absurdly – because they are truly absurd – busy for quite a while.

Now for the fizzles:

Broken for You

by Stephanie Kallos

Published 2003

Audiobook, 400 pages, narrated by Anna Fields

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This novel gets rave reviews. It deals with serious subjects: loss, grief, family dysfunction and separation and Nazi atrocities. Seventy-five year old Margaret Hughes is grappling with a dire diagnosis when she embarks upon an unexpected life chapter with her unlikely new roommate Wanda. They become united in righting the wrongs of the past. Acknowledging brokenness and breaking things to heal brokenness is more or less the gist of it. Something about this book just did not work for me. I kept writing “embarrassingly theatrical” in my notes and, indeed, it turns out that Ms. Kallos, the author, is a former actress and voice coach. The story is ambitious and I found that the loose ends tied up just a bit too neatly. I might have been the only one in my book club to give it a thumbs down, though.

The Storyteller’s Secret: A Novel

by Sejal Badani

Published 2018

Audiobook, 399 pages, read by Siri Scott

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Jaya is a first-generation East Indian American and she is at a painful crossroads in her life. The strain of several miscarriages have brought her marriage to a painful place of separation and she decides to seek out her family history in India as a form of escape and healing. 

Sounds good on paper, right? And I will say that I learned some interesting things about Indian family and cultural customs from this book. My thumbs down was simply because it read a bit too much like a romance novel. Chai and chick lit, I guess.

The Winemaker’s Wife

by Kristen Harmel

Published 2019

Audiobook read by Robin Eller, Lisa Flanagan and Madeleine Maby

Another young woman at the end of a marriage, this one whisked off to Paris by her wealthy grandmother to unspool – you guessed it – long held family secrets. These secrets have lain long hidden in France’s Champagne region and deal in the dark details of the Nazi occupation. Fascinating subject. The novel shifts in time between the 1940’s and protagonist Liv Kent’s contemporary discoveries of that time. Only problem, a main character is an exasperating ninny. Also, it reads just a bit too much like a romance novel. Also, I had already read a really good non-fiction book about this time: Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup

Still and all, a few late-in-the-book plot twists provided interest and came close, but not quite close enough, to redeeming this read for me. Clearly it works for others – the book gets 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon.

I Know This Much is True: A Novel (P.S.)

by Wally Lamb

Published 1998

Kindle, 928 pages

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Wally Lamb’s books are immensely popular. I didn’t love She’s Come Undone, but decided to give the author a second try. At more than 900 pages, this book is a commitment. Granted, reading Wally Lamb is not exactly like reading Proust – but for me it really did just go on and on.

Oprah popularized Lamb’s books via her book club and they are widely celebrated. I think the appeal might be that Lamb purportedly writes about real life for ordinary people. In this case, his house painter protagonist Dominick suffers from layers of childhood grief and struggles to care for his mentally disturbed twin brother. An interesting story within the story follows Dominick’s grandfather as he makes his way from Sicily to the United States.

Dominick is depressed and much of the book is, thus, depressing. For me, Lamb seems to be saying that life is cruel, people can be cruel, families can be cruel and all you can do is try to forgive. Real life, indeed. Maybe I’m just not ready for it.

Lamb reminds me a bit of a less hopeful Richard Russo (Empire Falls) and less gifted Richard Ford (The Lay of the Land) They all write books set on the Eastern Seaboard about men whose dreams have been disappointed and struggle to make peace with themselves and others. For me, Lamb is in third place behind the other two, but maybe a third novel of his will be the charm.

Next week it will be some non-fiction reads, as in thanks for the memoirs…

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2020 Reading Re-Cap: Lighten Up!

“Wow that year sure flew by” …said absolutely no one about 2020. Yet, somehow there were still more books than time. For the first time ever, I managed to fail my reading goal which makes absolutely no sense given that most of the year was spent with nothing to do and nowhere to go. I’ve heard the same story from other readers, though. Even if we dodged COVID, many of us seemed to suffer from the “can’t-get-anything-done malaise”.

I resolve every year to commit to a more challenging book list, but somehow the easier reads creep in, and thankfully so – these six provided a welcome escape:

Death on the Nile: A Hercule Poirot Mystery

by Agatha Christie

Published 1937

Audiobook, 352 pages (8 hours) narrated by David Suchet

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I read Agatha Christie for the first time a few years ago (And Then There Were None) and decided that the genre just wasn’t for me. Deep inward groan, then, when another was assigned as a book club choice. And while Death on the Nile didn’t exactly change my mind about Agatha Christie mysteries, it was at least geographically more interesting. It more or less held my interest and with David Suchet (who played Hercule Poirot in the film version) narrating, it was a more than bearable read. Lots of vapid people thrown together on a cruise, throw in a murder and make sure the sagacious Poirot on hand to tie up all the loose ends – a winning formula. I’ll give it 3 stars.

Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1783 – 1787

by Winston Graham

Published 1945

Audiobook, 365 pages (14 hours 27 minutes) narrated by Oliver Hembrough

A group of my friends are avid fans of the Poldark series (which has twice been adapted to the screen, most recently in 2015 and is available on Netflix). After the umpteenth gathering where one friend mentioned Poldark and the rest emitted deep, admiring sighs and told me I HAVE to read it, I decided it was time to investigate further.

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I’ve only listened to the first book, but my hot take is that if Thomas Hardy had written soap operas they would have looked something like this. The character development is thorough, the 18th century Cornwall countryside is appealing and the attraction between strong silent type Ross Poldark and the servant girl Demelza is irresistible. I’ll give it 3 stars and I’ve got Book Two queued up in my Audible library.

City of Girls

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Published 2019

Audiobook, 496 pages (15 hours) narrated by Blair Brown

I’m a defender of Elizabeth Gilbert. I did not by any means hate Eat, Pray, Love and I thought The Signature of all Things was a truly fine novel. City of Girls, for me, falls somewhere in between.

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Sometimes I think Gilbert’s problem is that she is just too talented a writer. She’s witty and she thinks fast and it can come off as just a bit too glossy. This book was a little too loud that way and maybe a little too long for me. The setting – 1940’s New York City, specifically Broadway theatre life, was a big plus for me, though, since I was reading it after 2020 New York City and Broadway had gone totally dark.

Gilbert’s protagonist, Vivian, is a modern girl who flunks out of Vassar, moves to NYC and has lots and lots and lots of sex. For all that sex, she never marries, and, for all that sex (did I mention that there’s a lot of sex?) the most meaningful relationship she has with a man is a platonic one. Vivian grows up, and grows old. I liked this quote about aging: “After a certain age, time just drizzles down upon your head, like rain in the month of March. You’re always surprised at how much of it can accumulate, and how fast.” 3 stars, and yes, I’ll read whatever Gilbert writes next.

Penguin Bloom: the odd little bird who saved a family

by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive

Published 2017

Paperback, 152 pages

This is more of a booklet than a book, which does not lessen its appeal in any way. I had followed the Penguin Bloom account on Instagram so I knew a bit about the story when Angie gifted me the book. Australian couple Sam and Cameron Bloom and their three sons led the kind of joyful, adventurous life that us stick-in-the-muds can only dream of. They soaked up everything the world had to offer until one tragic moment changed everything: on a trip to Thailand, a balcony railing broke and Sam plummeted to the ground, suffering a T-level fracture and permanent paralysis.

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For a woman whose whole life revolved around physical activity and whose role as a mother and wife changed in an instant to a year-long hospital stay and a greatly altered future, things looked very grim indeed. Enter Penguin the magpie, who brought much-needed magic to the Bloom’s lives. Heart wrenching and heartwarming and I am guessing that proceeds from the book go to help keep the family afloat. Buy it for someone who needs encouragement (which is basically all of us these days…) 3 stars and 5 hearts.

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Final Diagnosis

Paperback, 296 pages

Published 2015

Spy Sub: A Top-Secret Mission to the Bottom of the Pacific

Paperback, 256 pages

both by Roger C. Dunham

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These books were truly genre-benders for me. If you’d told me I’d be reading a medical crime mystery and an account of a Cold War spy submarine mission in 2020 I would have laughed outright. However, there are a lot of things I wouldn’t believe could have happened in 2020 so I guess these books fit right in.

I was asked to write an article for a local magazine about a neighbor who has authored several books and decided I’d better read a few of them before I started writing about him. In Final Diagnosis, Roger Dunham turned his memorable stint as a medical resident at LA County + USC Medical Center into a medical crime mystery. And in Spy Sub, he chronicles his service in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear reactor operator on the spy submarine “Viperfish”. The name is in quotes because the 1960’s mission remains so highly classified that Dunham is not allowed to divulge the actual name of the sub. Retired now, Dunham spent more than three decades practicing internal medicine in Santa Barbara, and wrote these books in his “spare time”. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about the current trajectory of Western medicine. 3 stars each for two books I never thought I would read.

Happy week and happy reading! More 2020 re-cap next week…

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Canceling Culture.

Whew! We’ve finally boot-kicked 2020 to where it belongs – the rear view mirror. Everyone’s circumstances were different, and thus, one’s means of coping varied – (bourbon, anyone?) My personal long distance memory of it might eventually be summed up in the T.S. Eliot quote:

“Books. Cats. Life is good.”

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There were times so distracting this past year that I actually couldn’t read and had to settle for the therapy of petting cats. But eventually, books once again became the magic carpet ride that they’ve always been, transporting me to different times, different places, different ways of looking at the world. Books are, for me, truly a lifeline.

Thus, when the following tweet popped, unbidden, across my timeline, I could only think WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS?

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I’m not one of the cool kids, so, while I’m familiar with cancel culture, #DisruptTexts had thus far mercifully eluded me. The gist of it seems to be that everything written prior to 2019 and lacking a woke label and especially a classic and most especially anything written by a “white” male, belongs in a great big bonfire. To Kill a Mockingbird was on the cancel list this year, as was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Go figure. Twain’s stand against bigotry was compelling enough that he basically denounced his own father. It was Twain’s long friendship with John T. Lewis that inspired the character of Jim in the classic tale:

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But never mind that. While there might be hope on the horizon for COVID inoculation, there does not appear to be a vaccine for stupidity.

I understand that a great cheer will go up from high schoolers who will now be spared the punishment of Homer’s epic. I well remember the misery of my own high school years – in my case, torture was assigned in the form of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, if I remember correctly, makes The Odyssey seem like light reading in comparison.

I re-read (voluntarily!) The Iliad and The Odyssey a few years back and found them to be absolutely transcendent. I do understand that they may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The Roman emperor Caligula was, in fact, the first to ban The Odyssey because it expressed “dangerous Greek ideals of freedom”. Well, there you go.

Caligula, like ourselves, was caught up in his cultural moment. It is inescapable. None of us can truly rise above it. The classics, I would argue though, might be one means of mitigating the most pernicious effects of the echo chamber each one of us – regardless of our mindset – inhabits. Maybe, just maybe that’s why “they” want to ban them?

More than one pundit, in response to the Odyssey kerfuffle, has admonished readers to invest in hardcover copies of classic history and fiction because, as the Twitter account @chigirl claims, “the internet is erasing history“. If you doubt the veracity of her words, you might want to read up on the ferocious and relentless ways in which Wikipedia editors are cutting, embroidering, slanting and essentially re-writing Western history. A 1990-era set of Encyclopedia Britannica might be an interesting acquisition to make right now. “Reference books” could take on a whole new meaning as we go forward.

Next week I’ll begin the annual reading retrospective, but of course I’m already looking forward to the delicious “menu” of books to read in this new year. You can bet that a re-read of The Odyssey is on it, thanks to Ms. Heather Levine. If you wish to join me, I recommend the Fagles translation. Buy the paperback, just in case…

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My other reading goals are to scoop up more and more “classic” works because I truly believe they matter. Just as we all should be exposed to books that take us out of our echo chambers – aren’t we all guilty of seeking more and more of what aligns with our world view? – we benefit by reading the works that, sifting down through time, have earned the stamp of a “classic”. Because we are simply fools if we make the mistake of thinking our “cultural moment” is culture.

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Family Album: Joy to the World!

This year they came from near and not so far – you may have noticed the ground tilting a bit now that all our kids are residing on the West Coast. Certainly made it easier to be together for Christmas, although we missed the family members who couldn’t be with us. Hope Granny, Gail, Mark and Jean and this crew will be with us next year:

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Those who made the trek arrived laden with gifts and various levels of trepidation. Low expectations all around given that we are on a lockdown that meant no dining out, no going to church and no getting away from one another for um, about a solid week

And, oh, did I mention that everyone brought their pets?

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It was a little like a holiday Noah’s Ark, totaling up to nine humans, four cats, two dogs and a cheeky little conure. But only The Countess gets to roam the kitchen table:

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She helped Taylor tune his guitar when he arrived:

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First things first and that means the traditional holiday spaghetti dinner:

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And then the first of many family game nights. Daniel’s high school friend, Christian, who, lucky for us, was stranded in SB for Christmas, stayed with us and excelled as game show host every evening:

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And Lily and Moo took us on a flashlight walk each night:

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Every day was sunny and beautiful and every night was perfect.

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There was even a visit from Claire and John Henry, who brought Oliver’s Santa suit as a bequest to Lily:

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Since we couldn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, we had our own brief service outside. Isaiah 9:6, Luke 2:1-20, Joy to the World and then we all held candles and sang Silent Night before the CE said grace before dinner. My favorite moment of Christmas.

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On Christmas morning, we discovered that even COVID couldn’t keep Santa away:

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Memorable gift: the alpaca that Daniel gave Taylor:

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And we will always remember James’ Christmas sweater!

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Of course the most memorable holiday moment of all is always the annual unveiling, for better or worse, of the three-layer jello salad. Angie and Daniel continue to rule as the official jello team:

As you can see, we specialize in drama.

This year it was just a little rough around the edges (aren’t we all…) but tasted as great as ever.

And just like that, Christmas started winding down. Daniel is off to a Mexican vacation this morning so he packed up his cats and he and Christian headed to LA.

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We still have a crowd, and plenty of leftover turkey, but Christmas 2020 is already almost in the rear view mirror. And everyone said – amazingly – that it was one of the best Christmases ever. How, I do not know. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle. Maybe it is simply that God’s light at Christmas shines through all the world’s darkness. As it always has and always will.

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We wish you a Merry Christmas

It was just about this time last year when I woke up one morning with a heavy head and a stuffy nose. Oh no! I had the dreaded Christmas cold. My holiday was ruined! Every person I encountered was warded off with “Don’t come near me, I have the plague!”

Well. Fast forward to 2020, and, as the saying goes, “Hold my beer”.

Who knew that “Don’t come near me” would become the mantra for the year. And talk about ruined holidays…

I don’t have a cold this year but there does seem to be a plague going around. A “perfect Christmas” means something entirely different than it ever has in the past.

Who knows what next Christmas will look like? It seems we can’t count on anything to be as it was before. Only one thing is for certain:

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Wishing everyone the healthiest and happiest holiday possible!

Merry Christmas from me, the CE, the chickens, the silly cats and, of course, Lily.

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