Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for December, 2018


Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson – I love Wilson’s work on Ms. Marvel, but hadn’t picked up Alif the Unseen because I didn’t think I could adore any of her characters as much as I adore Kamala Khan.  But this story – of a young hacker in a fictional Middle Eastern city, his pious next door neighbor, and their encounters with thugs and djinn, was so much fun.  I was completely entranced by the world, laughed with and cried for the characters, and was thoroughly delighted with every page and sad to see it end.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann – This nonfiction story of exploration and obsession in the Amazon has been on my to-read list since I first heard Liberty pitch it on the All the Books! podcast, so I was delighted when my book club chose it for the December read (pushed to January, since no one could make the December meeting, and we’ll finally get to talk about it TONIGHT!).  The author skillfully interweaves the histories of the Amazon and of the intrepid British explorers who mapped the world with his own quest to find out what happened to the most daring of them all, and whether there was any truth to the rumors of a vast civilization hidden deep in the Amazonian jungle.  It was a fascinating book – I’d have liked a bit more discussion on colonialism and its effects, but all in all, a great read.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende – Another one off the deep TBR, and my first Allende.  Magical realism is not my genre (to paraphrase my friend Susan, it doesn’t follow the rules, everything seems normal except that someone lives to be 500 years old for no reason) but I’ve wanted to read some Allende, and I thought I’d begin with her best-known classic.  I did enjoy the book, although it took me awhile to get into it and then it took me awhile to get through it.  As I told a couple of friends, it was what I’d have liked One Hundred Years of Solitude to be.


Maus I: My Father Bleeds History, by Art Spiegelman – Ever since I started reading comics and graphic novels a few years ago, I’ve heard about Maus – how powerful and wrenching it is, and how it’s a classic of the form.  I finally decided that December was the time to read the first volume (of two) and picked it up from the library.  I can definitely see why it’s a classic.  It was an incredibly compelling – and very upsetting – book.  I think I’m going to need a long break before I can pick up the second volume, but it’s a classic for very good reason.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama – After Maus, I needed something powerfully uplifting and joyful, and clearly that meant I needed Michelle.  I preordered Becoming months ago, knowing that the wait for a library hold would be painfully long and that it was going to be something I’d want on my permanent shelf anyway.  And WOW, was it incredible.  Michelle’s voice is so fresh and real, and I was immediately swept up in her life.  I read the scene in which she and Barack got ice cream, early in their dating life, on a cold night’s commute on the DC metro – and I remember looking up from the book and being surprised to find myself (1) at my metro stop, and (2) in suburban DC, in the dark, on a cold night in December.  I really thought I was in Chicago, walking down the sidewalk on a sweltering summer’s day with Miche and Barack, trying not to let my ice cream drip on the pavement.

In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, by Alice Walker – A quick, but powerful and beautifully written, collection of short stories about the experience of being a black woman in twentieth century America.  I haven’t read any other Alice Walker books, although I’ve been meaning to.  Her stories were so evocative and compelling – I can’t wait to seek out more.


Lumberjanes: Unicorn Power!, by Mariko Tamaki – I needed something light and fun to get me through the last busy days before going out of town for Christmas, and the first Lumberjanes novel – which I had sitting on my shelf – fit the bill perfectly.  I knew the characters already, from reading the comic, and so it was easy to plunge right back into their magical summer camp adventures.  In this first novel installment, April discovers a mountain that is sometimes there and sometimes not, and she convinces Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley to climb it with her in pursuit of their Extraordinary Explorer pins.  Of course, when they get to the summit, things aren’t quite as they seemed.  Also, there are unicorns!

Amelia Elkins Elkins, by A.M. Blair – Full disclosure: the author is a cherished friend of mine, and I’m already disposed to like anything she writes.  But Amelia Elkins Elkins would be a delight even if I didn’t know and like her creator.  This is a retelling of Persuasion from a modern vantage point, centered around a wrongful death lawsuit after the main character’s mother takes her own life following a medical implant gone wrong.  Blair’s take on Anne Elliot feels very true to life, and her twist on the familiar story is fascinating.  Highly recommended.

Christmas Pudding, by Nancy Mitford – I’d been saving Christmas Pudding for holiday reading, and it was exactly what I was looking for.  Christmas in the true Mitford style is witty, a little dramatic, with lots of Merrie England-ing and a good deal of booze.  And it was GREAT.  I don’t think anyone would argue that Christmas Pudding is up to the standard of Nancy’s classic The Pursuit of Love, but it was a rollicking good read.  The Christmas Day chapter was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I laughed at it until I cried.


Christmas Poems, ed. John Hollander – I just love everything about the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection – the size, the design, the curation, everything – and Christmas Poems was a delight to dip in and out of all season long.  I particularly loved the poems on Advent and the Nativity – Dorothy Parker’s take on a maidservant at the Inn where Mary and Joseph were turned away was especially poignant – and the carols, of course.

A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, by Philip Rhys Evans – As I mentioned in my Christmas book haul post, this was one of the books I found under the tree.  It’s a slim little book and I read it in a day, but I LOVED EVERY SECOND.  Steve could tell, too, because I kept interrupting whatever he was doing to read snippets of it to him, and we were both howling at some of the selections.  (The parish newsletter notices – oh. my. goodness.)  This is going to become a favorite, and I know I’ll be going back to it whenever I need a little lift after a long, tough day.

And so ends another year of reading!  2018 was a good one, and December was a particularly good month.  There was holiday hilarity, thanks to Nancy Mitford and Philip Rhys Evans, there was excellent fantasy in Alif the Unseen, and the Lumberjanes book was a joy.  I finally made time to read my dear friend A.M.B.’s book and it was just as wonderful as I knew it would be, and I was riveted by Becoming.  There wasn’t a single dud this month, and I just had a lovely, joyful end to the reading year.  And now – on to 2019!



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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for November, 2018


Hallowe’en Party, by Agatha Christie – A fun one to read on Halloween (and for a day or so after, as it turned out).  Ariadne Oliver, the celebrated mystery writer, is at a children’s Hallowe’en party when one of the party guests is found murdered.  Mrs. Oliver knows that her friend Hercule Poirot can unravel the mystery – but will he solve it in time to prevent the murderer striking again?  Agatha Christie always delivers, and this was a blast.

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes and Other Dauntless Girls (A Tyranny of Petticoats #2), ed. Jessica Spotswood – I loved the first entry into this series, and The Radical Element delivered exactly the same joys.  There were stories of a young Mexican-American woman using magic to pass as white in 1920s Hollywood, a Jewish girl willing to risk everything to learn about her faith, a gay teenager who runs away with the circus, and more.  Every story was heartfelt and beautiful.

I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan, by Khalida Brohi – This was a stirring and powerful memoir by a still-young woman who has risked her life over and over again to empower women and girls and to fight the custom of honor killing in Pakistan.  I couldn’t stop turning the pages.


The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate – I read this for the fall Tea and Tattle book club – to be honest, I was sold when Miranda explained that it inspired Julian Fellowes in creating Downton Abbey and Gosford Park.  I could see it, too: the same upstairs/downstairs dramas and complex characters.  The Shooting Party was a slim but lovely read, about an eventful gathering of a group of aristocrats for a shooting party at a great house on the eve of World War I.

Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay, by Phoebe Robinson – Meh.  So, I really enjoyed Robinson’s first collection of essays, You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have To Explain), but Everything’s Trash felt like more of the same.  I kept thinking to myself: I feel like I’ve already read this.  And there was a weird braggy interlude in the middle about how she met Bono twice and he made her a piece of original artwork.

My So-Called Bollywood Life, by Nisha Sharma – I was excited to read this YA novel about a young girl navigating high school with the help of her favorite Bollywood movies, but it was kind of a let-down.  The central storyline revolved around a prophecy that the main character had received as a baby, about marrying someone with a name that starts with “R” who would give her a silver bracelet, so her entire family was super committed to making sure she married her boyfriend Raj, who gave her a silver bracelet because he felt like he had to after hearing so much about the prophecy. And then there was a love triangle, which is my least favorite YA trope ever.  It just wasn’t for me.


The House By The Lake: One House, Five Families, and A Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding – I loved this.  I can never pass up a history told through an interesting lens or with an unusual hook, and The House by the Lake sure delivered.  The book begins with Harding visiting a ramshackle, falling-down cottage on the shores of Gross Glienecke Lake – just outside of Berlin – that once belonged to his great-grandparents.  Seeking to save the cottage from being razed by the government, he weaves together the house’s fascinating history, from his Jewish great-grandparents, who were forced to leave the house and its contents behind when they fled for England at the beginning of World War II, through the families who either summered or lived there year-round under the brutal East German regime until the fall of the Berlin Wall, and all the way to present day.  Harding’s quest to prove the cottage’s historic significance seems quixotic at first, even to his family, but his zest for the mission eventually wins him the support of the local historical society – but will it be enough?  You’ll have to read it and find out.

Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr – Several years ago, Anthony Doerr received a fellowship to live in Rome and work at an American writers’ collective in the city for a year.  He moved his wife and their six-month-old twin boys to the ancient city and they attempted to learn Italian and live as Romans while he worked on a novel about World War II.  Unsurprisingly, the book writing does not go well – Doerr spends most of the year nauseatingly exhausted from parenting (been there) and disoriented from the foreignness of Rome – which is fascinating when you know with 20-20 hindsight that the book that was going so badly at the time eventually turned out to be the stunningly beautiful All The Light We Cannot See.  This memoir was beautiful too – Doerr is an incredibly evocative writer.

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner – I’ve been meaning to read this since about 2007, when a friend with excellent literary taste told me that Stegner was her favorite writer.  (This friend was from Utah originally and had made it her mission to read all the literature of the American West.)  Angle of Repose is widely regarded as Stegner’s masterpiece, although it’s not without controversy – part of the book includes letters from the main character, who was inspired by a real historical figure, and Stegner lifted whole letters from that actual figure after her family was kind enough to share them with him for research purposes, and published them in the book.  (Whoops.)  Anyway, if you’re reading between the lines, you’ve probably guessed that I didn’t love this.  Liked it, but didn’t love it.  I found the central plot – the marriage of the narrator’s grandparents – to be hard to believe; they were just too different and I understand that divorce wasn’t a “thing” in Victorian times, but meh.  I just couldn’t buy into the central relationship because I didn’t find it believable that they were in love in the first place. I was disappointed, because I loved Crossing to Safety (another Stegner) so much – but Angle of Repose fell a little flat for me.

Autumn (Seasonal Quartet #1) by Ali Smith – I wanted to read this book (hailed as the “first Brexit novel”) after seeing it all over my Instagram feed.  It makes for gorgeous photographs, but I didn’t love the book.  Ali Smith is a genius, no doubt, and I was suitably impressed by the things she did with language.  The problem was that I couldn’t lose myself in the story (of an elderly man and his devoted young neighbor) because I was constantly aware that Ali Smith was Doing Impressive Things With Language.

Belonging: A German Reckons With Home and History, by Nora Krug – Soooooooo so so so so good.  I absolutely loved this graphic and pictorial family history.  Nora Krug, like many Germans of the younger generation, has grown up under the shadow of World War II.  Finally, after moving to America and marrying a Jewish man, Krug feels brave enough to confront her family history and ask the question about her grandparents that she’s never been able to get satisfactorily answered: were they Nazis?  Krug delves into her family history, and the history of the towns in which they lived, and the result is half-scrapbook, half-graphic memoir – and totally fascinating.

Slightly Foxed No. 59: Manhattan Moments, ed. Gail Pirkis – Just in time for the special 60th issue to arrive on my doorstep, I finished this fall’s Slightly Foxed.  It was full of literary delights, as usual.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams – Another one I’ve had on my TBR for awhile; I liked, but didn’t love, The Nature Fix.  It was interesting, if a bit more focused on neuroscience than I was expecting – I’d have liked a little psychology or nature writing to mix it up.  The one thing that really bothered me was the author’s near-constant ragging on DC.  I get it: DC isn’t for everyone, and she moved from Colorado, which is just a different world for someone who likes outdoor adventure (I know, my brother lives there).  But one or two complaints about DC (the noise, the air quality, the lack of access to trails, blah, blah, blah – it’s not actually that bad here) would have sufficed to make her point.  Complaints in every chapter got tiresome.

WOW, what a busy reading month November was!  Part of that was because I changed jobs – I had three days of “funemployment” between gigs, plus ramp-down and ramp-up time on either side of that, when work wasn’t keeping me crazy busy.  That time coincided with some disgustingly awful weather, so instead of hiking as I had planned to do with my “funemployment” I spent two entire days on the couch, reading.  It was pretty blissful.  As for enjoyment, I was all over the place.  Belonging was the clear highlight, but I also loved The House By the LakeThe Shooting Party, and Four Seasons in Rome, and a new Slightly Foxed quarterly is never unwelcome.  There were some duds, too, but even with those I was enjoying the act of reading, itself, so no regrets.  Here’s hoping for a strong finish to the year!

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In his introduction to The Floating Admiral, Simon Brett describes the book as a sort of parlour game – as all the best detective novels are, really.  But even amongst golden age crime novels, The Floating Admiral is unique, having been team-written by a collection of mystery-spinning luminaries the likes of which the literary world never saw before and likely will never see again: the original Detection Club.

A word about the Detection Club, for those who are unfamiliar: it was a sort of booze-soaked writing society, made up of everyone who was anyone in the golden age crime-writing world.  Agatha Christie was a member; so were Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton and John Rhode, among others.  They met on a regular but infrequent basis and their main purpose was to eat good food, drink, and talk about writing.  (How do I join?)  Eventually, it became clear that they needed to make some money to continue funding the eating of good food and the drinking of booze, so – bunch of writers that they are – they hit on the idea of writing a book together.  The result was The Floating Admiral.

The concept is simple: each club member (at least, each member who was involved in the project) wrote one chapter, then passed the whole packet of papers on to the next victim… errrr… writer.  Canon Victor L. Whitechurch started them off, laying the basic premises for the crime in a chapter entitled “Corpse Ahoy!” – in which we meet the corpse, one late Admiral Penistone; the sleuth, Inspector Rudge; and a few other cast members.  Tidal soothsayer and local grouch Neddy Ware discovers the body of the Admiral, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, stabbed to death in the Vicar’s boat (because why not?) and bobbing around in Neddy’s favorite secret fishing spot, and we’re off to the races.  Each member of the club contributes some clues and some red herrings, every chapter ends on a cliffhanger (no one could resist, it seems), at least five suspects flee to London, and it’s all good fun.

None of the writers knows what they’re getting before they receive the sheaf of papers for their turn at the tiller, and once they turn the story over to the next writer it’s out of their hands.  Anthony Berkeley – whose name will be familiar to fellow devotees of the British Library Crime Classics series; I know you’re out there – writes the aptly titled final chapter, “Clearing Up the Mess” and G.K. Chesterton contributes a prologue that ties everything together after the murder is puzzled out in full; Chesterton was the only contributor who had the full solved puzzle to work from before he started writing.  John Rhode – another BL Crime Classics frequent flyer – Sayers, and Christie all contribute chapters, and I like to think that I could have attributed Christie’s chapter, in particular, to the author – I’ve read enough of her work to be fairly familiar with her writing style.

For instance, Christie relies heavily on dialogue to introduce new clues and plot points, and it’s apt that her chapter is entitled “Mainly Conversation.”  Because Aggie’s gotta Ag, she introduces the Inspector to the local busybody, who gives him some useful information in the midst of telling him all the neighborhood gossip and her own theories about the crime:

‘A train to catch,’ mused the Inspector.

‘That would be the 11.25 I expect,’ said Mrs Davis.  ‘The up train for London.  Six in the morning it gets there.  But he didn’t go by it.  What I mean is, he couldn’t have gone by it, because if he had, he wouldn’t have been lying murdered in the Vicar’s boat.’

And she looked at Inspector Rudge triumphantly.

Anthony Berkeley gets the fun job of unraveling all the clues, discarding the red herrings, and revealing the solution to the mystery.  But once Berkeley has revealed the official solution, everyone else gets in on the fun in the appendix, as each writer contributes their own scheme for solving the puzzle and ending the novel.  And if the novel itself was absurd, the appendices are straight-up loony tunes.  Various people are in disguise, there is tomfoolery with an inheritance and a hurried marriage, the Vicar is an accessory before the fact, the Vicar is an accessory after the fact, it’s a team effort, it’s a crime of passion!

Here’s the thing: as a piece of writing goes, The Floating Admiral isn’t awesome.  As is to be expected when thirteen (!!!) people are involved, it’s weirdly disjointed, nothing makes much sense, the plot is all over the place and the whole experience is disorienting.  But as a game or a puzzle, it’s a darned fun experiment and a delightfully silly way to spend a few hours.  I knew there was no way I’d be able to solve the puzzle, since none of the writers even knew how it was going to work out, so I just buckled in and enjoyed the silliness – and what enjoyable silliness it was.

The Floating Admiral, by the Members of the Detection Club, available here (not an affiliate link).

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for October, 2018


The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid – After I read and loved Exit West earlier this year, I was looking forward to checking out Hamid’s earlier novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  The story of a young Pakistani man who graduates from Princeton and lands a prestigious job in finance, only to find his worldview coming unraveled after September 11, is compelling and thought-provoking.

Miss Mapp (Mapp and Lucia #2), by E.F. Benson – Out of order but not exactly, because I read the first of the Mapp and Lucia books last year, I picked up Miss Mapp as a lighthearted palate cleanser after The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and it didn’t disappoint.  Reading about the social machinations and misadventures of Elizabeth Mapp and her neighbors – archrival Diva Plaistow, possible love interest Major Benjy, and more – was just the delightful romp I needed.

Queen Lucia (Mapp and Lucia #1), by E.F. Benson – It occurred to me that in order to count Queen Lucia toward my new Classics Club challenge, I’d need to re-read it, and I was still in the mood to spend time in Riseholme and Tilling, so I meandered one town over to spend time with Lucia, Peppino, Georgie, Olga and the Riseholme crew.  I think Miss Mapp is stronger than this predecessor, but Queen Lucia is still most enjoyable.  (The Brinton Quartet!  I DIE.)


Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward – A thing about living in D.C. is that when these political exposes, analyses, tell-alls, memoirs, and the like come out – everyone scrambles to read them.  I imagine that this isn’t the case in other cities, but here, the conversation revolves around a new Trump book for at least a month – and longer if the redoubtable Bob Woodward is involved.  This was exactly what I would expect from Woodward – exhaustively researched and persuasively composed – and because of its subject, it was downright chilling.  I hate that these books are being published, but as long as they are and as long as I live where I do, I’m sure I won’t be able to resist reading them.

The Blue Field (Brensham Trilogy #3), by John Moore – This month’s reading is looking like a pattern – intense/heavy, lighthearted, lighthearted, later, rinse, repeat.  Obviously after Fear I needed another couple of palate cleansers, and I had been saving the final volume of the Brensham Trilogy – lightly fictionalized memoirs about life in an English market town and its constellation of surrounding villages before, during and after World War II – for just such an occasion.  It didn’t disappoint.  Moore’s evocative writing about English village life was present in force, old friends dropped by for a visit and some government port, and the character of William Hart burst lifelike onto the page.  I’m going to come back to this trilogy again and again, and I’m so glad to have them lined neatly up on my Slightly Foxed shelf.

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding (Her Royal Spyness #12), by Rhys Bowen – I can’t resist a new installment of the adventures of Lady Georgianna Rannoch, and this one was just as good as its predecessors.  On the eve of her wedding to the Honorable Darcy O’Mara, Georgie is once again looking for a place to live.  Her house-hunting woes are put to an end when her ex-stepfather offers her residence in his stately manor, Eynsleigh, which Georgie will inherit along with his fortune someday.  Remembering happy childhood days at Eynsleigh, Georgie leaps at the chance, but when she arrives the manor is sadly dilapidated and the staff is almost suspiciously inept.  As Georgie attempts to prepare for her wedding and set the house to rights, it becomes clear that something more sinister than run-of-the-mill Problems With The Servants is going on.  Delightful and fun as always!


The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Came After, by Clemantine Wamariya – Continuing with my pattern, the next intense read (on my friend Zan‘s recommendation) was The Girl Who Smiled Beads, a memoir of life as a refugee after the Rwandan genocide.  Clemantine Wamariya was only six years old when she and her older sister, Claire, were displaced by the war in Rwanda.  They stick together – reluctantly sometimes – through refugee camps and tough neighborhoods in seven African countries until they’re eventually granted asylum in the United States.  This book was stunning and powerful and I think it would be hard for anyone to read, but I found it particularly difficult because my daughter is six years old – the same age Clemantine was when she first became a refugee and was separated from her parents.  I kept imagining my daughter in her place and it was almost impossible to keep reading – but I did, because I think this book is incredibly important.  With the ongoing refugee crisis and the poisonous rhetoric around immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in the current political climate, The Girl Who Smiled Beads should be required reading for everyone.

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, by Anne Bogel – Cue up the post-intense-read-palate-cleanser.  I breezed through this slim book of essays about life as a book person in one day, and it was delightful.  My local independent children’s bookstore got shouts (hooray!) and while I already knew the story of the library in Bogel’s backyard – jeeeeeeealous – I never tire of reading about it.  There’s nothing like a book about books, and this one is a worthy addition to the shelf; I can see myself dipping back into it again and again.

The Floating Admiral, by the Members of the Detection Club – Checked one off my longtime TBR and Classics Club challenge list with this fun team-written mystery novel by the original members of the Detection Club, a collection of Golden Age crime luminaries including Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley.  The writing was a bit all over the place, since each writer brought their own style to the project – and every chapter ended on a cliffhanger, because apparently no one could help themselves.  But it was a lot of fun and very different; full review to come soon.


Educated, by Tara Westover – I listened on audio to this month’s book club selection – a memoir by a young woman who grew up in a survivalist family in rural Idaho, where her homeschool education was spotty at best and nonexistent at worse, and she endured horrific abuse by her elder brother and gaslighting by her parents, who took his part – but she rose above all of these challenges to earn a college degree from Brigham Young University, a Harvard fellowship, and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.  Educated was on President Obama’s summer reading list for 2018 and it was certainly fascinating.  The audio production was excellent, but man it was hard to listen to.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett – I’ve had this debut novel on my list since it was released to wide acclaim and it was deserving of the hype.  The Mothers relates the story of three young lives – Nadia Turner, Luke Sheppard, and Aubrey Evans – and how they are shaped and changed by a secret.  The writing is gripping and the story is well-told, but what makes the book really unique is the use of the “church mothers” as a sort of Greek chorus introducing the events of nearly every chapter.  I loved the voices of the “church mothers” and found them to be a really different and well-utilized storytelling device.

Eleven books in October!  At this rate, my plan to read only 52 books this year is long-since abandoned.  What can I say?  I love to read and I can’t seem to slow my pace.  Plus – so many books, so little time, amirite?  October always seems to be a strong reading month for me; I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the return of chilly weather, or the fact that we’re well and truly out of the summer vacation and back-to-school seasons and I have the time and capacity to dedicate to long reading evenings again.  This October is no different and I have lots of highlights.  The two Mapp and Lucia books were such fun at the beginning of the month, and of course I always enjoy a visit with Lady Georgianna.  Educated was incredibly powerful, as was The Girl Who Smiled Beads.  But I think The Blue Field is the high point, because I just love the beautifully and poignantly drawn world that John Moore conjures up in Brensham.  Next month – I have a big stack of library books, so I’m excited about lots of good reading ahead.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for September, 2018

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso  – I had to read this book after I heard it described on the Book Riot Podcast as “Golden Girls, but woke and in South Africa.”  It was a lot of fun.  Hortensia and Marion are next-door neighbors, rivals and frenemies.  Both successful businesswomen, both fairly recently widowed, when they are thrown together by an unexpected event they find that they have more in common than they originally thought – and maybe, just maybe, the seeds of a friendship are there?  I enjoyed this, and it was a fun read, but I didn’t find myself particularly drawn to either of the main characters.  I suppose that’s to be expected, since they were both written to be crotchety old ladies.  But I would have enjoyed it more if at least one of them was slightly less caustic.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple – It was my month to host book club, and therefore my turn to choose the book.  Trying to keep my fellow clubbers’ preferences in mind (they had trouble getting through Northanger Abbey) I went for something more modern this time – but still one of my favorite books.  I can’t count how many times I’ve read Bernadette, and I find something new in it each time.  This time, it was interesting to hear my book club’s perspectives on it.  Most of them loved the book but found Bernadette herself to be irritating – to me, it seems clear that Bernadette has severe untreated postpartum anxiety and no support system, and my heart breaks for her.  It’s an incredibly moving portrayal of a broken woman who finds peace, sneakily disguised as funny chick lit.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge – I’m not sure if I’ve only just realized it or if it’s really a recent phenomenon, but there are so many wonderful memoirs about race, written by black women, these days.  Eddo-Lodge’s book is a worthy addition to that shelf, and is a little bit different in that Eddo-Lodge is British.  I try to make sure I am acquainted with racial issues and current events, but my perspective is necessarily American-focused, because I am American.  It was an important experience for me to read about the racial history and current attitudes faced by people of color in Britain, too.

Slightly Foxed, No. 6: Taking the Plunge, ed. Gail Pirkis – I am slowly reading my way through the back issues of Slightly Foxed, and reaching for one whenever I need some comfort reading.  This was a good, relaxing read between two searing memoirs of race issues.  Slightly Foxed is like a large cup of tea with a good friend – always a pleasure.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors – I have seen this on other book lists and it caught my eye on an endcap at the library, so I grabbed it and read it in a day.  Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, that has become such an iconic presence in our current landscape.  Her memoir of growing up in Los Angeles and finding both a place in the world and her political voice – inspired by the treatment she witnessed her disabled brother endure in prison and at the hands of police – is powerful and searing.

The Modern Guide to Witchcraft: Your Complete Guide to Witches, Covens and Spells, by Skye Alexander – ‘Tis the season!  I was in a witchy mood and had such a fun time learning to hex you.  (Am I kidding?  Do you want to find out?)  Seriously, though – the different theories and styles of witchcraft were fascinating to read about.

Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, by Nick Offerman – I listened to this one (read by the author, naturally) on Audible and it was a lot of fun.  I’ve been a big fan of Nick Offerman’s since first starting to watch Parks and Recreation years ago, and Paddle Your Own Canoe was a great – excuse me, delicious – time.  Offerman writes about his childhood in Minooka, Illinois; his raucous days in the theatre department at the University of Illinois; his move to Los Angeles and navigating the Hollywood scene; his marriage to Megan Mullally, and more.  My only complaint was that he didn’t get around to talking about Parks and Recreation until the last chapter, and even then it was only about half of the chapter.

The Fortnight in September, by R. C. Sherriff – I’d been saving The Fortnight in September for months, intending to read it in September, and it ended up taking me about a fortnight.  That’s not a knock on the book, which was a delight; I was just in an extremely distractible mood, I guess.  Fortnight follows the Stevens family – parents Ernest and Flossie and children Dick, Mary and Ernie – through their annual vacation to Bognor.  It’s one of those books in which nothing much dramatic happens, but every word is a joy and as fresh as a sea breeze.  I loved it.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson – I am proud to report that I understood two whole sentences of this book!  Okay – to be honest, I tried really hard, and I have a decent working knowledge of how things work in the universe, but I found this to be so far over my head it was almost funny.  I was hoping for something more approachable.  Tyson uses layman’s terms for the most part, and there are some funny asides, but mostly, I guess I was in too much of a hurry?

Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman – Final read of September was my book club book for October, fluffy chick lit about a snarky kindergarten class mom at an uptight private school.  Apparently the author was inspired by Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but I personally didn’t find nearly as much substance here as I always find in Bernadette.  I also found the main character to be irritating and occasionally offensive – which I think was the point, but it was too much.  The storyline about her wild past with rock stars also seemed contrived.  I just wasn’t a fan.  The other ladies in the book club enjoyed the book more, I think, and they wanted me to tell them how true to life it is (being a current kindergarten class mom) but we really didn’t get into discussing the book, because there was very little to discuss.

Some September!  I thought I was having a slow month, but looking back, it seems I was pretty busy after all.  My highlights were Bernadette and Fortnight, as you’ve probably already discerned.  I also had a lot of fun listening to Nick Offerman on my commutes – who wouldn’t?  Looking ahead to October, I have a stack of most excellent library books and plans to read through the Mapp and Lucia novels.  Check in with me again soon!

What did you enjoy reading in September?

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There comes a point in the life of a classic literature fan where – while you may not have completely worked your way through “the canon,” such as it is – you start looking for the different, the less-known, the forgotten.  I’ve always felt a strong connection to classics by women – your Jane Austen, your L.M. Montgomery, your Edith Wharton, your Bronte sisters, your Elizabeth Gaskell, etc. – so it was only a matter of time before I discovered Persephone Books, an independent publishing house based in London which has built a following through its dedication to printing long-neglected classics by mostly women writers, many of whom I’d never heard of before discovering these lovely dove grey volumes.  Any new convert to the Persephone way learns that there are two authors in particular who enjoy a spot atop the pyramid of Persephone’s stable of authors – Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski.

I’ve read one Whipple – Greenbanks – and loved it, so I thought I’d better give Laski a go.  One thing about Laski is that no two of her books are alike.  They vary in subject, tone and style.  So I suspected that I might like some better than others, and decided to start with The Village, which seemed a likely success for me – and it was.

In the opening scene of The Village, victory has just been declared in the European phase of World War II.  The war, of course, was still raging in the Pacific, but for the residents of Priory Dean, V-E Day effectively meant the end to hostilities.  Refugees would be headed back to London – if they weren’t already – the threat of German bombs was over, and deployed local boys would soon be straggling home, if they had survived.  On the first night of peacetime, there’s no curfew, there are bonfires and dancing in the streets.  And as the celebrations whirl through the village, Wendy Trevor and Edith Wilson wend their way to their night’s watch.  There’s really no need for them to scout through the evening, since the war is over.  But both women are oddly reluctant to let their wartime duties go.  They come from different stations in life – Wendy belongs to impoverished gentry, and Edith to the working class, lacking in social graces but better funded than the Trevors and their like.  Edith used to “do for” the Trevor family, and she and Wendy both know that their friendship, forged in the crucible of wartime, is now going to have to end.  Edith will be sticking with her kind, and Wendy with hers.  But they both crave one last evening of companionship before returning to their respective stations in life.

Wendy said with a half-laugh, half-sob, ‘Listen, the dance music’s stopped.  Edith,’ she sad, mopping her eyes, twisting her handkerchief in her hands.  ‘I don’t know how to apologise.  I don’t know what came over me, making an exhibition of myself like that.’

‘There’s nothing to apologise for at all,’ said Edith.  ‘We’re all of us that tired and overwrought these days anyway, and if you can’t have a good cry here tonight I don’t know when you can.’  She added almost casually, her face half-turned away, ‘I lost a baby too, you know.  A little girl, mine was.  It was my first, too.’  She sat down beside Wendy, and again the two women sipped their tea, talking now in soft relaxed voices of the children when young, of their husbands, their parents, remembering the little things that had made up their lives, made them what they were.  Neither had ever talked like this to anyone before and never would again.

At last Wendy glanced up at the window and it was light.  On a single impulse they both got up and went to the door, looking out at the village in the early morning light, at the Norman church and Dr Gregory’s long Georgian house on the north side of the Green, the dark cedars that spread over the wall from Miss Evadne’s garden on the short side, at the ugly new shops flanking the village hall and closing the triangle around the Green.  The air was cool and sweet and no one was about.  It was the first day after the war.

Unbeknownst to Wendy and Edith, however, they’ll soon be thrown back together.  The Trevors – Major Gerald and Wendy – have two daughters, for whom they have scrimped and sacrificed to provide the best education.  Margaret, the eldest, is concluding school and the education seems to have been wasted on her.  She dreams of marriage and motherhood.  Unfortunately, the only son of the local gentry, Roger Gregory, is covered in acne and made even more unattractive by his unpleasant attitude.  After an embarrassing rejection at a local dance, however, Margaret finds herself back in the orbit of her childhood companion, Roy Wilson, with whom she used to play when his mother – Edith – cooked and cleaned for the Trevors.  Roy and Margaret drop back into their easy companionship and – I’m sure you see where this is going – are soon in love.

‘Oh, Roy,’ said Margaret, in an anguish of longing, and he demanded fiercely, ‘Margaret, you must marry me.  Say you’ll marry me.’

‘Oh, Roy,’ she repeated, and then he bent his head to hers and they kissed in bliss.

At last, he lifted his head and looked into her eyes.  ‘I love you,’ he said despairingly and Margaret sighed, ‘Oh, Roy, I love you too.  I love you,’ and he kissed her again, but this time they clung together for fear of loss and kissed in desperation.

When this kiss ended, their lips were trembling and their faces troubled.  ‘Oh, Margaret, I need you so much,’ whispered Roy.  ‘You’re what I’ve always wanted, we could be so happy–‘  He buried his face in her neck, the touch of his lips bringing to both a warm excited content.

Tentatively Margaret’s hands began to touch his neck, to stroke his hair.  ‘Let’s go on pretending,’ she said softly, ‘do let’s go on pretending.  Tell me about the rest of the house.’

He dragged himself upright and leant back against the tree, pulling her against him so that she leant on his shoulder, his arms around her and his other hand playing with her hands.  ‘There’d be a hall with a barometer,’ he said, ‘and I’d tap it to see if I was going to dig in the garden or go off to the pub.’

‘I’d come to the pub with you,’ said Margaret tenderly.

Roy and Margaret attempt to keep their romance secret, but in a small village, no gossip stays secret for long.  When the village gentry learn of Margaret’s affection for Roy and the young couple bravely declare their intention to marry, the Trevors are properly horrified by this unprecedented intermingling of classes.  Wendy, expecting her night’s watch companion to be as unsettled by the union as she is, appeals to Edith to help her minimize the damage.  To Wendy’s chagrin, Edith insists on being baffled as to what’s so shameful about marrying her upright, kind, gainfully-employed son.  And so the union between the daughter of impoverished gentry and the son of the upwardly mobile working class becomes the first test of a new social order.

There’s a lot in this book.  My one complaint was that the book’s central theme was sometimes a bit unsubtle.  It did feel, on occasion, as if Laski didn’t trust her readers enough to draw their own conclusions, and instead she felt the need to beat us over the head with her social theories.  The result was that the action was sometimes predictable.  But it was easy to overlook the occasional ham-handedness of the narrative because the village and its denizens were so alive.  There were a number of side plots that I haven’t addressed at all, and my favorite was the collective aneurysm of the gentry when a successful shopkeeper sells her business, buys a home in the “nice” section of town, and starts wearing tweeds:

To Miss Porteous’s immense surprise, Miss Moodie, when she came to the door, was seen to be wearing a tweed suit.  Miss Porteous had never through of it that way before, but tweed suits, in Priory Dean, were definitely gentry-wear.  In the past Miss Moodie had always been seen in the unnoticeable stockinette dress and cardigan of the respectable tradeswoman; she might, indeed, in these days even have worn a skirt and a hand-knitted jumper; but never, Miss Porteous obscurely felt, a tailored tweed jacket.  Why, now, with her smooth grey hair in the neat bun above this unassailable uniform, she looked just like anyone else, not even very unlike Miss Porteous herself, and it was the confusion she was feeling that led her, without thinking, to cross the threshold when Miss Moodie said, ‘Do please come in, there’s really a nip in the air today.  You’d hardly think it’s really June,’ and then to walk into the sitting-room when Miss Moodie turned the oxydised copper handle on the oak-grained door.

It’s the well-drawn village and the living, breathing characters that takes The Village from a heavy-handed tale of social upheaval to a classic.  I loved the peeks into the kitchens and drawing-rooms of another age, I was righteously angry when Roger Gregory (twice!) snubbed Margaret Trevor, and I cheered for Margaret in her new-found strength to defy her social circle and marry the man she loved – with the encouragement of an unlikely source, and I’m not going to tell you whom, because you really should read The Village.

This review is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2018

Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves, by Bill Willingham – It had been quite some time since I read any installment of Fables, but I stopped by the comics shelf at my library branch and there it was, looking like just what the doctor ordered.  In this installment, Mowgli has been dispatched to find Bigby Wolf, who Mayor Prince Charming believes is the only Fable who can successfully deliver an ultimatum from Fabletown to the Adversary.  (What about swashbuckling assassin Little Boy Blue? was my question.)  Meanwhile, Snow White is still living on the Farm, raising their cubs with help from her sister Rose Red, and the North Wind.  Fables was one of the first series I picked up when I started reading comics, and I still love it – it’s literary, witty, and so much fun.

The Village, by Marghanita Laski – I’ve been meaning to read Laski, who is one of Persephone’s top two authors (the other being Dorothy Whipple, whose book Greenbanks I loved) and The Village looked like a perfect place for me to start.  The novel opens on the day that peace in Europe was declared after years of fighting World War II.  For the residents of Laski’s village, that means the war is basically over – and they now have to figure out what life is going to look like in the aftermath.  During the war, social conventions were upended, but now that it’s all over, can they go back to what was normal before?  While we meet a number of characters on either side of the tracks, the book focuses on two families in particular – the Trevors, who are upper middle class gentry, but impoverished, and the Wilsons, working-class but doing well financially and on the rise.  When the Trevors’ daughter falls in love with the Wilsons’ son, battle lines are drawn.  I’ll have a more thorough review coming soon, but I really enjoyed this.  At times it could be a bit heavy-handed and overly expository about class distinctions, but the characters were so real and so well-drawn that it was a delight to read.

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Olsen Laney – I’d been reading this one on my phone for months, and I liked that the sections were so short that it could be read in snippets.  It was an interesting book with a fair amount of science, but I was underwhelmed by it.  I’ve read a fair amount of books about introversion at this point, and this one didn’t really add anything new for me, and it annoyed me that the author kept referring to introverts as “innies” and extroverts as “outies.”  Excuse me, but I am a person, not a belly button.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones – After reading one of Jones’ earlier novels, The Untelling, and thinking it was fine but not outstanding, I was worried about this one.  An American Marriage was so heavily hyped, and I waited for months on the library holds list to get it, and I was really dreading being disappointed.  I needn’t have worried, because the hype was totally valid in this case, and I thought the book was just wonderful.  An American Marriage tells the story of the unraveling of the titular marriage.  Roy and Celestial have been married only eighteen months when the police kick down the door of the motel room they’re staying in while visiting Roy’s parents, and arrest Roy for rape.  Roy quickly learns that being innocent of the crime (he was with his wife the entire time that the rape occurred), and having a clean record, are no help, and he is convicted and sent to prison for twelve years.  At first, Celestial dutifully visits him, but soon finds herself chafing under the pressures of being married to a wrongfully convicted man and falls into a relationship with her childhood best friend, Andre.  When Roy is unexpectedly released after five years instead of twelve, Celestial has to decide if she wants to save her marriage or seek her freedom.  An American Marriage was incredibly compelling, and the characters were living and breathing.  I loved the different perspective on the criminal justice system – I don’t think I’ve ever read a story told through this lens before – and I was on the edge of my seat, furiously turning pages to find out what happened.  My only complaint is that Jones never explains exactly what it was that got Roy released early – there’s a mention of prosecutorial misconduct, but I’d have liked more details about what the legal arguments were that led to his freedom.  (Was there new DNA evidence?  Other physical evidence?  What was the prosecutorial misconduct?  Inquiring lawyers wanna know.)  But I think that’s probably a complaint that is rooted in my being an attorney, and non-lawyers wouldn’t think twice about it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston – This one has been on my to-read list for years, and I am so glad that I finally got around to it, because it was absolutely gorgeous.  The dialogue was written in dialect, which was a bit hard to get into, but once I got it, I found it easy enough to read – and the non-dialogue was just beautiful, and the story compelling and wrenching.  I reviewed it in full for my Classics Club list here.

Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire, by Bill Willingham – After Bigby Wolf has delivered Fabletown’s message to the Adversary (and a very destructive message it is), the villains of the Homelands convene a council of war to discuss their response.  The Snow Queen proposes waging a wildly dramatic war, complete with plagues that will wipe out all of civilization on Earth, and she’s pretty gleeful about her idea.  (Elsa!  WHY???)  But Pinocchio successfully dismantles the Snow Queen’s plan, explaining why it can’t possibly work, and Fabletown is safe for the moment.  Meanwhile, Bigby and Snow are finally back together, raising their family at Wolf Manor – but then Snow tells Bigby that she wants them to take the cubs for a family visit to Bigby’s estranged father, the North Wind.  Obviously, there is no way that could end badly!  This series continues to be pure delight.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead – Lila Mae Watson is the first African-American woman in the history of her city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors, and so she is more than an elevator inspector; she’s a symbol of progress and inclusivity.  She’s also an Intuitionist, one of a minority of elevator inspectors who are able to simply meditate and sense any problems with an elevator (as opposed to the more methodical Empiricists, who visually inspect the elevators and their parts).  The Elevator Inspectors’ Guild is in the midst of an election season, and an Intuitionist is running against an Empiricist.  When an elevator has a catastrophic freefall on Lila Mae’s watch, she suddenly finds herself at the center of the storm, racing against time to find a “black box” – a perfect elevator design – hidden away by the founder of Intuitionism.  So, I enjoyed this once I gave up on understanding what was going on, or even really following it.  Magical realism isn’t my thing, and it was definitely at play here – but the story was compelling and Lila Mae was a wonderful character.

Portage: A Family, A Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life, by Sue Leaf – I so enjoyed this lovely, ruminative, expansive look at a lifetime of paddling.  Sue Leaf is trained as a zoologist, and she is a passionate canoeist, as are her husband and their children, who grew up paddling the lakes and rivers of the upper Midwest.  Portage is a hard book to describe – it’s part memoir, part history, part nature journal, part sports book.  Leaf begins the book by describing how she came to canoeing at age 10.  The rest of the book is organized into chapters or essays about various canoeing excursions she has taken with her family – everything from an afternoon’s paddling on an urban Minneapolis stream to two weeks canoe trekking the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.  In each essay, she muses on the natural and human history touching the river in question; gleefully describes the avian life she saw there; writes touchingly about parenthood, marriage and aging; muses about climate change; and more.  I read it at a slow pace and enjoyed every moment.  I’m a kayaker, not a canoeist, and I am used to paddling different waters, but Leaf’s joy in time spent on the water and the pleasure she takes in her paddles splashing in and out of a lake or river were very familiar to me.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson – I’ve been meaning to read this one for awhile, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t first attracted by the gorgeous cover.  But the book is a joy to read as well as to hold.  It’s one of those stories in which nothing really happens, but the clarity and elegance of the prose make it pure pleasure to read.  The Summer Book tells the story of six-year-old Sophia, recently bereft of her mother, and her summer pursuits on a small island off Finland with her Grandmother.  Sophia and Grandmother wander the island, build a miniature Venice, trespass in a neighbor’s house, brave a storm and a day of danger, and more.  Sophia was a completely realistic six-year-old (and I should know, because I have one of those) and her relationship with Grandmother was sparkling and heart-wrenching.  I marked so many passages of gorgeous writing to which I want to return.

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol – I saw this graphic novel on Instagram (specifically, on Colin Meloy’s stories) and ordered it immediately.  It’s a lightly fictionalized, but mostly pretty realistic, graphic memoir of the author’s time at a summer camp for Russian kids.  Vera feels different and set apart from her American friends – her mother, a single mom of three, can’t afford expensive dolls or fancy summer camps.  But when Vera learns of a summer camp for Russian kids, she figures she’s finally found a place where she’ll fit in.  Of course it’s not that simple, and Vera learns lessons about friendship and popularity over a summer of trying to carve out a niche for herself even at Russian camp.  Oh, and a chipmunk bites her.  I just loved Be Prepared, and I blew through it in one sitting.  It was sweet, a little bit sad, and really, really funny.

Canoeing in the Wilderness, by Henry David Thoreau – The last of my vacation reading, if you can call it that, since I started the book about one hour from home on the journey back, Canoeing in the Wilderness is Thoreau’s account of a paddling expedition in Maine with a number of companions, over one summer week.  In classic Thoreau language, he describes portages, campsites, and the vistas of rivers and lakes.  I really enjoyed it, but my twenty-first century sensibilities were bothered by his descriptions of the Native American guide the group hired to conduct them through the wilderness.  Although the man has a name – Joe Polis – which is given early on, Thoreau mostly refers to him as “the Indian” or even worse, “our Indian.”  Thoreau seems fascinated by Polis, as if he is another specimen of wildlife, and some of his descriptions of Polis’s directional capabilities, physical traits, and language really set my teeth on edge.  Throughout the book, when Thoreau would recount their conversations, I found myself hoping that Polis was trolling Thoreau and his friends with the intent of laughing at them later.

Pretty good August in books, if I do say so myself!  Eleven this month, including two comic trades and a graphic novel/memoir, which provided some of the highlights.  Other highlights: the absolutely gorgeous Their Eyes Were Watching God and the lovely The Village have to be up there, and I was really impressed with An American Marriage.  I also enjoyed some blissful vacation reading, and Portage especially was a joy.  On to September – I picked the book club book this month, which is a favorite re-read of mine, and I also have some other fun reading on deck.  Check in with me next month for more short book reviews.

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