Sunday, March 31, 2019

March Wrap-Up and Plans For April

Oh spring, it feels like you might finally be arriving!

Reading and Listening

This month I finished two books for my TBR Pile Challenge, Prairie Fires and Pachinko.

Handsome gent I got to meet
I also finished three sequels, which I didn't realize until browsing through my Goodreads just now. They were Leah on the Offbeat, The Everlasting Rose, and Puddin'. All teen books, and all excellent! I read The Everlasting Rose in print, but listened to the audio of the other two. I'm trying not to blow through my year's worth of Audible credits too quickly, so I took a look at what was available through my library via Libby, and now I'm listening to The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli.

I'm still really into the Pantsuit Politics podcast, though I'm hardly listening to any others at this point. I don't know if it's because I'm listening to so many audiobooks or if I'm listening to all these audiobooks because I'm not listening to so many podcasts. I've also started reading the book by the hosts of Pantsuit Politics, which is called I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening) and it's all about having difficult political conversations with people who identify with a different party or ideology. It's really excellent, and that's saying a lot from someone who usually can't read nonfiction that isn't telling a story. By the way, most libraries have classified this book in the religion section, but it's not a book about religion so don't be deterred by that if you even happen to notice. Both of these women are of the Christian faith and so it comes up on occasion but not in an annoying way.


I finished watching One Day At a Time which was so good, but unfortunately isn't going to be renewed for another season. It's a shame because it's so smart and funny and I love all the characters. It tackles a lot of social issues, but not in a preachy or over-educational way.

I also watched Shrill, which was great! It was based on Lindy West's book of the same title, which was excellent and which I highly recommend. I hope this show will continue.


Coffee and cardamom cake

I did so much baking this month! We're cooking from Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi for April's Cookbook Club and I've tried out three recipes so far. First was the Coffee and Cardamom Pound Cake, which I'll be making again for the meeting. It was amazing and I can't stop thinking about how delicious it was. I was surprised because I'm not usually into coffee-flavored things that aren't actually coffee. I also made Tessa's Spice Cake and White Chocolate Cheesecake with Cranberry Compote, which were also quite good. Those ones both just seemed a bit more work than was worth it, though I'd make the cheesecake again with a different base. The crust was a combination of graham cracker and almonds (which, inexplicably, you buy raw and then roast. WHY.) but I'd really prefer just a regular graham cracker crust. The compote was also a pain, but I bet there's an easy alternative to that.

And I promised to bring dessert to a friend's house one evening and took that opportunity to bake two kinds of cookies from Smitten Kitchen Every Day, some strawberry meringues and coconut meltaways. They were pretty delicious. I also made some food that wasn't dessert, I guess. Oat bread and a couple of different pasta dishes. Honestly, the desserts were really the exciting parts of this month. For a couple of weeks there I didn't cook very much, but we had leftover stuff in the freezer that needed to be used up so that worked out ok.

One of my goals this year was to come up with a good list of things to make for dinner on weeknights so I really want to get going on that. It's got to encompass things for all seasons though, so it's more of a challenge. It seems like most of the quick things I know of are either tacos or pasta and I don't want to be eating those same things all the time or I'll get tired of them. Apparently Jamie Oliver has a new cookbook of 5-ingredient recipes and many of those are pretty quick so I'll be checking that out sometime soon.


We got our tax stuff submitted on time this year, which honestly feels like a huge win right now. Seriously, this winter has been so bleak - despite not having very much snow - that getting anything at all accomplished felt insurmountable.

This month I also started running again by which I mean that I went running twice, and late in the month, but that's something.

Unfortunately I am still in physical therapy and will be into April. But only about two weeks of April because after that my insurance cuts me off. Also unfortunate is that my physical therapist has introduced planks to my sessions. (Are you trying to kill me, Francesca?)

I finished the shawl I was knitting! And impulsively ordered yarn for a very ambitious sweater which I've already swatched for and started. It's an Alice Starmore sweater and I ordered the exact yarn (from her line) that was used in the photo in the book. In the same colorway. What can I say? I like how that sweater looks.

Oh and I went to a catwarming, which is exactly what it sounds like and you should be jealous. Why aren't catwarmings a thing? I hope this is the beginning of a trend. Also, I miss having a cat.

Plans for April

Someone at work just left to start a new job in April so I'm hiring again, but this is an intern position for a library school student so that's just the nature of it. Still, it means being short-staffed for a bit and then training a new person, which is always a decent amount of work.

We're doing another knit-along, though it's for this headband thingy which will be a much quicker project than the last one, and easily made with yarn from my stash.

I'm hoping to start running more regularly again and maybe also going to Zumba class more. I want to plan a camping trip for the end of May/beginning of June too. It's nice to finally be able to start planning warm-weather activities!

How was your March?

Saturday, March 30, 2019


Puddin' (Dumplin' #2) by Julie Murphy (2018), narrated by Erin Mallon and Kyla Garcia

If you've read Dumplin' or watched the excellent movie version you'll remember Millie Michalchuk, inspired by her friend Willowdean to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant and surprising many by winning second place. Millie has gone to fat camp every summer, but this year she is determined instead to follow her dreams by attending broadcast journalism camp at the University of Texas. She is also determined to turn her friendship with Malik into a romance. Meanwhile, dance team member Callie Reyes is hoping to compete at nationals and finally become team captain. But when a vindictive prank goes wrong, she finds herself in a lot of trouble and she loses everything she thought was important in her life. The story alternates between these two characters who form an unlikely friendship.

I loved Millie. She is into crafting and inspirational quotes and organizing. I'm sure she has a killer bullet journal. She is learning to speak up for herself and it's heartwarming and satisfying to see her flourish. Which is not to say that anything comes easy, but that I know she's up for the challenge. Millie's mother is very strict and determined that Millie will attend Daisy Ranch again this summer and this will finally be the year she loses the weight. Never mind that she's been torturing herself with diets for years without any noticeable change. Millie is just done with all that - with this goal that feels meaningless, the constant diet cycle, with feeling like she's not good enough because she's fat. She has more important things to do. Oh, and I loved her flirty relationship with Malik, an awkward boy who is super-friendly with Millie when they chat online every evening, sometimes all evening, but kind of stiff and stand-offish when they see each other at school.

Callie was complicated and abrasive. She was very hard to like, partly because she was so honest all the time and didn't try to soften her words. When her world falls apart because of some bad choices, she is thrown together with Millie and begins, very reluctantly, hanging around with her group of friends. They are no more excited to spend time with Callie than she is to spend time with them, but it's Millie who decides they will embrace Callie and that, despite her flaws and her former popular-mean-girl status, she is deserving of friendship. Callie has little to lose at this point and because she's grounded for potentially the rest of her life she takes what few social opportunities she is allowed to engage in. Even though she had been part of the super popular group at school, Callie had often felt like a misfit, just as Millie and her friends had. Sure she fit in at school, but at home she often felt like she didn't belong. Her father is Mexican, but her mother, stepfather, and little sister were all white and blond.

Callie was a great, complicated, complimentary character to Millie and I loved seeing how their friendship developed. They also both had romantic interests and gave each other advice on getting these relationships off the ground. But the friendship was the most important part of this story, and how these girls supported each other as they tried to achieve their goals and just figure out who they are.

These days I am too often reminded that no matter how much I like to be inside the teen characters in books, in reality I'm more like their parents. Honestly, I'm older than some of their parents. At one point in this story Callie refers to her mother's "old lady music" which turns out to be Tori Amos!! Wow, I really felt that in my old lady heart. But mostly I just got really into the story and rooted for these imperfect humans trying to find their way in the world.

The audiobook was excellently narrated by Erin Mallon and Kyla Garcia, two distinct voices that brought the characters to life. I had such fun listening to this book that I didn't restrict it to my commute. I would find things around the house to do while listening, and I credit it for helping me get my new knitting project started. (Millie would approve.) In short, don't miss out on this book! It's the perfect pick-me-up to lift your spirits as we emerge from the bleak winter months and look forward to better times to come.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Dreamers

The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

I still remember when Walker's first novel, The Age of Miracles, came out and a coworker approached me in the library clutching a copy in front of her and said "You've GOT to read this." A bunch of us read it and talked about it for a while afterward. It was a sensation. I devoured that book in one day and loved it immediately, yet just a few months later couldn't remember very much about it at all. Nevertheless, seven years later as I was reading Walker's long-awaited second novel, I couldn't help but be reminded of her first. I guess I didn't forget it after all.

It begins with one girl asleep in her dorm. Her roommate, Mei, notices that she's been asleep all day and tries, unsuccessfully, to wake her. She's taken to a hospital, but dies. Meanwhile other students fall into the same deep, heavy sleep. The dorm goes on lockdown, but nonetheless the sickness spreads throughout the town of Santa Lora, California. Soon the hospital is full of sleeping patients.

We meet many residents of this small town: Sara and Libby, two sisters who live alone with their paranoid father; their neighbors Ben and Annie, college professors with a new baby; Rebecca, a college student who doesn't know she's pregnant when she falls into her sleep; Nathaniel, a biology professor whose partner suffers from dementia; Catherine, an infectious disease specialist called in from Los Angeles to help with the crisis. It becomes big news, of course, this new disease that nobody knows how to contain. Precautions are taken, decisions are made, and the residents deal with it as best they can while not knowing if the next time they - or their loved ones - fall asleep, it might be for a very long time, maybe forever.

The very tone and atmosphere of this book is perfect for a story about the spread of an illness. It's not action-packed, but instead focused on the minutiae of every day, always with the ominous backdrop of potential calamity. Everyday life is suspended: school is cancelled, the town is under quarantine so nobody can visit or leave, and social gatherings are discouraged in an effort to reduce the spread of illness.  There's nothing most people can do except stay at home, away from other people and their germs, and wait.

I don't want you to think it's boring, though. It's definitely not. We're getting to know the characters and their lives and family tensions and how those are affected by this strange, unforeseen situation. It's quietly ominous in the most enjoyable way. Later in the book you learn a little more about the experiences of those affected. I won't spoil it for you, of course, but it's fascinating to think about. This would be a great book for discussion - I don't think anybody I know has read it yet but I hope someone does soon so I can talk about it with them.

This whole feeling of life being disrupted in a way that's quiet (rather than panicked) is what reminded me so much of The Age of Miracles, I think. That and the ease with which I became immersed in it every time I picked it up and was reluctant to put it down again. A very satisfying follow-up to her first novel that was absolutely worth the wait!

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Everlasting Rose

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2) by Dhonielle Clayton (2019)

I've been dying for the release of this book since I finished The Belles back in January. When the last book ended Camille was on the run - the Queen was dead, Princess Sophia was trying to claim the throne and Princess Charlotte, who was the rightful heir, was missing. Charlotte had recently awoken from her deep sleep, thanks to Camille who had also discovered that the cause wasn't a mysterious illness after all, but poison administered by her sister Sophia. Now, Camille is in a race against time to find Princess Charlotte and return her to the palace to claim the throne.

Princess Sophia claims that her sister is dead, and she's preparing for the funeral and her own coronation. She's also offering rewards for the return of Camille, her sister Edel, and the guard Remy who has been helping him. Camille and Edel use newfound powers to disguise themselves as they move around, but still they must be careful. When they learn of an underground resistance run by a group called the Iron Ladies they wonder if maybe they'll have help.

I really liked revisiting this world and spending more time with Camille and her sisters. While trying to locate Princess Charlotte, Camille was also trying to find her Belle sisters who had been moved to different locations. She was very worried for their safety, especially as she learned more about Princess Sophia's dark plan for the Belles once she was officially Queen. If the Belles were treated like chattel before, now they would be treated even worse. Camille also has a new romantic interest in the guard Remy, who she used to dislike but is now getting to know much better.

It was also great to see more of the world introduced in The Belles. I was especially interested in the Iron Ladies, who didn't partake in the beauty rituals everyone else did, using only basic maintenance to dull the red in their eyes and make their straw-textured hair easier to deal with. One of the other symptoms was described as mental unbalance though, and that wasn't addressed here. I don't know if it's an omission or something that will be a addressed in a potential third book. Honestly, there were a few bits in this book that didn't quite make sense or were awkward. And then there was the impulsiveness of Camille, wanting to run after her friends who were captured though she obviously didn't stand a chance of saving them. But she's a teenager, so that is just a part of her personality I think. One of her hot-headed impulsive actions created a needed diversion though, which is obviously good, but I wasn't sure whether or not it was planned. Camille is fairly unpredictable and her instincts aren't always on point.

At any rate, these were minor issues in a book that was overall pretty action-packed and difficult to put down. I loved spending more time in this world and with these characters. I can't tell if there's going to be a third book, because although there's more that I want, things were fairly resolved in the end. But I'm hoping this series isn't over!

Friday, March 22, 2019

Last Night in Nuuk

Last Night in Nuuk by Niviaq Korneliussen (2019)

I don't often read fiction reviews, primarily because I ended up finding too many things I want to read, but not long ago this one caught my eye as I was perusing a review journal at work. Anything that takes place at the cold outer edges of the world intrigues me, and this book is set in Greenland. I've read two other books set in Greenland and posted about them here, but this book is very different from either of those.

Set in the capital city of Nuuk, this short contemporary novel is about five people whose lives are intertwined. The book is divided into five chapters, one from the perspective of each character: Fia, Inuk, Arnaq, Ivik, and Sara. Fia's chapter begins with an ending - she breaks up with her boyfriend, Peter, and finds herself surprisingly attracted to a woman she meets, Sara. Fia is temporarily staying with her brother Inuk's friend Arnaq, who is attracted to Sarah's partner Ivik. Arnaq is drunk and reckless and betrays Inuk by revealing something he told her in confidence. It's all a little confusing when I describe it here, but not when you're reading it.

This book could have easily been 300 pages, but Korneliussen's writing is quite lean and the whole thing is only 173 pages and includes text conversations, hashtags, a multiple choice form, and a few pages with only one or two lines on them. So it felt a little experimental, but I think it works.

I don't remember what I read in the review - basically I saw "Greenland" and put it on my To Read list - so I didn't know what to expect from the story when I started it. It's heavily LGBT (with basically all of those letters represented) and it made me wonder a lot about the larger culture in Greenland and how accepting people are. I didn't get a lot about that from the story. It's pretty straightforward and doesn't go into much about the characters backgrounds or anything beyond what is happening at the moment. There was also a bit about one of the characters being in prison that I didn't really understand, and I still don't know if it was a literal or figurative prison.

It took me a bit to get into this book, but once I did I flew through it pretty quickly. Had it not been so short and quick I may not have finished. For what it was, I liked it well enough, but I don't know that it's a book that will have a lasting impression on me.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Refugee by Alan Gratz (2017)

I don't especially like middle grade books, but this is our pick for the Community Read at my library this year. While I'm no longer on the committee, I still offered to run a book discussion so I had to read the book!

There are three different stories. One is of Josef, a Jewish boy trying to escape Hitler's Germany during World War II. His father was taken to a concentration camp and when he was released the family left on a ship headed for Cuba. But they weren't the only ones - two other boats were also headed there for Germany, and it was uncertain whether or not they'd be allowed to disembark once they got there.

Isabel lived in Cuba in the 1990s and her father was involved in a protest. The police were after him, so the family convinced their neighbors to take them on the boat they had been building. It was a pretty makeshift boat, but it was all they had. The two families headed out, bound for the Florida coast.

Finally, Mahmoud lived with his family in Syria until the day in 2015 that their building was bombed. They left Aleppo in their car, hoping to drive as far as possible and then find transport the rest of the way to Germany. They encountered dangers and obstacles all along the way, and spent time living in refugee camp and in an abandoned mall.

These stories had a common thread of course, and that was escape. In all these stories the families were at great risk and they didn't all make it to their destinations. All were desperate and needed help along the way and sometimes they were lucky to find kind strangers. These are horrible experiences for anyone to go through, but especially children, and it happens every day. It's all too easy to hear stories about refugees on the news and not think much about it, but stories like these put real faces and real people in the news stories. Although it's a work of fiction, they're based on real situations and some of the characters are based on people who actually lived. It's terrible to think of what families like Isabel's can go through to get to the United States and then think about people who just want to build a wall to keep them out. Why would anyone want other humans to die just because they weren't lucky enough to have been born somewhere safe that remains safe?

The book was written in alternating chapters, which I didn't like at all. I don't mind when a story is told from different perspectives, but this was actually three different stories and organizing it like that felt like I was reading three different books at once, four or five pages at a time. It made it difficult to get into any of the stories. So pretty early on, I decide to just read all of Josef's chapters in a row, then Isabel's, then Mahmoud's. This gave me the opportunity to get more into the stories, which was a better experience for me.

All in all, they were pretty decent stories and I flew through them, reading the whole book in one (albeit long) evening. They were fairly simple as they were written for young people, but didn't shy away from tragedy. And there was some pretty painful tragedy. I know that this year the committee wanted to find a book about immigration and I think this was a great one to highlight the different kinds of experiences people have when fleeing their countries, and of course, the reasons they need to leave in the first place. It's a good jumping off point for discussions and programs around immigration and I'm very curious to hear what other readers think about it.

Monday, March 18, 2019


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 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.