Monday, March 18, 2019

Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)

Spanning most of the 20th century, Pachinko is the story of a Korean family in Japan. It begins with Sunja, a teenaged girl in Korea who attracts the attention of an older man. When she becomes pregnant, he says he's already married but offers to keep her as a mistress. She refuses, Her situation feels hopeless, but a kind man offers to marry her and they go to Japan together. There the family stays, never quite fitting in but not feeling like they can return to Korea either.

Starting a new life in a new country is hard. Sunja and her new husband stay with his brother and his wife, but they are all poor. Gradually they became settled and the family did better. Sunja couldn't read, which was not unusual for women at that time, but it made things even more difficult for her. She and her sister-in-law bought a cart to sell kimchee on the street, slowly building up their small business. Her sons were more educated and successful than she was - one went to college and the other went into the pachinko business.

The family's status as foreigners was one of the main themes of the novel. Sunja's children and grandchildren were born and raised in Japan, yet were never quite accepted. This shaped their lives in very significant ways. Being Korean cut off certain opportunities for work and relationships. One character passed as Japanese, but it meant cutting off from family and keeping this huge secret. Sunja often said that it's a woman's lot to suffer, but everyone suffers in this story. 

There's a lot more to it than I've gone into - more characters, more death, yakuza, the return of the man who got Sunja pregnant. It's a lot! It was sad, but not depressing. Although there was tragedy and hardship, the family kept going and over the years they really did make their lives better and easier in a lot of ways. This was just the sort of immersive experience I love in a historical novel. It sucked me in from the start and I spent many happy hours reading about all these lives and experiences that all felt so real to me. 

This is on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, and it's my fifth completed book out of twelve.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli (2018), narrated by Shannon Purser

Leah is a good friend of Simon from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. She's a drummer in an all-girl band, daughter of a young single mom, and bisexual but not out to anyone except her mom. It's senior year and everyone is applying to colleges and getting ready for prom and the stress of impending life changes is causing a lot of drama. In the midst of it all, Leah is getting some confusing signals from someone she's had a crush on for a long time.

Simon and his boyfriend are both looking at colleges in New York, but things are getting rocky with their friend Nick and his girlfriend Abby who won't be going to school near each other and have to figure out whether or not they can do a long-distance relationship. Abby and Leah are going to the same school, and their friend Morgan didn't get in and implies that Abby only got in because she's black. Leah calls her out for being racist, and her friend group fractures a bit. Also, prom is coming up and you know there will be a lot of drama there. So much drama.

Beck Albertalli manages to create characters that encompass the very best things about teenagers while keeping them genuinely teenager-y. Leah was being pursued by a guy who really liked her and she kept leading him on, not intentionally, but as an adult it was very easy to see it happening. She was also pretty mean about her mom's new boyfriend. Her mom was pretty young, in her mid-30s, and Leah kept going on about how old Wells is. Turns out he's 42. Which, for the record, is a few years young than I am so THANKS, LEAH.

At the same time, I couldn't help but like her. She was just trying to figure things out and basically a pretty good person, and interesting - she was a great drummer and a talented artist. She also stood up for Abby even though it adversely affected her friendship with Morgan. Some of her friends thought she should let the racist comment go, making excuses for Morgan because she was just stressed about being rejected. But Leah knew it wasn't right and was determined to set the record straight about Abby, who was very smart and earned her admission to that college. And yeah, she wasn't clear to Garrett that she only liked him as a friend, but navigating those maybe-friends-maybe-more kind of situations are confusing even as adults, so I totally understand why she kind of bumbled her way through this whole Garrett thing. After all, she did like him, and it's not always super clear even to yourself how much you might like someone or in what way. Especially when you're a teenager with zero relationship experience.

I listened to the audio and I thought the narrator had the perfect voice for Leah. This is not a perky, upbeat, sunny character but a very down-to-earth, deadpan, dry humor kind of person and Shannon Purser captured that perfectly. In contrast to my last couple of audiobooks, I finished this one within a week, which is one of the things I love about teen books. I haven't read many of them recently, but this was just exactly what I needed right now. It was so much fun spending time with Leah and her friends as they prepared to finish high school and start the next phase of their lives.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Prairie Fires

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (2017)

This biography covers the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, within the larger context of American history. I've read the Little House series numerous times, Pioneer Girl, and some articles here and there, but this is the first time I've gotten such a full story. The Little House books are a fictionalized version of Wilder's early life and Pioneer Girl sets the story straight, but it still doesn't go past the early years of her marriage. Prairie Fires gives us a picture of her whole life, extending also through the end of Rose Wilder Lane's life, touching on Wilder's legacy.

At over 500 pages, this book covers a lot of ground. I'm admittedly not as educated about American history as I wish, and this filled in some gaps for me while providing the backdrop for stories I've been reading over and over again since I was a child, while giving me new perspectives on parts of history I did know about. For instance, I didn't know there was a depression in the late 1800s, nor did I realize how many farmers opposed the New Deal. I knew almost nothing about the Dust Bowl except that there were a lot of dust storms, so it was fascinating to find out that it was caused by farming.

Of course Fraser covers all the parts of the Ingalls's lives that were left out of the Little House books, but then later on when Laura is writing the books about her early life with Rose's editing help, there are some interesting conversations about what constitutes truth versus fiction. Laura and Rose had a number of disagreements about what to leave in, what to take out, and what to change to make the stories more palatable for children and to maintain the narrative of independence and self-reliance. Laura was concerned about not telling the truth. Lane says: "Facts are infinite in number. The truth is a meaning underlying them; you tell the truth by selecting the facts which illustrate it."

I really liked how she put it and agree with it, but that doesn't change the fact that Rose Wilder Lane, despite being a journalist, was prone to lying and embellishing the truth throughout her entire career and was totally oblivious to journalism ethics. She was also a libertarian who admired Ayn Rand and Hitler. Her life was always sort of a mess and she supported her parents financially while also constantly borrowing from them until their finances were so entangled it became unclear who was supporting who. She also borrowed heavily from Laura's stories in writing her own fiction. She was hot-headed and opinionated and would cut people out of her life without a second thought. She was also depressed and mentioned suicide many times.

Rose was invested in Laura's work telling the story of the family in such a way that it emphasized self-reliance, and Laura was pretty on board with this. They left out or glossed over any situation in which the Ingalls family accepted assistance from others or, as happened in one case, left town in a hurry because they couldn't pay their debts. The truth is that the family was very poor. The books hint at this with their simple life, but present that as a choice. In fact, Charles Ingalls never could make a living at farming, and Laura and Almanzo also struggled their whole lives. Relief only really came when Laura's novels became so popular. Which is not to say that their lives weren't happy or satisfying in many ways, but they weren't as easy as they'd like us to think.

My one criticism was the way that Fraser presented the relationship between Laura and Rose because she kept saying that it was extremely strained or that it completely broke down, but didn't show that. What she showed was that they constantly wrote to each other when they weren't living near each other, and she didn't really present any specific conversations or letters that illustrated the breakdown of their relationship that she kept alluding to. I was a bit confused about this point. I know there were things Laura was unhappy about, like when Rose populated a book with thinly-veiled versions of their neighbors in Mansfield, much to their displeasure, but it wasn't clear to me that Laura ever confronted her about it.

Prairie Fires was definitely what I was looking for in rounding out the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's life for me. It wasn't perfect and I was much less interested in Rose than in Laura, but it felt comprehensive. I spent a week or so reading it because it was so detailed and didn't move along that quickly, but that's not really a criticism. It has kind of made me want to learn more about Westward Expansion, especially about the treatment of Native Americans. More than anything it just made me want to read the Little House books again. Yes, even knowing how much of those books are untrue and how much they try to promote a philosophy I'm not especially on board with (including the desire for the Indians to just "go away") I will always love them for the simple stories about traveling across the country in a covered wagon and a way of life that is gone forever.

This book is part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, which I'm doing well with so far. The rest of it is fiction (except one memoir) so I think I've gotten the most difficult ones out of the way - this book and the one I read half of before abandoning. I'm looking forward to the rest of the books on my list!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Some poetry

I'm trying to read more poetry and in fact one of my goals this year is to find a new (to me) poem that I love every month. It turns out that maybe "love" is too strong of a word, but my criteria is basically a poem that I want to come back to and read again and again. It also turns out that I have to read a whole lot of poetry to find a poem like that, so this may be more of a two-month experiment than a year-long project. Mostly I've been sampling poems here and there, but here are three collections that I read in their entirety.

Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires (2018)

I saw a review of this one which said it's supposed to be sort of Zen, or inspired by Zen thought, and the snippets I read in the review intrigued me. The first poem in it is my first "new favorite" of the year. It's called "Pome" and compares poems to fruit.

O I remember days....
Climbing the branches of a tree
ripe and heavy with pomes. 

As with any collection, there were some I didn't feel like I really got, some which I liked but didn't stand out, and few favorites. In addition to "Pome," there were a couple others that I read several times. One was called "House of String" and another "Snow, the Novel" which I very appropriately happened to read during a winter storm.

When I think about the collection as a whole the descriptors that come to mind are easy, quiet contemplation. Easy in that it feels unforced and the words flow well. Spires tends to focus on little things rather than grandiose proclamations about universal themes. The poems feel immediate, like she is talking about what is right in front of her, but those little things are very important.

100 Best Poems of All Time edited by Leslie Pockell (2001)

I would argue that these are not, in fact, the best 100 poems of all time. In fact, I'd argue that they aren't even all poems, since some of them are actually songs. I didn't read every word of every poem. If one was especially long and I wasn't enjoying it, I didn't make myself finish. If it was a song that I know by heart, I didn't bother reading it at all. (Which I shouldn't have to because although songs are similar to poems, they are not poems.) But I read most of them so I think it counts.

The editor didn't include more than one poem by any poet, so on the one hand I can't see how it's a definitive "100 best" list unless it just happens that the 100 best are all by different poets. On the other hand, I appreciate the breadth and variety that resulted.

The poems I liked most from the collection and which were new to me (as far as I can remember) are "Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson and "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg. The collection also contains "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou which I was already familiar with and still like a lot.

Dark Woods by Richard Sanger (2018)

I think the review I read of this one mentioned nature and vivid imagery and those sounded appealing. It turned out to probably be my favorite of the three. I really like poetry with vivid, surprising descriptions, so when one of the first poems in this book describes an artichoke as "tight-lipped and celibate, nodding your bald pate wisely at the rumor of pleasures you shall never taste" I was pretty sure I was going to like this book.

My favorite might be "Merrily Down the Stream," which compares lives to traveling by water, with occasional interjections like "just look at that cliff, will you" but then progresses on to "our bright vessel banged up against the rock you never saw, dimwit" and accusing "you always do this" before ending with "all our needs and secrets spilling forth, for Christ's sake, in the rapids, and the wreck, the wreck of our lives."

Others I liked a lot include "Herons on Ice," "Different Pears," "Adulterous Mannequins," and "Cornstalks." There's definitely a pattern: most of the poems I liked the most tended to be about everyday things (artichokes, herons, pears, etc) but looked at from a new perspective. I'm kind of simple when it comes to poetry, because often when it tackles larger, more abstract subjects, I just don't always get it. There were some in this collection, too, that I think I'd maybe need to read a few times to understand more fully. But mostly, I liked it the first time through, though I re-read the ones I liked most anyhow just for the enjoyment of it.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)

Descriptions of this book are vague and I hadn't read much about it before a friend gave me a copy, but somehow I thought it was a dystopia. However, about 60 pages in it says the events take place in the 1970s and I realized it was taking place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It took me this long to figure out because everything in this book is vague and unnamed, including the characters, and the writing style is what I've been charitably referring to as "literary." The sentences are long and rambling with many clauses and commas, the wording can be strange, the paragraphs sometimes go on for pages, and the chapters are very long as well, only seven in the whole book. It's not easy to read.

Our protagonist is a young woman known only as "middle sister" and she is being pursued by an older paramilitary man in whom she is not interested. He's called Milkman and regardless of her disinterest, it's gotten around that she's having an affair with him. She barely knows him but he knows a lot about her, and now she is aware of every move she makes and the fact that he will know about it. She has a boyfriend, "maybe-boyfriend," and she now worries for his safety because Milkman has made vague threats about car bombs. Middle sister lives with her mother and "wee sisters" and she has a job that I don't think is ever actually described and she takes a French class some evenings. She is also known for walking a lot, and reading while she walks. In addition to Milkman, a guy named Somebody McSomebody is also seemingly pursuing her. He's from an unfortunate family in which most of his siblings have been killed for political reasons. One of her own brothers has been killed too, as well as her oldest sister's former boyfriend. There's a theme about people ending up in the wrong relationships, the people they really truly loved either dead or otherwise out of their reach. This is true for eldest sister who is now married to the disliked first brother-in-law.

Middle sister is narrated in the first person so we are privy to all her thoughts and perceptions, and her mind is kind of a weird place to be. Because of the political situation and her desire not to be involved, she is rather shut down and emotionless. I also got the impression that she was just trying to get through each day avoiding trouble and that was pretty much it. Despite her apparent interest in literature, she wasn't exactly deep or thoughtful or observant of the world around her. There's a bit where maybe-boyfriend takes her to see a sunset and she is confused about why this is a thing you'd do, and then a couple of weeks later in her evening French class the instructor has the class look out at the sunset and discuss all the colors they see. It seems that none of them have ever actually looked at a sunset before.

The language makes everything seem even more strange, which is why I think it was set in some fictional world when I started. I mentioned that the the sentences are long and rambling and oddly-worded and that definitely adds to it. When she talks about her relationship with maybe-boyfriend she says, "Under stress we were starting to fight and were communicating less with each other than the normal amount of sharing of ourselves that we didn't tend to communicate before." This is fairly typical of the wording, though a comparatively short sentence - I won't burden you with reading one of the long, complicated sentences. There were times that by the time I got to the end of a sentence I couldn't remember how it started.

Honestly I didn't think I was going to make it through this book. Had it not been a gift, I probably would have given up 50 or so pages in. As it was, I kept going and felt like it was a slog but it started getting much better once I got oriented about where and when it took place and had a better idea of what was going on. By halfway through or so, I was warming up to it and by the time I finished I would call it a pretty solid like. Reading it was work, but underneath the difficult style - which also grew on me until I rather liked it - it was actually a pretty great story.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

February Wrap-Up and Plans for March



February is the shortest month, and also the longest.

Reading


I finished 10 books in February, which seems like a lot, but a couple of them were poetry and one of those I had been working on for a while. My favorite was Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller which I gave 5 stars on Goodreads. Most disappointing was probably Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, which wasn't bad but also didn't live up to my expectations. Notably, I finished 3 nonfiction books (all memoirs) and two books for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listening


In addition to two audiobooks (Becoming and Educated) I've started some new podcasts. One is called Pantsuit Politics and is hosted by two women, one from the left and one from the right, with the tagline "No shouting. No insults. Plenty of nuance." It absolutely lives up to that promise and I love it. They talk about current events but they are way above partisan politics, looking at events and issues in a larger context, often discussing how they fit into a Constitutional framework or what certain things mean for democracy. They are both very smart and have constructive, productive conversations.

In a similar vein, I've begun listening to Conversations with People Who Hate Me. The host has a YouTube channel and gets a lot of trolls, so he began inviting some of these people on a show to have conversations about why they said what they said to him. I've only listened to two episodes so far, and it really just highlights how different people are online than in real life and how we are all more similar to each other than we think. Of course these are only the people who agreed to sit down and talk with them but still, it may restore my faith in humanity just a bit.

Watching


Jam-Bellied Scones
I watched Russian Doll, which was pretty good although I feel like Natasha Lyonne played the same character that she played in Orange is the New Black. I can't imagine where it will go in the next season, because it feels complete now. I'm not sure if I'll watch more.

I'm still watching The Great British Baking Show: Masterclass, and I've also watched a few episodes from the first season with the new hosts. I really miss Mel and Sue and Mary Berry. Prue is pretty ok and I keep reminding myself that we can't all be Mary Berry. It's just sad that Paul Hollywood is the one retained because he's such a sleaze. Still, I like the contestants and the baking.

Finally, I've started season 3 of One Day at a Time which I've recently heard may not be renewed for a fourth season. That's so disappointing because it's such a great show!

Cooking


Possibly the most exciting thing I made this month were the Jam-Bellied Scones from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, pictured above. Exciting because they were fairly easy and also delicious. I also made the Sour Cream Coffee Cake from the same book which was pretty heavenly but it's a yeasted cake, which was new for me and fun to try, but of course it took a while. This isn't a coffee cake you get to eat in the morning unless you get up at 3am or so to get it started.

I love you, potatoes
Another baking success was the Cranberry Walnut Bread from Bread Illustrated, and I made some more of the Anadama Bread as well.

I bought a mandolin and so finally made the Cacio e Pepe Potatoes Anna, also from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, which was delicious and now I want to eat some form of scalloped potatoes every day.

My cookbook club at work was meeting at the end of February and cooking dishes from Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, so I ended up trying a bunch of recipes from the book. My favorites were a casserole called Rumbledethumps, a mixture of mashed potatoes, vegetables, and cheese, and the Portuguese White Bean and Kale Soup which I thought would be boring, but the inclusion of sundried tomatoes and both fresh fennel and dried fennel seed made it quite delicious. I also made the Vegan Chocolate Cake which was good, but the Six-Minute Chocolate Cake from Moosewood Cooks at Home is just as good and a little quicker to make. The dish I brought to the meeting was Vegan Spinach-Artichoke Heart Dip, which was good but I didn't love it. It was, however, easy to make ahead and transport.

Doing


It was a great month for author readings! I saw both Angie Thomas and Elizabeth McCracken which was very exciting (and I read both of their new books, which were great.) Those are two of very few times I left the house except for work...

My Grain Shawl in progress
Speaking of work, this month we held a knit-along which went quite well. We had five drop-in knitting sessions to work on the Grain Shawl (or whatever, we weren't super picky) and got a pretty good turnout. We'll be doing more of these!

I did not, unfortunately, finish physical therapy. It is scheduled at least a week into March. Sometimes I feel like it's helping and sometimes I don't. Going to these appointments twice a week has honestly felt rather exhausting, plus I use a combination of lunch break and sick time which means I haven't had my full lunch break on a lot of days. It has made the month feel very full and like I don't have time for things like meditation or exercise. (Physical therapy is definitely exercise, but it's not cardio.) And now I also have to floss my teeth a second time every day, which somehow also feels like a lot? To be honest, I just don't have a ton of energy this time of year so everything feels more difficult.

Plans for March


Cranberry-walnut bread
I'm hoping to actually get all my tax stuff together before April, and the fact that this is my only plan for the month (and that I will probably fail) is extremely sad.

Again, I am hoping to finish physical therapy. I pretty much have to one way or another because my insurance won't pay beyond the first week of April.

Wow, this is all getting very bleak. I am very much looking forward to spring and I hope it comes soon!

How was your February?

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Educated

Educated by Tara Westover (2018), narrated by Julia Whelan

Hey, have you heard about this memoir by a young woman raised in a cult-like survivalist family that didn't allow her to go to school? If you live in the United States, you probably have. I read almost nothing about it so I knew little more than the description I just used. But I was intrigued, especially since its popularity has only increased in the past year since it was released. I decided to try it on audio and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was narrated by Julia Whelan, who also read one of my favorite books by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

So Tara Westover grew up in a Morman family in Idaho, and her father was super religious, convinced Armageddon was coming at any moment, and was extremely paranoid and controlling. Her mom basically went along with him although there were times she admitted that she disagreed with him. There were a total of 7 children in the family, I think, and the oldest few had gone to school for a while. Tara never did. They were allegedly homeschooled, but they really weren't. In fact, since they didn't have birth certificates, they legally didn't even exist. But none of this is the crazy part - what I kept being shocked by over and over was the carelessness with which these kids were all treated and the many accidents and injuries that resulted. Her father owned a junkyard and the kids were expected to help sort through piles of twisted metal. Tara was once injured when she felt from a bucket loader. She described some pretty hideous burnings and two major car accidents, in which nobody was wearing a seatbelt because for some reason they didn't believe in them. Her mother and one of her brothers suffered serious head injuries. Oh, and I didn't even mention the most important part of all this which is that they weren't allowed to go to doctors. Tara's mother just worked on them with her herbs and oils and prayers.

Eventually Tara decided she wanted to go to school, and she managed to study for and pass the ACT and go to Brigham Young University and then on to Cambridge in England and, finally, Harvard. Through all of this she was battling against her family and trying to deal with her past. She couldn't escape it - during her first semester of college she dared ask out loud what the Holocaust was and her professor and classmates thought she was making a sick joke. But she wasn't - she had no idea. Another revelation was when she learned the truth about slavery. She knew it existed, but had been taught that slaves were freer and happier than their masters, who were burdened with the responsibility of caring for them. When she learned the truth, she was stunned. Over and over, she learned and experienced things that went against everything she had been taught when she was young and she struggled to make sense of it, constantly doubting herself and not knowing when to trust what she thought she knew. But she's obviously very smart, and she soaked in knowledge, synthesizing it with what she had previously learned to come to her own conclusions.

Leaving home was not the end of the story though. She did return to visit her family, and things were just as strange as always. Another big part of the story is her relationship with her brother Shawn, a highly manipulative and violent person. Once Tara gained some confidence she talked with others in her family about his behavior and the danger he posed. They would agree with her, but then tell Shawn what she had said and they'd all turn on her. At times I feared for her safety although I knew she obviously survived to tell the tale, but I couldn't fathom why she kept going back to her family's home when it seemed so dangerous to do so.

This story was totally gripping. I have mixed feelings about these kinds of memoirs because I'm very aware of the enjoyment we're getting out of someone else's pain. On the other hand, if you go through something like that, having your book about it become so popular is probably rather validating. Her family is still alive - these events were fairly recent - and of course they deny her claims. (Who wouldn't?) I've heard that her parents are suing her, which is also unsurprising and something she must have expected. I'm curious to see what else she might write - she has proven herself a pretty good storyteller.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Tisha

Tisha: The Wonderful True Love Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaskan Wilderness (1976)

Despite the subtitle, this is not a love story. There is a love story in it, but it's not the focus - there is so much else here the subtitle is really underselling it.

In 1927, nineteen-year-old Anne Hobbs left Oregon to teach in Alaska. She was lured by the promise of adventure, and she definitely got what she was looking for. The trip to the tiny village of Chicken was long and hard, and when she arrived she found her quarters bare. The other villagers donated a mattress and a stove, dishes and other supplies, and soon she had a cozy little place for herself. Her quarters shared a building with the schoolroom where she would be teaching a handful of children of various ages.

Anne got settled in and started up the school and almost immediately found herself the subject of disapproval. She befriended a "half-breed" named Fred Purdy, who had an Indian mother and white father, and Fred is her romantic interest. Their romance had a slow build, and people went to great lengths to keep them apart. Anne also let Indian children into her classroom, which meant other parents pulling their kids out. The people in this village really did not seem to like Indians and it was pretty weird, since they did somewhat live intermixed with each other and there were obviously some mixed-race families. Anne, whose beloved grandmother was an Indian, did not care at all whether someone was Indian or not and it got her into a lot of trouble. She was strong for such a young person who was new to the area, and she held her ground most of the time. She was very brave!

Life here was not easy, but things improved when a teenager (I think? The story wasn't clear on people's ages) came to stay with her and help her out. Households were pretty bare-bones and it took a lot of work to do things like wash clothes or take a bath, and the extreme cold and harsh weather made things even more difficult.

Things really heated up when the mother of two of Anne's students died, and their white father didn't want to take them. Anne decided she would take them, and she and Nancy did pretty well for  while until Nancy's mother found out and sent for her to come back home. Everyone disapproved of Anne taking the kids, insisting they be sent to an Indian village nearby. They went to great lengths to make that happen, and Anne went to even greater lengths to prevent it. It was a very exciting story and when I got to this part I ended up reading late into the evening because I could not put it down.

I always love a story about a woman moving to a new place and starting a life there. In this case she knows she's only staying for a year before being assigned to a more permanent teaching position in the town of Eagle, but it was still effective. She still had to get used to living in Alaska, get used to people in the town, figure out who her friends were. Because it's a book about prejudice, there's some pretty harsh language, including use of the n-word. These are a straight-talking people, and I was surprised the first time she met the Indian children she would adopt and they swore like adults. There were also some charming phrases I hadn't heard before, like when she talks about the local prejudice as "half-breed baloney people around here were always slicing" and said "That got my Irish up." I should also mention that the title comes from the way the Indian children mispronounced the word "teacher." When I began reading, I was surprised that her name was Anne and not Tisha, and it took me a while to figure out why that was the book's title.

I heard about this book a few years ago from our teen librarian at work. I think she had just learned about it at a conference or workshop and read it right away and loved it. I came across it recently and was reminded that I wanted to read it. It appeals to me in a similar way as Caroline, which I had just finished. I've read so few books about women forging lives in recently-settled places and would be interested in finding more, so please let me know if you have suggestions!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller (2017)

As you may know, I'm fairly obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I've read the Little House books over and over, and a couple of years ago I read Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder's annotated autobiography. As much as I enjoy the Little House books, I know they're fiction and children's books and I want to know more about that family and their experiences. I have two related books on my TBR Pile Challenge this year. One is a biography of Wilder called Prairie Fires, and one is this fictional work told from the view of Ma, Caroline Ingalls. This challenge is made up of a list of books I've been putting off, so it may seem strange that I keep putting off books on a subject I claim to be obsessed with. Prairie Fires is very long, and I always delay long books. With Caroline, I was just concerned that it wouldn't live up to what I wanted it to be, especially since I didn't hear much from the reviews and the Goodreads rating is fairly low. I needn't have worried: it was everything I wanted it to be.

The story begins in Pepin, Wisconsin or what I have come to think of as "the Big Woods." Caroline is pregnant, and the family is about to set off on a long journey to Kansas, where they will stake a claim in what as known as Indian Territory. It's a hard journey, fraught with danger, and there were a few times the family was lucky to escape with their lives. When they finally arrive, they need to build the house they will live in, plant some crops, and do all the many things needed to start their new lives. All this while Caroline battles nausea and grows more physically cumbersome as her pregnancy advances. And always the dread that her female relatives who helped deliver Mary and Laura are in Wisconsin and she will have to have the baby alone.

From the very beginning, I was completely immersed in this story. I read most of it in two days over a long weekend, finishing the last bit on the third day immediately after work. Miller's writing is richly detailed, bringing this story to life in a way the children's versions couldn't. Oh, I had always imagined the details in my mind, but this novel painted a rich portrait that filled in the gaps in my imagination. It also made Caroline into a fully realized person for the first time - in the Little House books Ma was always capable and resourceful, but I loved seeing the inner life that Miller has imagined for her. Her fears about their journey and their new life and the impending birth of their daughter Carrie, and how she always portrayed on a strong demeanor despite her fears so as not to worry the girls. Her feelings about her husband and the girls. In Little House, Laura always felt she was never as good as Mary, but in this book Caroline takes notice of the way in which Mary shows off how virtuous she is as though she's being good not for the sake of being good, but so she will gain approval from the adults. I loved that.

One of the themes of the Little House books is independence, and the stories are carefully crafted to show the family taking care of themselves without help from anyone else, which is factually inaccurate. (They got help from the government, friends, and family pretty regularly. Everyone did - nobody could survive frontier conditions alone.) But the details of this book reveal just how strong and capable Caroline and Charles had to be to get through the obstacles that faced them every day. Making a meal while traveling in a covered wagon was a huge pain and they were all so tired from their journey, but you have to eat. And the time they were caught in a horrible rainstorm, and Charles had to go out in it to build a makeshift lean-to along the side of the wagon for the horses, and then came in soaking wet without a fire to hang his clothes in front of. Their lives were perpetually inconvenient and uncomfortable, even when they finally made it to Kansas, and for the first time I saw just how strong and capable these people were. You don't get that from children's books.

This is not to say that I loved everything about Caroline and Charles. They were products of their time and sometimes their attitudes frustrated me. Caroline was deathly afraid of the Indians and just wanted them to be gone, complaining that they were all over the place. I wanted to yell at her "This is their land and you're stealing it!" and ask what she thought it would be like, moving to a place that was literally called "Indian Territory." The way she viewed these people who were being pushed off their own land, visibly hungry, was awful. But I'm glad Miller left it in there, because I don't like to pretend that people were different than they actually were. I'm totally fine with creating fiction in which people have what we think of as "progressive" views, but this is fiction about a real person who existed and who felt this way and I'm glad in this instance she remained true to her character, even though I was annoyed at her ignorance.

Although this book was written for adults, it retained the feelings of positivity I remember from the Little House books. Despite their hardships, Caroline and Charles did everything they could to cast a positive light on their lives and appreciate what they had. In this way, it feels like a wonderful compliment to the books I've loved my whole life, adding more to the story that I've always wanted more of.

Even if you're not obsessed with this family, this is a great historical novel in itself. It's richly descriptive and character-driven, filled with insights about pioneer life and the role of women at that time. Here's a paragraph in which she considers her work and that of her husband:

"Always, the scale of Charles's work dwarfed her own. In the time it took him to build a wall or plant an acre, she might knit a sock or churn a pound of butter. One task was no less vital than the other; he could not build or plant barefoot and hungry. Charles knew that as well as she did and never failed to thank her for a new shirt or a good meal. But to have a hand in fashioning something that would not be consumed, worn out, outgrown--something as grand as a house? To be able to lean against that solid wall for years to come and know that she had helped put it there? Caroline thrilled at the thought."

In a dark moment, Caroline wants to cry in anger but has no privacy and doesn't dare go outside because of the Indians. She holds it all inside while watching Charles make bullets:

"Again and again she watched the thin silver stream of liquid lead flow into the bullet mold, then pop out a moment later, hard and shining. If only she could do just that--pour all her scalding thoughts into a tight, smooth ball capable of piercing the very thing she was most frightened of."

I found everything about this book captivating, and I desperately want it to be series. If I could read about all the adventures and journeys of this family through Sarah Miller's vivid storytelling, well. But as Caroline would say, I should be grateful for what I have, and I'm very grateful for this book.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Bowlaway

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken (2019)

The story begins in the early 1900s when Bertha Truitt is found unconscious in a cemetery in a town where nobody knows her. She won't tell anyone about her past, saying only "I'm here now." She stays in the town- the fictional town of Salford, Massachusetts- and opens a candlepin bowling alley. As if her mysterious origins weren't scandalous enough, she also marries the doctor who first attended her, a black man named Leviticus Sprague. They build an octagonal house, have a kid, and the story continues long after their deaths, but stays focused on the bowling alley and those who continue to run it.

Filled with secrets, lies, longings, and lives of dissatisfaction, this story is just as quirky as you'd expect from Elizabeth McCracken. For someone who's been living in Texas for a long time now, it's clear that she'll never get New England out of her system and Bowlaway is filled with elements specific to the region, from candlepin bowling itself to the Great Molasses Flood. She also skirts the paranormal with a little spontaneous human combustion and a mysterious creature known locally as the Salford Devil.

Had this come from a different author, I would have been turned off by a book about bowling and never picked it up, but I will always and forever read everything that Elizabeth McCracken writes. As it turns out, it's only kind of about bowling, but mostly about all the people who are bowling and running the bowling alley. It wasn't terribly long and covered an extensive timespan, yet somehow I still felt like I got a good feel for all the characters, which is the most important part of any book for me.

Spanning about 80 years, we see a number of characters die during the story, many before their time, so it was actually pretty sad if you think about it. But tempered with McCracken's trademark humor and wit, it didn't feel nearly as depressing as it could have had it been written by someone else.

This is only her third novel, after The Giant's House (1996) and Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001) but she has also written short stories and a memoir and excels in all of those forms. Honestly, she's one of those authors who could write literally anything and I'd read it and probably love it.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012)

Clay Jennings is a former tech worker looking for a job, and stumbles across an unusual bookstore that seems to be hiring. It's open 24 hours a day and he has the overnight 10-6 shift. Business is slow, but Clay soon learns that the primary business here isn't selling books, it's lending them out from a part of the store he thinks of as the Waybacklist. It's a tall skinny room with very tall ladders and it comes with a particular clientele. Although the owner, Mr. Penumbra, makes Clay promise not to look at the books, eventually he does and that is where the real mystery begins.

The story turns into something very different than one about a cozy mysterious bookstore and its eccentric mysterious owner. There's a real mystery here, with codes and secret societies, and it's kind of a fun adventure. Clay has a rich, successful friend Neel who he bonded with in sixth grade over a fantasy series they both loved, and that series and its author figured into the story as well.

But this wasn't about the love of books and bookstores and that's where the disappointed lay for me. Technology enters into it a bit, and things went in a direction that that did not give me the happy bookstore feels I was looking for. It's not Robin Sloan's fault that it wasn't the book I wanted it to be, and I still enjoyed reading it, but I liked his other book, Sourdough, quite a bit more. Still, he's a talented author and gifted storyteller and I'll likely read whatever novel he publishes next.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

On the Come Up

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas (2019)

So I went to see Angie Thomas speak last week (!) and the ticket price included a copy of her new book. This is great news because I had gotten on the library hold list kind of late and would have had a long wait. Anyway, she was SO great and if you ever get a chance to see her you should definitely do so. She was funny and interesting and had some great stories and she even rapped a bit.

But let's talk about the book! It takes place about a year after the events of The Hate U Give, but it's not a sequel. It simply takes place in the same neighborhood and you do see how people are affected, but the characters from the two books don't even know each other. (As Angie Thomas pointed out last week, "Not all black people know each other.") Anyhow, our protagonist is a high school girl named Brianna who wants to make it as a rapper. She goes to the Ring to have a rap battle with this guy named Milez who already has some notoriety for his song "Swagarific" and she beats him handily. She then releases a song called "On the Come Up" which goes viral, but gives all the wrong impressions about her and there are some unanticipated consequences.

First I need to mention that I've never been into rap or hip hop, but I can totally appreciate the skill. When Bri competed freestyle, it was sort of mind-boggling to me that people just make up these rhymes as they go. You're writing and performing at the same time and that takes an amazing amount of talent. This book has already been optioned as movie and I think it's going to be great just because of all the music that will be in it. But also, I know sometimes the songs talk about guns and violence and whatnot, but I kind of assumed we know it's just talk, right? Well, in Bri's song when she talks about having guns people take it seriously. This was interesting because I've always assumed there's a certain amount of fiction in songs - the artists try to create an image for themselves, like sounding touch, but we're not supposed to take it literally. That wasn't true here. People took it literally.

Another thing that added to Bri's notoriety was an incident with the security guards at school, in which they threw her down on the ground and cuffed her and it was captured on video. It was very unjust, and that story unfolded throughout the novel as well.

While this all was going on, Bri's mom Jay was in a rough spot. She lost her job at the church where she worked (which was related to the riots that happened during The Hate U Give) and the family was really struggling to stay afloat. Bri's older brother Trey had a job, but he didn't make much money, and Jay forbade Bri to get a job because she wanted her to focus on school.

One of the things I really liked about The Hate U Give was Star's parents because they were such well-developed characters, which is unusual in teen books. I loved Bri's mother too - she is definitely flawed, but she's such a strong, determined woman who has overcome drug addiction and is trying to really provide for her family. They're struggling though, and her relationship with Bri hasn't been the same since she left the kids to live with their grandparents all those years ago.

There was a lot to like here. Bri wanted more than anything to be a rapper, and was starting to gain local fame, but of course that comes with responsibility and a lot of complicated decisions. Her Aunt Pooh was acting as her manager, but then an actual professional manager wanted to take her on, but he had plans for her that she was not super on-board with. (Oh, and he was also manager for her father, a famous rapper who died young. I told you there's a lot going on in this story!) Plus, there were teenager-y things happening with her best friends, Malik and Sonny, and she was starting to have feeling for this boy Curtis who she had always sort of ignored before.

Ultimately, this is a story about a teenager finding her voice and learning about who she is and what's important to her. There's a whole cast of well-developed characters surrounding her and I enjoyed their stories just as much as hers. These are all realistic, flawed people who are just living their lives as best they know how, but of course making lots of mistakes along the way. It all felt real, and I found myself really excited for Bri and her future. I was super impressed with Angie Thomas's first novel, and this one is every bit as good.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Becoming

Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018), narrated by Michelle Obama

Former First Lady Michelle Obama's memoir is currently the most requested book in my library system. It seems like everyone is reading it. I was considering it and kept waffling on whether or not I wanted to read it, but then a friend mentioned how much she was enjoying the audiobook so I decided to try that version.

Obama begins with her childhood, describing her family and her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, before moving on to college, law school, and her early career. It was then that she met Barack Obama, at the time a law student who came to work at her firm as an intern. It didn't take long for them to begin a relationship. She takes us through major changes in her life, from getting married and having children to becoming First Lady of the United States, and straight through until they left the White House.

Reading about her family and early career was interesting, but what I found most fascinating was how she fit her life around Barack being President. For one thing, she had to give up her job. Her career had taken some turns anyway, but she was really going from one great job opportunity to another. At one point she talked about the huge pay cut she had to take to leave the law firm she was working for to go to another job that she thought would be more fulfilling. She said her salary was going from 120k to 60k. (That was in the 90s, when I was making around 24k. These numbers were kind of staggering to me.) At any rate, this is an ambitious successful woman who at one point had to choose to give it up for a life she definitely didn't expect.

Life in the White House was a tightly-controlled situation, and nobody in the family could really live a normal life. She mentions how she liked to sometimes drink her tea out on the balcony on a nice day, but it meant the crowds had to be cleared from that whole side of the house, and she didn't want to do that to tourists who came all the way to D.C. to see the White House. A few months after they moved on, Michelle and Barack decided to spend some time together and made a trip to NY for dinner and a show. They got to the restaurant and everyone who arrived after them had to go through security, and then the show they went to see started 40 minutes late because of all the extra security precautions that had to be taken. It felt like a huge nuisance and the media criticized them for the cost, so they didn't do that again. But really, they just wanted to spend some time together outside of the White House! She said that it was so difficult to go outside of the family quarters in the White House that they weren't even walking very much and they both started spending a ton of time in their gym to make up for it.

Things were difficult for the kids too. Malia had to attend her prom with the secret service in tow, and when it was time to visit colleges Michelle wasn't able to go with her because having the whole First Lady motorcade there was such a huge inconvenience for everybody. Michelle ended up sending her assistant instead. And one time the girls just wanted to go out for ice cream with some friends, but they couldn't because it was impossible to arrange spur-of-the-moment plans to go out. It was a bummer to hear how many normal things they couldn't do because of all the security requirements.

Michelle says that Barack was treated like some sort of precious gem. She understood why, of course, but said it felt like a throwback to a time when households revolved around the man, which was the opposite of what she was trying to teach her daughters. That was such an interesting perspective that I hadn't thought of, but of course Sasha and Malia were so young when they moved to the White House that probably a lot of the weird things about their lives seemed normal.

There were so many interesting little stories throughout the book. For instance, when Barack first won the presidency, the Bush family made a huge effort to make the transition as seamless as possible. They made sure there were binders of information regarding the household, including social calendars and that sort of thing, and apparently went beyond what was usually done for these transitions. They were also very gracious hosts when the Obamas first visited. The Bush daughters gave Sasha and Malia their own tour, showing them the fun parts of the White House. It was really very touching.

Also, did you know that the President's family gets billed for food, toilet paper, and expenses from when they have guests visit? I had no idea. I really had very little knowledge of how things worked behind the scenes at the White House so it was pretty eye-opening in that way.

The audiobook was 19 hours long (!) which concerned me because I generally stick to books that are around 8-9 hours if I can help it. The only other audiobooks I've listened to that were so long were in the Harry Potter series. But it wasn't a slog to get through, as I had feared. It was an interesting story that was very well narrated by Michelle Obama, who could probably do this as a career if she wanted to. (I've also listened to Barack narrate his own memoir and as much as I hate to say anything negative about him, it's a good thing he had another career to fall back on.) All in all I'm glad I read this and, more than anything, it made me really miss the Obamas. They were a pretty cool First Family!

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

I like to think I'm being thematic by reading this book at the beginning of Black History Month, but the fact is that I've been wanting to read Jesmyn Ward for years. Salvage the Bones was a Big Deal when it came out, but there are dogs in it, pit bulls, and I think maybe bad things happen to them? It put me off a bit. But then this book came out and everyone raved about it and I didn't get around to reading this one either for a while and now it's made its way onto my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge list. And now may go back and read Salvage the Bones too, even though it may rip my heart out. I think maybe that's just what her books do.

The story takes place in Ward's home state of Mississippi. Jojo is a thirteen-year-old boy, fiercely protective of his younger sister Kayla, who also lives with his grandparents and his mother, when she's around. He calls his mother Leonie and his grandparents, Mam and Pop, are more like his parents. His white father, Michael, is in prison. But he's getting out and Leonie packs up the kids and her friend Misty to go on a road trip to pick him up.

Things don't go terribly well. Kayla throws up all over the car, for starters, which makes everyone miserable. Leonie thinks she can heal her with plants, but Jojo doesn't trust her. They spend the night at Michael's lawyer's house where the adults all get high together while Jojo watches over the sick Kayla.

I've mentioned that Jojo's father is white, and this is significant because Michael's father, Big Joseph, is extremely racist and will not accept that his son is in a relationship with a black woman. There's also some family history here that I won't get into but it shows even more what kind of person Big Joseph is.

I can't believe I've gotten this far without mentioning the ghosts. Leonie's brother Given, who was killed at a young age, appears to her when she is high, which is part of the reason she keeps doing it. Pop (who by the way was possibly my favorite character) told Jojo stories about his time in Parchman, the same prison Michael is being released from. Some of these stories are about a boy named Richie, who was Jojo's age then, and how Pop tried to look for him at the prison. On the car trip, Richie appeared to Jojo and talked with him along the way. I don't know if I should use the word "ghost" to describe these appearances of dead people, but since they are dead people appearing to (some of) the living, that's basically what they are.

Leonie is not the mothering type, her awareness pretty centered on Michael. The kids were always frigging hungry in this book and she didn't think to feed them, or, it was almost as if she didn't want them to eat. Michael was her priority, and getting high. I kind of hated her for how she treated her kids, but also really felt for her in some ways. Losing her brother was horrible, and being in love with a guy whose family hated her (for no good reason) was also terrible, and her mother was dying. It's no excuse to treat your kids the way she did, but I do think she actually felt a bit of affection towards them. She just screwed up early and now they don't go to her for comfort or really even trust her. I have such mixed feelings about her but I can say for sure that she felt real.

All the characters did, even the ones who appeared just as ghosts. The perspective switched between Jojo, Leonie, and Richie so you get a much more full story than you would if it was just from one of them. Everything about this book felt real, in a raw and gritty way. It wasn't an action-packed story, but had a lot of momentum that just propelled me through. The chapters were short and that made it go faster too. It only took me a few days to read but I imagine I'll be thinking about it for much longer.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

January Wrap-Up and Plans for February



Ugh, January.

Reading


I'm usually off to a strong start with the TBR Pile Challenge, but I only read one book from my list this month and it was late in the month and a pretty short book. That was Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. I've now started Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward which is great so far.

One of my goals this year is to find a new (to me) poem that I love every month. It's been a long time since I've read poetry regularly and I'd like to get back into it. I read one book of poetry in January, A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires. I haven't posted about it yet because I can't find a lot to say about poetry even when I like it, so I'm just waiting to read another collection or two and then make a combined post.

Looking back at the books I read (or at least finished) in January, I think my favorite may have been The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel. Another book that I still keep thinking about long after finishing it is the forthcoming Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess.

I always like to look at how much nonfiction I'm reading, and it appears I finished two nonfiction books, Priceless and Scrappy Little Nobody, both of which I liked a lot.

Listening


Speaking of nonfiction, I'm currently listening to the (nineteen-hour long!) memoir by Michelle Obama that is all the rage right now. It's good but I'm not sure I'll be giving it the 5-star rating that everyone else seems to. I will say, though, that she is a very good narrator. She could definitely do that for a job if she wanted to. Stay tuned for my review on this, but it might be a while since it's taking me so long to get through!

Watching


Another goal this year is to watch all of Wong Kar-Wai's films. In the Mood For Love is one of my favorite movies, but I hadn't watched any of his others. I recently was watching an episode of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain was visiting Hong Kong and he talked a lot about how much he loved Wong Kar-Wai's work and I decided it was time to sample more of it. So far I have watched As Tears Go By which I liked a lot, and Chungking Express which I wasn't crazy about.

This month I also finished the third and final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. What a great show that was!

Random nice pic of Boston
I was sick the first three days of the year, but during that time I watched Bird Box, which I liked but didn't love, and The Haunting of Hill House which was so very good I want to go back and watch it all again. That scene where you find out the truth about the Bent-Neck Lady is just amazing.

I'm still watching The Good Place which just finished it's third season. My love is waning a bit, but I'll still keep watching because I love the characters so much. Well, except Jason. I like Jason, but it took me a long time to warm up to him and he's still my least favorite.

I've been watching a lot of cooking shows. I finished Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat which I liked but didn't really learn as much from as I was hoping. To be fair, I've read the book so I think I already gleaned any information I would have gotten from the show from the book first, but even that was limited: use more salt than you think you need, and if something doesn't taste exciting enough add lemon juice or something else acidic. Good advice, but I could use more of it.

I'm currently watching The Great British Baking Show: Masterclass and I've just started The French Chef with Julia Child which I got from the library. I like her style. On the very first episode she screwed up like two things and kept saying things like "nobody will know!" and "it doesn't look as nice as I had hoped so let's put some cheese on it" and these are exactly the kind of things I need to hear. I'm taking more suggestions for cooking shows containing practical advice for everyday meals, so please let me know if you have any to recommend!


Cooking


Spicy Chickpeas with Ginger
I've done some actual cooking too! One new thing I made this month was Pork and Tomatillo Stew from Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year. Somebody brought it to Cookbook Club and it was delicious so I made it at home soon after. I also tried a couple of recipes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I hadn't tried before (though I've owned the book for years.) One was Spicy Chickpeas with Ginger which was very good and I'll definitely make again. The other was Marinated and Fried Tempeh, Indonesian Style which was good but maybe more trouble than it was worth.

For Cookbook Club I baked Reichl's Banana Bread, which was the first time I've ever made it from a recipe other than my mother's. It's also the first time I've planned to make banana bread rather than just doing it because I had some overripe bananas. This means I had to plan when to buy the bananas, so that was interesting. I bought them 3 weeks ahead of time, which ended up being about right. I had to buy buttermilk for this version, which is inconvenient and now I have all this buttermilk leftover (and the banana bread wasn't even better than my mother's simpler version, btw) so I made something called Starbucks Indonesian Coffee Cake that someone from Cookbook Club gave to me when I mentioned all the leftover buttermilk. It was ok but I probably won't make it again.

I made the Caramelized Broccoli Soup from Dinner again, which I made for the first time in December. This is definitely becoming part of my regular soup rotation. These are just the highlights: I actually did a decent amount of cooking and baking this month!

If you've been following along, you know that one of my goals last year was to be a better cook and I was making a concerted effort to cook more. I'm continuing that this year but with some more specific goals; one of those is to come up with a list of dishes that are good for week nights. And I'm not talking about what Deb Perelman or Christopher Kimball or people like that consider to be reasonable for a week night. I mean few ingredients, quick preparation, something that will come together in 30 minutes or so including all the chopping. I know there are things I've made before that fall under this category, but I need to start pulling them all together into one list so I don't have to go hunting around every time I need to plan a weeknight meal.

Doing


Apparently I've mostly been reading, watching tv, and cooking. (And eating. Constantly, it feels like.) But I'm also going to physical therapy twice a week for my shoulder which consumes more time and energy than I had realized. I'm not really doing other exercise right now because it's just too much. I also visited the dentist and now have to use prescription toothpaste (did you know that's a thing that exists? I didn't!) and I have to floss twice a day instead of just once. Basically I feel like all I do is floss and go to physical therapy.
Such indignity

Despite that, and despite starting the year by being super sick for three days, I've had a little time for fun. My friend hosted her annual Russian Christmas celebration on the 12th, and I saw a production of Othello last weekend. Eric was supposed to accompany me, but instead had to take Petri to the vet because she had been limping for a couple of days and that was the only time he could get an appointment. (She's fine.)

So in summary, all I've really done in January is watch tv and survive, which I think is enough this time of year.

Plans for February


I'm going to see Angie Thomas (my friend bought tickets a few months ago!) and I'm also hoping to see Elizabeth McCracken. I love her, but it's not an event for which you need to buy tickets, so I'll be subject to the weather and my own ever-changing whims for that one. But I really really hope that I go! Also I am dying to read her new book. DYING.

I'll be hosting a Knit-along at work, along with a couple of co-workers. My first session is the afternoon of February 1. We're making this shawl and I've already cast on because it's a complicated enough cast-on that I didn't want to do it while trying to host. I knit a little just to get a feel for the pattern. It was fun shopping online for yarn, which I haven't done for a while. I needed four colors (or I could have used just one or five but wanted to replicate the idea of the original) but ended up buying two different batches in case one array didn't work out when I got to look at it in person. I'm using Madelinetosh Farm Twist in the colorways Whiskey Barrel, Glazed Pecan, Antique Lace, and Coffee Grounds which all sounds incredibly delightful, doesn't it?

Hopefully my physical therapy, and with it my shoulder pain, will also come to an end in February.

How was your January?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My One and Only Duke

My One and Only Duke (Rogues to Riches #1) by Grace Burrowes (2018)

Quinn Wentworth is a successful banker who is about to be hung for a crime he didn't commit. While biding his time in Newgate Prison, he meets a minister's daughter, widowed and pregnant. He decides to help her out by marrying her so she'll inherit his money, giving her means to raise her child. Meanwhile, authorities are trying to identify the heir to a dukedom and lo, it turns out to be Quinn. His execution is stayed at the last moment - really, after the last moment as technically he had been hung but just hadn't died yet. So now he's alive! And married!

I thought this was all a great premise to begin with, but of course there's more to it. Quinn wants to know who set him up, Jane has to adjust to the Wentworth household that she never expected to be a part of, and her father is threatening her child's future. There is a lot to be resolved.

Quinn tries to give her an out if she needs it, but Jane is committed to staying married. The truth is, they do like each other quite a bit even though they didn't get to know each other very well while she was visiting the prison. They vow to be honest to each other, but they're already lying: Quinn doesn't want Jane to know about his plan to find out who framed him and take revenge, and Jane doesn't want Quinn to know that her father is planning to take the baby away and raise it himself. (Oh, and her dad may be a minister, but he is bad news and not fit to raise a child.) They both have messy histories, which is something I appreciated a lot about this book. Not only is the heroine not a virgin (I mean, obviously, since she's pregnant) but her marriage was a series of poor choices and I really liked that even though it wasn't great and her husband wasn't a great choice, neither was he awful. Quinn's sexual history is also complicated and shameful to him and he wants to keep it a secret from Jane.

I also really enjoyed Quinn's sisters. They were all born poor, but through luck and good investments their position was much improved. However, Althea and Constance are not genteel tea-drinking ladies, they drink gin and curse and don't act demure for even a second. Quinn finds them difficult to live with but they are just the kind of fierce women you want on your side.

Basically I found everything about this to be rather delightful, despite the poorly-photoshopped cover. I had read some good reviews of it and hadn't read this author before, so I thought I'd try it. It was fun, and just the thing I needed after reading so much heavy scifi and horror recently.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Nightingale

Nightingale by Amy Lukavics (2018)

It's the early 50s and June Hardie is not living up to her mother's idea of what a young woman should be. June is not interested in learning how to be a good wife, but prefers to work on her story about a woman who is abducted by aliens. She ends up in a mental hospital and the story goes back and forth between "the institution" and "days past" as we learn the full story of why she is there and what happens to her in the hospital.

As part of a business deal, her father wanted her to date a particular young man to better forge a relationship with his father. June wasn't crazy about Robert, but felt she had no choice but to go along with the scheme. Meanwhile, her mother was giving her lessons in cooking, shopping, and other domestic arts to better prepare her to be a housewife. Little did she know that June was secretly applying to a writing program to attend after her upcoming graduation.

Fast forward to the mental institution. June is convinced her parents have been replaced by beings who are not her parents. In the hospital she meets other young women with strange experiences, like her roommate Eleanor who is convinced that she died three years ago. Something at the hospital doesn't seem right to June. The girls are sometimes locked into their rooms for long periods, she's given drugs before even seeing the doctor, and when she does see the doctor he doesn't talk to her - the nurse Joya stands next to him and does all the talking. The threat of lobotomy hangs over everyone.

June was a smart, ambitious young woman who just wanted to be free from the narrow role her parents wanted her to play. She could picture herself at the writing retreat, living the kind of life that she wanted; it was so close but, alas, it was not to be. She was stifled at home and stifled in the hospital. She was convinced that her parents were not her parents, but wanted to cooperate with the hospital in order to secure her freedom at the same time that she suspected something sinister was going on. She didn't know if going along with what the hospital staff wanted would actually help or hurt her. It was ominous and realistic enough to be the sort of horror that feels all too possible.

The ending was very strange. A number of things happened late in the book, some of which were pretty bizarre and I still don't quite understand, some of which I liked and found satisfying. I can't actually criticize it because I think it's just my preference, and actually maybe made sense with the rest of the story. It really was a pretty good horror story!

I've read two other books by Amy Lukavics. Daughters Unto Devils remains a favorite, and although I didn't love The Women in the Walls as much, I still really enjoyed it. She's got one more novel that I haven't read, The Ravenous, which is second only to Daughters Unto Devils as far as the Goodreads average rating. I'm putting that one on my list to read as well!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Famous Men Who Never Lived

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess (2019)

In 1910 there was a timeline split, resulting in two different versions of the United States. Recently in one of the timelines cataclysmic disaster struck, but 156,000 people managed to escape through a gate between timelines and now they are in the U.S. that we know. They were picked through a lottery, adults only, and they couldn't bring family members. One of those people was Hel, who left behind a young son and a career as a doctor. She now lives with a man named Vikram, who came through with only a backpack of books - books that don't exist in this timeline, except the copies he brought with him. One of them is The Pyronauts by Ezra Sleight. Hel reads it and becomes obsessed with the idea that it's the only copy left in existence, and that the man who wrote it in their world, here died as a child. She wants to build a museum of all the things the refugees brought with them from the alternate U.S. that don't otherwise exist here. She has a hard time convincing potential partners that it's a good idea, and then the precious copy of The Pyronauts goes missing.

I heard about this book through an email from the publisher that just contained a brief description and a link to request an advanced copy. I couldn't click fast enough. Often, books don't live up to the hype and I don't request many ARCs because I tend to only invest time in a book after hearing about it from reviews, and since this book isn't out until March I hadn't seen any reviews yet. I was just so intrigued by the premise, I wanted to get my hot little hands on it. Reader, it didn't disappoint.

Three years after arriving the refugees are still trying to assimilate, to forget everything they left behind and will never see again, to rebuild their lives. They're unsettled and unsure and they're all going through the experience in their own way. Some, like Hel, won't even consider trying to rebuild a life anything like her former one. She could be a doctor here too, but she doesn't want to. She won't deal with the loss of her son, or the fact that she chose to leave when he could not. What do you do in this situation? How do you live?

This is a story about refugees, which means there is another aspect to the story. Many people from this world don't trust the newcomers, and don't want to know anything about where they came from or their previous lives. They just want them to fit in, adopt our way of living and speaking and behaving so they can pretend we're all just the same. The UDPs - Universally Displaced Persons - know it too, and there are rumors about people being rounded up in camps. They know they're not treated the same, that many people are suspicious of them.

There were so many little things that illustrated the difficulties faced by the UDPs. For instance, the world they came from had no Nazis, so swastikas retained an older meaning. One UDP had a swastika tattoo on his neck, for luck, but was ostracized for it until he realized what it means here and he removed it as best he could. When one UDP realized how little people here bothered to learn about her world, she started making up outrageous lies about lives and customs in the alternate world and people believed her. I was fascinated by all the ways people dealt with this impossible situation.

What if you were a refugee from a place you could never go back to because it no longer exists? And where you are now, it never existed. You can't turn on the news and find out if everyone there died of radiation or if some people escaped. You can't even find out if anyone you know also made it through the gate because that would mean letting the government make a directory of all UDPs, and that could be the first step in tracking you all and being able to easily round you up if needed.

This book poses so many questions, and gave me a lot to think about. I suspect it may haunt me for a while.

I received my copy of Famous Men Who Never Lived courtesy of the publisher. I was not compensated for this review.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Shattering Glass

Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (2002)

Here's my first read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Unlike most books on my list, this book has actually been sitting in a physical pile rather than just languishing on a list. A friend bought it for me, oh, several years ago now. I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. It's a short (just over 200 pages) teen book that I knew would be quick. And the premise was intriguing! So when mid-January came and I was panicking because I hadn't even begun a book for the challenge yet, this seemed like the perfect one to start with.

A group of high school boys, particularly a new student named Rob, are tired of this super-popular Lance guy being in charge. One day when Rob sees Lance picking on Simon Glass, a fat nerdy kid, he decides he's going to make Simon popular. He enlists his friends, including the story's narrator, Young Steward. We know from the beginning that Simon Glass ends up dead. The chapters all move forward in a linear manner, but each chapter begins with a quote from five years later that fills in a few details here and there until the story reaches the final deadly scene.

Some aspects of this story reminded me of Lord of the Flies. The way these kids aligned themselves and manipulated each other was cruel and dangerous and some, like Young Steward, weren't easy to categorize as good or bad. It was a chilling portrayal of human nature. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to the influence of someone who takes a strong leader role. At that age you're not experienced enough to know that someone like Rob is bad news, and of course you're trying to fit in with your friends and not risk being the victim of harassment and bullying yourself. This was easy to see in Young, who is told by another character, "You're everybody's idea of a 'good guy,' but you're not good because of any convictions or moral compass. You're good because you don't say no. You do as you're told and so far, nobody told you to do anything wrong...But someday, someone will."

It took me a bit to get into the book because the dialogue was awkward in spots and the character development wasn't as strong as it could be. For instance, Young disliked Simon from the beginning but didn't spend much time reflecting on why that is. Several of his friends had pretty interesting flaws that weren't really delved into, and in many ways I think a deeper exploration would have made a stronger story. On the other hand, it would have been longer and moved more slowly, and this is a book written for teens, not for middle-aged women. I can definitely see teens who aren't patient enough for a detailed plodding novel really enjoying this one. It's a quick easy read - I blew through it in a 24-hour period - but leaves you with a lot to think about.

Now that I've read the shortest, easiest book on my challenge list, it will only become more difficult. But I had a lot of books out of the library, plus an ARC I want to read before it's actually published, and now things are a little more manageable. I need to make a plan so I can be sure to read everything on my list this year (plus all the new books I have on hold from the library!) but I'm sure I can pull it off.