Monday, April 13, 2020

I Am, I Am, I Am

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell (2018), narrated by Daisy Donovan

I've read a couple of novels by Maggie O'Farrell, but it's been a while since I've read anything of hers and this memoir has been languishing on my To Read list. I just downloaded it on audio through my library and listened to it in what felt like just a few days. Between the knitting and the jigsaw puzzles, I've gotten a lot of podcast/audiobook time recently!

This memoir is a bunch of snapshots, not in order, of all the times that O'Farrell has had a brush with death. The first one was the most chilling. When she was young (I think 18-20?) she was walking through the woods and encountered a guy who didn't do anything quite wrong that she could put her finger on, but who gave her a very bad feeling. At one point, while pointing out duck in a pond, he put his binocular strap around her neck. She chattered away, mentioning that she needed to get back to work before they came looking for her, and got away. She went to the police, who dismissed her concerns because the guy hadn't actually done anything. But a week later, they showed up at her door to ask questions because another young woman had also encountered him, and she was raped and strangled...with his binoculars strap. I will probably not forget this story for a while.

O'Farrell has some disabilities, aftereffects from what I think was her earliest brush with death - a bout of encephalitis when she was young, which confined her to a wheelchair for a time, caused lasting brain damage, and meant that she couldn't deliver a baby without a c-section. Later when she was pregnant and told her doctor that she would need a c-section, he refused, accusing her of reading too many celebrity magazines. (Can you imagine?) She almost died during the birth. Another time she almost drowned because her neurological problems mean that she has trouble orientating herself in space if she can't see, and it happened to be very dark.

The whole thing had a rather dreamy quality, partly because of O'Farrell's writing style and the way the book flitted around to various periods in her life, but also because of the narrator. Daisy Donovan has a very posh English accent and a soft, soothing voice that worked very well with this book. It was very good, and of course it's also a great reminder to be grateful for what you have because it could slip away at any moment.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Indifferent Stars Above

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown (2009)

We've all heard of the Donner Party, a group of doomed pioneers trying to cross the Sierra Nevada under such tough conditions they resorted to cannibalism. Before reading this book, that's all I knew about them. Thanks to Daniel James Brown, the gaps in my knowledge have been filled in great and disturbing detail.

The author chose to pick one character as his focus: Sarah Graves, a young newly-married woman who was traveling with her husband, parents, and a slew of siblings ranging from infant to adult. They were part of a larger group of 87 people. Things first went wrong when they took the advice of a man named Lansford Hastings, who wrote a guide for emigrants that suggested a cutoff that would trim many miles off the trip across the Sierra Nevada into California. What it shaved off in distance it more than made up for in difficulty, making travel with wagons almost impossible. The party also hit some early delays that meant their trip would be hitting it close to winter under the best circumstances. At one point they came to a complete halt, unable to make it over a pass, already hungry and cold and weakened as snow fell heavily around them. Here they built some rough shelters and stayed. They made several attempts at getting through the pass, crafting snowshoes to help them. Eventually a group, including Sarah Graves, made it across to their destination, Johnson's Ranch, but not without losing some people along the way. People who they ended up eating in desperation.

They were starving, their clothes and shoes in tatters, and some of them were snowblind. As people died, eating their flesh seemed to be the only way to survive. I know they've been judged for this behavior, but to be honest, those bodies aren't of any use to anyone, so why not? Otherwise they would just have been eaten by wild animals. (And by the way, the Donner Party consumed their own oxen and pet dogs before resorting to eating humans.)

In the end, out of 87 people in the original group, 47 died. I was actually surprised near the end to see those numbers because I didn't realize the group was so large to begin with. I think I had forgotten how many kids everyone had and, although Brown did talk about (or at least mention) everyone in the group at some point, I hadn't added them up in my head. Another thing I found surprising was the demographic breakdown of deaths, men dying at a much faster rate than women. Apparently, those who were single were in much more danger than those who traveled as part of a family group, and most single travelers were men. Also, women have more body fat and are thus less likely to die from hypothermia, and of course their caloric demands are also a little less.

There was a lot of interesting information about the science of starvation, the psychology of survival, and other related topics. Sometimes that sort of thing can feel like filler, but I found it fascinating. Brown also provided context about what else was going on in the world at the time, which I love. For instance: Christmas was just beginning to be celebrated in the 1840s, Edgar Allen Poe was writing "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Neptune was discovered, and a powerful new steam locomotive was unveiled.

Obviously the group didn't expect things to be quite so bad, but still, it's kind of shocking to realize how much people were willing to risk for the promise of a better life. From what we learned in the book, their lives weren't terrible in the first place; mostly they just wanted more opportunities than they already had. As hard as it can be to be trapped in a house during a pandemic, it's much preferable to spending months struggling across a mountain range in the winter while literally starving to death. I highly recommend this if you're interested in stories of survival under difficult circumstances.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Red Lotus

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian (2020), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

It was all very dramatic because I was on hold for this book through the library but by the time it was published we were closed because of the coronavirus. Also, a friend had mentioned to me that the audio version was narrated by Rebecca Lowman, one of my favorite (possibly my very favorite) narrators. So I bought some extra Audible credits, and it was worth every penny.

Alexis is an emergency room doctor who met her boyfriend Austin when he came to the ER with a bullet wound. In a strange coincidence, it turns out that he works there too, but in a fundraising position. Six months later they are on a bicycling trip in Vietnam and Austin goes missing. I won't say much more about the plot because I don't want to give too much away, but the story really becomes intriguing when Alexis learns Austin lied about one of the reasons why he wanted to go to Vietnam.

On top of what happened to Austin, Alexis then has to deal with the fact of that lie and what it meant about the person she thought she knew. Having their relationship be fairly new is what made this storyline great. And there's more - there's a whole plot having to do with rats and disease and what Austin potentially had to do with it.

This book shouldn't have made me want to go on a bike tour of Vietnam, but it did and I don't even ride a bike. Vietnam sounded gorgeous though. The novel is very much in the same vein of Bohjalian's last couple of books, The Flight Attendant and The Guest Room, as opposed to his older books. A little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, very much character-driven. Alexis has some darkness in her past, but as an emergency room doctor she has learned to be calm in difficult circumstances. I really liked being immersed in her story, and Rebecca Lowman was the perfect narrator for her. (Honestly I think I like characters more when she narrates them.)

You probably know that Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors and I've read all of his books except I think The Water Witches. The only other one I've listened to on audio was Before You Know Kindness because I happened to come into a free copy of it. They are the kind of books I don't have the patience to stretch out into 2 weeks, which is how long it usually takes me for an audiobook. But thanks to the pandemic, I've been at home with nothing but knitting and puzzles to occupy me which has been the perfect environment for this. If you've liked his other recent books, you'll likely enjoy this one too. And if you're into audio, I do highly recommend that version.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)

This novel opens on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. Here we meet young George Washington Black, born a slave and destined to spend his life working the fields. Until the master's brother arrives, that is. Titch, as he is known, is trying to build a flying vehicle he calls a cloud-cutter and he requires an assistant to help him and to be used as ballast. Wash seems about the right size, and this chance meeting is to change his life.

Moving from Barbados to the Arctic to Nova Scotia and beyond, nothing that happens could have ever been imagined by the young boy. He learns he is a talented artist and is especially fascinated by sea life. He is pursued by a slave-catcher and he's recognizable because of scarring on his face, so a dark shadow follows him, no matter how far away he goes.

His relationship with Titch remains the focal point of the story though. Wash always wonders why Titch picked him, and long after they are separated he still is not free of him. Without Titch, he'd still be on the plantation, but he doubts that his admiration for the man was reciprocated, and he is tortured by what he sees as their unfinished business. Another significant relationship is with Tanna, a woman he meets while drawing at the seaside and who happens to be the daughter of an author with whom Wash is familiar. She and her father both become integral to his life.

This is the best thing I've read recently. It's a grand adventure to many disparate parts of the world, more than a well-traveled modern person would ever see, and it all begins accidentally for Washington Black. He meets new friends, but never forgets those from the plantation, especially Big Kit, a mother figure with whom he had a close but tempestuous relationship. He thinks about her often as he travels the world.

This is such a different view of the 19th century than I am used to. First of all, it doesn't take place primarily in England or the United States. But also, we see parts of the world I don't usually see in novels set in that era, such as Barbados, Nova Scotia, and even Morocco, and those places all come with vivid descriptions. Wash is black, which of course provides a very different perspective, and his unique situation is just fascinating. Everything felt fresh and unexpected. I haven't read anything like it, and I was completely absorbed.

Washington Black was on many "Best of" lists after it came out, and the honor is well-deserved. If you'd like to read an adventurous historical novel told from an unusual perspective, I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Wallflower Wager

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke #3) by Tessa Dare (2019)

We've met Lady Penelope Campion earlier in this series. She is an animal lover - her house full of a whole menagerie of animals from a dog to a goat to a hedgehog - and a vegetarian who is constantly foisting her creations, such as her "sham" sandwiches on her friends. She is also (unsurprisingly?) single. When the book opens, her Aunt Caroline tells her that her brother is on his way to come collect her and take her back to the country since she has no marriage prospects and has pretty much squandered her opportunities in society. Penny panics, and makes a deal with her aunt that she'll get rid of all her animals and appear in the society pages at least once if it means she can stay.

Meanwhile, the house next to hers has been newly purchased by Gabriel Duke, also known as the Duke of Ruin. He has a tragic backstory of growing up in a workhouse and making himself rich, I guess by financially ruining other people. He has a terrible reputation, but Penny is irresistibly drawn to him and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He's planning to resell the house after it's remodeled and wants Penny to stay in her house because apparently having a Lady next door makes the property more valuable, so he ends up agreeing to help her rehome her menagerie and make it into the society pages.

I read all three books in this series because I had heard such good reviews of this one, but it turns out to be the book I liked least. The premise wasn't very strong to begin with and somehow the romance between Penny and Gabriel didn't have enough tension for me. The latter part of the book, where things ramp up before the finale, was not very satisfying. Without spoiling too much, it involves a part where Gabriel threatens another person on Penny's behalf and without her approval, which is thing I hate, and which also happened in the first book in the series. Here though, it was worse and he could have gotten himself killed, which makes it clear it's something he's doing to satisfy his own anger and not actually for her (which I think is usually the case when men get all self-righteous about going after someone who wronged their woman.)

Also, this all came to a head in the middle of a ball, and things were kind of left hanging. When the person arrived who had wronged Penny in the past, Gabriel took him to his study and Penny followed and it got all dramatic, but then the story skipped ahead to the morning. First of all, Gabriel was going to announce their engagement at this ball. But did they even return to the ball after this meeting? I mean, they must have since it was at Gabriel's house. Or did he make everyone leave? It was weird to not even mention this. Also, just before this thing happened, Penny's friend Nicola freaked out because she spotted someone in the ballroom who she said was her fiance, and everyone was shocked and asked her to explain. They all went to discuss this surprise, but Penny followed Gabe instead and this thread of Nicola's secret relationship was never picked up again. I assume that's what the next book will be about, but it was handled rather clumsily here.

I know a lot of people loved this book, and I didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it - mostly, it was fairly amusing and I do love Penny's character. But when all was said and done, it fell rather flat for me.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (2018)

Frances Price is well known because twenty years ago when her husband died at home, she responded by leaving on her planned ski trip and didn't report his death until she returned. Now, she and her adult son Malcolm have lost all their money, and are moving to Paris to live in Frances's friend Joan's apartment. Coming with them is their cat, Small Frank, who Frances is convinced is actually her dead husband in feline form.

They are a strange pair, Frances and Malcolm. Mother and child BFFs, more devoted to each other than anyone else, including Malcolm's fiance who he left behind to go to Paris. No question he'd choose his mother over her, which was fine with Frances, who didn't even like Susan to begin with.

On the way over, they meet a psychic aboard their ship (they are the sort of people who travel by ship) with whom Malcolm has a brief affair. Her name is Madeleine and when she sees their cat, she knows he's not a regular cat. Once settled in Paris, Small Frank run away and Frances decides she needs to find Madeleine, who could help them find, or communicate with, Small Frank. She hires a private investigator to find Madeline and soon, both of them are hanging out at the apartment with Frances and Malcolm, along with Joan (the owner of the apartment), a wine seller, Malcolm's ex-fiance and her boyfriend, and I think a couple of other people I can't even remember. It's a bizarre assortment of people, and unclear why they all remain hanging about, but it adds to the comedy of the situation.

It's a dark comedy though, which is the kind of comedy I like best. Frances and Malcolm are not likable people at all, so even though you're left not caring what kind of end they come to, it's fascinating to watch it happen. Their friends and hangers-on comprise a motley assortment and I've just realized what an amusing and entertaining movie this would make. I've also heard that the audiobook version is spectacular. There are so many strange and quirkly personalities here, and such a great premise, it was bound to be a lot of fun. Dark, twisted fun.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren (2018)

The first time Josh and Hazel met, she was drunk and propositioned him before throwing up on his shoes. She has no restraint whatsoever, says whatever she's thinking, and is totally wild and carefree. Josh, in contrast, is mellow and sensible and not at all her type, obviously. Many years after college they meet again, unexpectedly, and become friends. Platonic friends. They start going on double blind dates, fixing each other up with a series of increasingly unsuitable potential partners. But of course, they really just want each other.

Hazel was great. She's a third grade teacher who definitely understands eight-year-olds and lives in an apartment with a dog, a rabbit (Janis Hoplin!), a parrot, and a fish. She is the sort of person who is considered "too much" by many people, even "embarrassing." She knows this and she knows why, but also doesn't try to change who she is. I love that her mother is the same way. They have a great relationship that I really enjoyed, and seeing how people like her father treated her mother only makes Hazel more determined to stay true to herself.

Although Josh is totally different, he finds Hazel to be a lot of fun. She's genuine and a great person and seems to like his family. She's best friends with his sister Emily, also a teacher, and makes an effort to get to know his parents, unlike his recent ex-girlfriend Tabby who was totally uninterested in his family. When he and Hazel get together, it is always an adventure.

So what's keeping them apart? Their newly-developed friendship is so important to both of them that they don't dare risk losing it. Hazel worries about being way to obnoxious for Josh and Josh thinks he might not be enough for Hazel. Of course, they can only put their feelings aside for so long.

The only thing I didn't love about this book was that the epilogue is several years in the future, which is something I almost never like. Otherwise, it was just exactly what I needed right now. So funny, so sweet, so quick to read - I think I read it in about 36 hours. I almost wish I had slowed down to make it last longer, but it's like candy and I couldn't resist.

I also really liked Christina Lauren's book Dating You / Hating You so I guess now I can consider myself a fan. I'm definitely in a space where I'll probably be reading a lot more romance so I may check out their other books.