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 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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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic of American literature, Southern literature, African-American literature and culture and thinking and – it’s just a must-read.  I’ve had this one on my list for years, and I finally got around to picking it up.  Better late than never.

A brief synopsis: Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a woman’s journey from adolescence to middle-age, through the lens of her three marriages.  We first meet Janie as a middle-aged woman preparing to tell the story of her life, but she quickly takes us back to peer in on herself as a blooming teenager, kissing a man over a fence.  All the world is possibility in that moment:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was a marriage!  She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.

Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, sees her kiss the young man and quickly moves to stamp out any ill-advised romance.  Nanny informs Janie that Janie must marry a man who can provide for her; it is this eventuality that will mark the culmination of Nanny’s hard work and sacrifices – and she has just the man.  He’s much older than Janie, and Janie doesn’t love him – nor he, her – but no matter.  He means security.  Janie, complacent, marries and is shocked to discover that she can’t fall in love with her husband; she’d just assumed that love would follow marriage naturally and without any prodding from her.  So she’s easily tempted to run off when a new man, Joe Starks, appears on the scene.  Joe – or Jody, as Janie calls him – promises to keep her in the style in which she, as a shockingly beautiful woman, ought to be kept.  On his arm, as Mrs. Starks, Janie enters the town of Eatonville, where she will spend most of her life.  Joe strides into town and immediately takes the community in hand, getting himself elected Mayor and setting up a thriving business.  But Janie struggles against the bonds in her new life – working in Joe’s store, covering her lustrous hair upon his orders, and staying silent instead of joining in the life of the town as she longs to do.  After twenty years of serving as Joe’s adornment, she is widowed and free for the first time.  And then Tea Cake appears on the scene.

All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake.  She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association.  But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again.  She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her.  He looked like the love thoughts of women.  He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring.  He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps.  Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took.  Spices hung about him.  He was a glance from God.

Tea Cake is younger than Janie – by about fifteen years – and the town speculates that he’s after her money.  He’s not, though.  When Janie finally agrees to marry him, they quickly come to an understanding (after he finds and spends her secret emergency stash – I wasn’t too impressed with him in that scene) that she’ll live on what he provides.  If they’re hungry, they’ll be hungry together.  And she works alongside him – not grudgingly, as with her first two husbands – but because he wants her with him and she wants to be there.  They struggle and strive and fight sometimes, and it’s a gloriously even partnership – and gorgeous to read.

The book culminates with a hurricane and its tragic aftermath, and some of the most compelling writing I’ve ever experienced, including the passage from which the title comes:

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time.  They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His.  They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

It’s a slim volume, and completely absorbing, so it makes for a quick read if you’re inclined to steam through books, which I certainly am; I finished it in a day.  But I did try to slow down and appreciate Hurston’s gorgeous writing, and to make sure I didn’t miss the dialogue, which Hurston writes in dialect – which takes some getting used to, but once you’re accustomed it enhances the texture and the atmosphere of the story.

I won’t spoil the ending, because everyone should read it for themselves – on the edge of your seat, if you’re anything like me.  I can certainly see why Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic, and I’m sure I will be revisiting it.

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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 July, 2018…

Slightly Foxed No. 58: A Snatch of Morning, ed. Gail Pirkis – It’s always a red-letter day when the latest issue of Slightly Foxed arrives on my doorstep!  This quarterly journal has brought me so much joy since I stumbled across it a couple of years ago now.  The latest issue was the same hodgepodge of delightfulness – this time around, there were essays on E.M. Forster’s great-aunt (which I really enjoyed, as I was reading Howards End at the same time); beards; Englishness; and Jane Austen’s favorite poet.  There’s nothing quite like an issue of Slightly Foxed for curling up with – gigantic cup of tea optional but desirable.

Howards End, by E.M. Forster – Here’s one that’s been on the TBR for ages, which I finally picked up because (1) there’s a new adaptation and I wanted to watch it but I really wanted to read the book first; and (2) I got a pretty hardcover copy from Hodder & Stoughton.  The story of the clashes and intersections between the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcox family were absorbing from beginning to end – and, predictably, I identified with Margaret and found Helen mildly exasperating.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown – I’m not sure if lately there are more memoirs about the experience of living as a woman of color, or if I’m just more aware of them, but I’ve read several now and this is a standout.  Brown writes compellingly about names, identity, work, religion and more.  The section in which she details the microaggressions of a typical workday was really eye-opening and made me all the more determined to be a good ally.  (My friend Zan also read this book last month, although I don’t think we were aware that we were reading the same book at the time.  Go check out her thoughts on the book here.)

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell – Another one that I’ve been meaning for a long time to read.  I picked this up while in the first shock of grieving for a loved one who had enjoyed this book, and it was the only thing that made me feel better.  Asked to describe it midway through the reading experience, I said it was “Pride and Prejudice and labor unrest,” and I hold to that elevator pitch – but man, it is SO good.  For some reason I’d had it in my head that Elizabeth Gaskell would be a difficult read, but that can’t be further from my experience.  I’ve now read two of her books – the other being Cranford – and loved both.  I can’t wait to wend my way through the rest.

Summer, by Edith Wharton – Sometimes described as “the hot Ethan,” Summer tells the story of young Charity Royall’s awakening during an affair with the cousin of a neighbor, visiting from the city.  Typical for Wharton, the writing is spare and elegant and the scene-setting is atmospheric.  I enjoyed it all the more for having just been in Lenox, where Wharton had her country estate, earlier in the month.  (The Mount has long been on my to-do list.  I must make it happen sooner than later.)

The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah – I picked this up because it was described as a “classic of urban literature” and was recommended on PBS’ The Great American Read.  But man alive, how I hated it.  Winter Santiaga is the spoiled eldest daughter of a Brooklyn drug kingpin, but her world comes crashing down when her father is arrested.  Winter decides she is going to do whatever she has to do in order to survive, but surviving for Winter appears to mean finding a man to take care of her, or alternatively, coming up with her own crime schemes to get money quick so she can buy designer clothes.  For a short time she comes within the orbit of Sister Souljah, a Harlem activist who comes across as completely self-righteous and sanctimonious.  Midnight, the only man Winter can’t get, and Rashida, one of Winter’s acquaintances at a group home she resides in temporarily, are the only characters I found at all worthwhile in the book.  For awhile I tried to equate Winter with other unsympathetic anti-heroines – namely Scarlett O’Hara – but it didn’t work.  Scarlett at least had something she loved outside of herself – Tara, her father’s plantation – and her schemes were all centered around her purpose of saving and keeping Tara.  Winter was only interested in Winter.  But I plugged away at it and finally finished, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been so glad to be done with a book.

Slightly Foxed No. 5: A Hare’s Breath, ed. Gail Pirkis – After the 400-page miseryfest that was The Coldest Winter Ever, I needed some quick comfort, and fortunately I had a few essays left to read in the fifth volume of Slightly Foxed (as I am reading my way through the back issues at the meditative pace of an essay or two a night, unless I need a palate cleanser from a terrible reading experience).  I think I should read through more quickly, though, because the essays at the end, when I was steaming along, made more of an impression than the earlier essays I read in snatches.  Particular highlights were an introduction to a princess who followed her Decembrist husband to Siberia, and a meander through the gardening literature of Vita Sackville-West (which is already on my Amazon wish list).

News from Thrush Green (Thrush Green #3), by Miss Read – I was still in need of comfort reading after finishing the Slightly Foxed issue described above, and there’s nothing like Miss Read for that.  I’d been saving this third installment in the Thrush Green series and I happily dove right back into that world.  In this one, marital problems abound.  Nelly Piggott leaves her husband Albert after he grouses about her cooking one too many times, and a newcomer arrives in the village with a sweet son but no husband (!!!!!) which, naturally, sets tongues wagging.  There are other domestic disturbances, too – the Baileys host an irritating family member for an extended visit and Dotty Harmer has kittens to give away.  Thrush Green is a sweet, slow-paced world where the problems are slight and you’re guaranteed that everything will turn out fine in the end.  Just what the doctor ordered.

I definitely did more reading in July than in June – I suppose I was making up for lost time.  And so many classics this month!  Time spent over Elizabeth Gaskell, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster and Miss Read is always a delight, as is any moment I am able to snatch with an issue of Slightly Foxed.  I always end a month feeling more satisfied with and comforted by my reading if it’s included plenty of classics, and July was no exception – I guess I know what I like.

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Well, it’s only August!  The summer is flying by – as usual – and it just occurred to me that I haven’t done a “top ten books of the year so far” post.  I’ve been seeing similar posts pop up on other blogs over the past few weeks, so maybe we’re all running late?  In any event, completely unscientifically and vaguely in chronological order, here are my ten favorite books read in the first – errrrr – seven months of the year.

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, by Gwen Raverat – Steve and the kids gave me an absolutely gorgeous edition of Period Piece for my birthday in 2017, and it was a lovely reading experience to start off the year.  Raverat grew up as Gwen Darwin, granddaughter of Charles, in Victorian Cambridge, before becoming an woodcut illustrator and marrying Jacques Raverat, himself a well-known artist.  Raverat is one of the first professional female artists to gain reknown, and Period Piece, her charming memoir of her childhood, is illustrated with her own work.  I love woodcut illustration, and I love Victorian childhood lit, so basically I was here for all of it.

Consider the Years, by Virginia Graham – Graham was a genteel, upper-class lady, married and moving in the best social circles, when the world came crashing down in the form of the Blitz.  Consider the Years is her collection of poetry from the beginning of World War II to just after the war’s end.  It’s beautiful, sad, sometimes funny (oh, Nanny!) and altogether wonderful.

Behind the Lines, by A.A. Milne – Somehow, despite reading his Winnie-the-Pooh books more times than I can count, and despite being well aware that Milne also wrote many books for adults, I’d never read any of his work not set in the Hundred Acre Wood.  That is – until I saw Behind the Lines on another book blog and scrambled to obtain a copy for myself (it’s out of print).  Milne’s Home Front poetry is witty, funny, poignant and delightful – much like When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, except with newspapers and barometers.

84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff – People have been telling me to read this book for literally years and I finally got around to it (and in great style, in the form of a fire engine red Slightly Foxed Edition – so pretty).  Hanff is a Manhattan bibliophile who writes to a London bookstore in search of some inexpensive used books to complete her self-assigned course of education and personal enrichment.  She gets the books – lots and lots of them – but something better as well: cross-Atlantic friendships with the store’s entire staff, all of whom write to her at various points.  The letters they exchange are hilarious, chatty, and sometimes sad as Hanff details the financial woes that prevent her from coming to London and having a cuppa with all of them in person.

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente – Eurovision in space?!  What’s not to love?  Valente is one of my go-to preorders; I think she’s one of the most original authors writing today.  Her latest novel was such a fun romp.  Decibel Jones is a washed-up and aging glam rocker who finds himself in the unusual position of being the only hope for the survival of humanity after a blue birdlike alien arrives and informs everyone that unless Decibel and the remnants of his long-dispersed band manage not to come in dead last in an intergalactic singing competition, Earth will be obliterated.  No pressure, D!

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen – My choice for the first read of my new book club wasn’t very popular, sadly.  But Northanger Abbey is one of my favorite Austens, and every time I read it I remember just how much I love it.  I adore naïve Catherine, sweet Eleanor, handsome Henry, and even the clueless Mrs Allen.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas – I’d have picked this one up for the cover alone (I mean, does it get more beautiful?) but I had read and loved Lukas’ debut novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, years ago and was eagerly awaiting his sophomore effort.  This didn’t disappoint – it was just as richly imagined, gorgeously written, evocative and absorbing as its predecessor.  I got it from the library, but I might need to buy a copy, because I loved it so much.

Brensham Village, by John Moore – The second volume of the Brensham trilogy, a lightly-fictionalized memoir about English country life from the Edwardian days to World War II, was a definite highlight.  (I also read the first volume, Portrait of Elmbury, which was excellent, but included one very jarring paragraph with a couple of racist sentences.  I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but Brensham Village pulls ahead by being more charming in every respect and also, no racism.)  I have copies of each book in the trilogy in gorgeous blue and green Slightly Foxed Editions, and I look forward to returning to the world of cricket on Brensham Green, followed by pints in the Horse Narrow, very soon.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown – I have been trying to stay abreast of the important memoirs about the experiences of people of color, and while there are many standouts, I’m Still Here has been my favorite.  Brown’s writing is elegant and compelling, and her life experiences well worth reading about.  I devoured it in a day.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell – This classic is a must-read that has been on my list for a long time, but I finally picked it up to get me through the grief of losing a loved one too soon.  The family member we lost had loved this book and encouraged me to read it, and now I finally have.  The first few chapters may be a bit splotchy with dried tears, but I was able to close the book with a smile and think to myself, you were absolutely right, of course.

Some good reading so far this year!  I always gravitate to classics, but I did so this year more than most, as you can probably tell from this list.  There’s just something so comforting about a big cup of tea, a warm woven blanket, and a classic novel when the winter winds are howling outside (or really, anytime throughout the year, although I might pass on the blanket in the August heat).  I also think that as the world outside gets scarier and more unpredictable, my bookshelves become more and more of an escape.  Everything else is moving so fast – I just want to take things slowly and keep it simple at home, and that probably shows in the reading I most enjoyed in the first half-ish of 2018.

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