Thursday, May 30, 2019

May Wrap-Up and Plans for June

Reading and Listening

I read a total of 7 books this month, including two for my TBR Pile Challenge- We Are All Shipwrecks and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Strangely for me only one was an audiobook, Pride by Ibi Zoboi. My bus commute has gotten nightmarish so I've been driving a lot instead and since it's a fairly short drive I haven't had as much listening time.

There are occasional mini-challenges as part of the TBR Pile Challenge and I won the last one! I got to pick a copy of a book from Book Depository and I went with Outlander. I couldn't find a trade paperback copy from the library that wasn't a movie tie-in version, plus it's so long I thought it would be nice to have my own. I'm picturing myself reading it outside this summer but honestly, I'm picturing myself reading many different very long books outside this summer and there just won't be that much time before the snow falls.

Sun-kissed doggo


I've finished the third season of Veronica Mars and watched the movie. Now I'm almost ready for the reboot that's happening in July! I do have the two books to read first, and I'm going to try and do them on audio because Kristen Bell narrates the first one herself and my favorite narrator, Rebecca Lowman, reads the second.


I had a couple of interesting cookbooks from the library this month. One was Jamie Oliver's new 5-ingredient Quick and Easy cookbook. I made 3 dishes from it: Hoison Chicken Lettuce Cups, which were delicious; One-Pan Fabulous Fish, also great though it made a lot more rice than I was anticipating; and Mango Rice Pudding, tasty but maybe a bit too strong-flavored for me.

An odd combo, but it's delicious!
I also had a copy of 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet, which I had to return after trying only one recipe. It was good though - Easy Italian Orange and Celery Salad. I only picked it because I had a lot of celery hanging around but boy, it was good. It also has red onion, blood oranges, and olives which sounds like it wouldn't be delicious together but it is. I'll definitely make it again as I very much enjoy a crunchy salad rather than a pile of leaves. It has very few pictures compared to most modern cookbooks, but I would really like to get it again and try out some more of the recipes.

Other recipes of note that I made this month include the Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew from the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School cookbook, which was very good but would have been better if the beans were fully cooked. You use dried beans, soak them overnight, and then cook them for quite a while but I guess you really need to try a few before determining that they're done. I also made Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion from Food52 Genius Recipes, which I'm pretty sure I'll be adding to my repertoire. It was super easy and pretty delicious.


Finally some sun

All the tv watching and some of my audiobook and podcast listening has provided a good backdrop for knitting, so I've made some real progress on my Na Craga sweater. I haven't yet really worked on my second sock though.

I attended the Massachusetts Library Association conference and attended every session of every day. It was one of the better conferences I've been to in a while, but so exhausting!

I also recently we went to see a new musical called We Live in Cairo. It was all about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and I learned a lot about that situation and its aftermath that I didn't know and really enjoyed the music a lot too.

My month is ending with a camping trip, which I'm very much looking forward to. We got a campsite that requires hiking 1/2 mile to get to and that means carrying all our stuff in frame packs but I'm very excited that we'll be fairly isolated from other campers. I keep joking that we're all going to get eaten by bears, but in reality I'm actually really afraid of bears. But I won't let it stop me from having a good time.

Plans for June

Honestly not a lot that I can think of beyond the camping trip. I just want nice weather!

How was your May?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)

Eleanor lives with an unwavering order and routine. She goes to the same job she's had her whole adult life, and where she maintains a professional distance from her coworkers. She goes home and eats the same dinner every night. She does the crossword puzzle, reads a book, listens to the radio. On the weekend she drinks vodka and stays in a haze until it's time to return to work. On Wednesday evenings her mother calls her from prison and they talk for 15 minutes.

But then two things happen that begin to break Eleanor out of her routine: one, she develops a mad crush on a musician and becomes convinced that he is her destiny; and two, Raymond from the IT department befriends her and they end up in the right place at the right time and help out an elderly man who has collapsed in the street. Now Eleanor has a social circle including Raymond, the older man, Sammy, and his family. Meanwhile, she has begun a project of self-improvement meant to help her secure the musician with whom she is obsessed. These changes disrupt the order she has been accustomed to, and dredge up feelings and memories from the past that she has forced to stay buried for far too long.

Eleanor is socially awkward, not at all self-aware, and judgmental. Early on, she described her office manager Loretta: "She has overinflated ideas of her own administrative abilities, and in her spare time makes hideous jewelry, which she then sells to idiots." She often makes such proclamations, sure of her opinions and using a formal, lofty language that she apparently got from her mother, who also has firm ideas about how things should be done and lives should be lived.

But her honesty and pragmatism are endearing. She is nothing if not sensible, her carefully-maintained routines assuring fiscal responsibility and a generally low risk life. Although she keeps a careful distance from people and is often bewildered by them, she has more of an understanding with animals. "If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I'll think 'What would a ferret do?' or, 'How would a salamander respond to this situation?' Invariably, I find the right answer."

It's not hard to see why her colleagues kept their distance, but not so with the new IT guy, Raymond. From the first time she called upon him for help, he reached out in friendship, apparently unbothered by her polite but cold demeanor. He kept reaching out to her and despite her initial distasteful view of him, she warmed up to him a little. They were together one day when they saw an older man collapse in the street, which set off a chain of events that resulted in more human contact that Eleanor was used to. They visit Sammy in the hospital, where they meet his grateful family who befriend both of them and begin inviting them, together, to family occasions. This leads to Eleanor meeting Raymonds mother, a stark contrast to her own. "She was, quite simply, a nice lady who'd raised a family and now lived quietly with her cats and grew vegetables. This was both nothing and everything."

Her hard shell begins to crack, her meticulously crafted life melting in the warmth of human companionship. This only works to dredge up the dark secrets she has kept buried for so many years, and reveals the full extent of the toxic relationship with her "Mummy." She has put off dealing with the truth of her life for so very long, but now she is able to handle it with the help of the friends she has finally allowed into her life.

Both heartbreaking and humorous, this is a novel about the ultimate unlikable, quirky character. I knew I'd like this book from the time I first heard about it but somehow just didn't get around to reading it. I finally got to it for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. It reminds me a lot of books like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and Sourdough: books about socially isolated people going through transformations, told with a certain quirky humor that I like. I don't know what you call this genre, but I want more of it.

Monday, May 27, 2019

There There

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

In Tommy Orange's award-winning debut novel, a large cast of Native Americans will be attending a powwow in Oakland, California. This is a big money event, and one group sees it as a opportunity. Armed with 3D-printed guns, they plan to rob the organizers.

We first meet Tony Loneman, recruited to help smuggle the bullets to the coliseum. Tony was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome but wants people to see him, not just what he calls the Drome. In the next chapter we're introduced to Dene Oxendene, a filmmaker applying for a grant. He'll be interviewing Native Americans to hear their stories, especially urban stories, and he'll do some of this at the upcoming powwow. Next is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, caretaker for her sister's grandchildren including one of our other narrators, Orvil Red Feather, whose mother, Jacquie Red Feather is a substance abuse counselor and an alcoholic and yet another narrator.

And so on and so forth, each chapter focusing on a different character, not repeating one until probably halfway through at which point I couldn't even remember who was who. I had to go back and skim some of the chapters to remind myself who a particular character was. Some of them were connected, like the members of the Bear Shield/ Red Feather family, while others had more tenuous connections to each other. But all were somehow involved in the powwow that the story led up to.

Predictably, the robbery went awry and you know when a gun appears early in a story it will be used to shoot at least one person before that story concludes, so there are no real surprises here. Unfortunately it all ends rather abruptly when the big event occurs, leaving unanswered questions and no resolutions. I don't mind an ambiguous ending, but everything was left so suspended in mid-air that I question the whole point of this story and what I was supposed to get out of it. Here I go talking myself down from a 3-star rating to a 2-star.

Had there been more opportunity to get into any of the characters, I would have liked this much more. I thought the first hundred pages or so were great, but then I realized that ever more characters would be added without revisiting the ones we already met (well, we do revisit them, but only briefly.) The result was that it was too disjointed for me to fully get into and ultimately the whole thing fell rather flat.

This has been a very popular book since it came out and I tried it despite not being hooked by the description. I know it's hard to tell from a summary so I like to try a book for myself when there are so many positive reviews, in this case from friends as well as reviewers. The author is definitely talented and if he writes a novel that sticks with a character longer, I would be happy to read it. This one, though, just wasn't for me.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

We Are All Shipwrecks

We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle (2017)

When Kelly was three weeks old, her mother was murdered. She grew up with her grandfather and his much younger wife, sometimes staying with her grandmother and her friend Dee. Her grandfather owned a porn shop and as he got older and less able to work, his wife Marilyn assumed most of the responsibilities of running the business. At one point he bought a boat and because of the costs of fixing it up, they ended up giving up their house and living on the boat full-time. In her memoir, Kelly Grey Carlisle documents her unusual childhood and adolescence, while trying to unravel the mystery of her mother's life and death.

Her grandfather, Richard Grey, was British and insisted he was titled, calling himself Sir Richard Grey. He claimed a lot of things about his life, some of which were true. Although he took good care of Kelly, he was an angry man, what some called verbally abusive. The little he told Kelly about her mother was not necessarily true. She had mixed feelings about her grandfather and so did I by the time I finished reading.

Marilyn put up with a lot, and I was struck by her devotion to taking care of Kelly. She married Kelly's grandfather because he was stable and she very much wanted a baby. Since she didn't have children of her own, when Kelly's mother was killed, Marilyn was the person who most wanted to take care of her. She wasn't happy with some aspects of her life and I really think she would have left had it not been for Kelly.

The idea of living on a boat in the marine seems very foreign to me, but apparently it's not that unusual. For one thing, they had lots of neighbors who also lived on their boats and they made up a pretty tight-knit community. While reading this book I happened across a new book called The Tiny Mess, which documents people who cook in tiny kitchens. Their living quarters vary from tiny houses to vans to converted water towers, but I was struck by how many people live (and cook!) on boats. They're primarily in Southern California, which is also where Kelly grew up. It's a whole world that I didn't know existed.

Mostly this book was slice-of-life in that there weren't major events or catastrophes she was documenting, but just what it was like to grow up the way she did. Always in the background though were the questions about her mother and the years leading up to her murder. Kelly got conflicting stories from family about why her mother was living on her own so young, and what her relationship with her family was like. As an adult Kelly got in touch with the investigators assigned to the case and finally learned some answers to her questions. Ultimately it was a satisfying story that explores themes about family, both blood-related and not.

We Are All Shipwrecks first caught my eye because of the title - I do love a good title - but it has languished on my To Read list for quite a while. It was the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge that finally got me to pick it up. If you're interested in delving into a quirky life filled with complex people and relationships, you may also enjoy this story.


Pride by Ibi Zoboi (2018), narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo

Just after finishing American Street, I downloaded Ibi Zoboi's newer book, Pride. Given how much I liked the first one, I suspected I might also like her Pride and Prejudice retelling.

Lizzy Bennet is now Zuri Benitez, who lives in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn with her older sister Janae, and younger sisters Marisol, Layla, and Kayla. It's very easy to see who's who. Their names are similar to those in the original, as are their personalities, but in an updated way. Marisol is the serious one, but her specialty is finance. Layla and Kayla are just ridiculous, boy-crazy younger sisters, much like Lydia and Kitty. Their mother is very interested in the Darcy family who just moved in across the street and encourages her daughters to pursue the brothers, Darius and Ainsley.

Although the characters are plot are similar to the classic we all know and love, Pride is very much its own story. The Benitez family has Haitian and Dominican roots, and her culture is very important to Zuri. So is her neighborhood. When the Darcys move in, she can tell right away that they don't belong. They are rich and dress like dorks and talk like white people. She's very protective of her neighborhood and way of life; in fact, she has a pretty limited worldview and isn't even interested in experiencing life outside of Bushwick. She doesn't like Darius, but keeps running into him, especially since her sister Janae is so smitten with his brother Ainsley. Of course it's inevitable that Zuri and Darius will get together eventually, but without ruining anything I'll say that the ending wasn't what I expected. Much like the classic upon which it is based, Pride is about growing up and how your family changes, and there's are some pretty big changes for her family.

The audio narrator was great! In fact, Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X. I suspect she was chosen for this book because there's poetry in it. Zuri is a poet and even ends up reading a poem in public while visiting the campus of Howard University. I was very glad I chose to experience the audio version.

I probably got a little too distracted comparing Pride to Pride and Prejudice, but it's pretty hard to avoid if you're familiar with the Jane Austen story. Just know that even if you're not, you're still in for a good story that stands on its own.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely (2019)

I was drawn to this book of poetry when I read that it was set in the rural Northeast. According to the description the poems are about "isolation, captivity, and vanishing." I can't ever get past the words of poetry to find the themes so I can't really talk about what I'm supposed to get out of this collection, I can only talk about my own response.

I was struck by the language of these poems, and by the unusual form of some of them. One of the earliest poems in the book, "The Lesson," is written like a prose paragraph. I didn't expect this, nor did I expect later another poem written in the same style that extended for 20 pages, one solid paragraph on each page. It's described in reviews as having a noir style which isn't how I would have thought to describe it, but I suppose it's apt. It's called "Book About a Candle Burning In a Shed" and it's about the investigation of the murder of a young woman. The narrator maybe be a police officer, and I alternately thought he was and was not the murdered woman's ex-boyfriend. I kept getting confused on that point. Although this poem went on a bit long for me and I couldn't quite make sense of it, I really liked the narrative voice.

Other poems written in a more traditional style stood out to me because of their vivid and unexpected imagery. Here's a bit I like from "Shine":

The stars do not eat my breakfast.
A man eats my breakfast. Like the stars
he cannot take care of me very well.
But oh does he burn.

I don't know why I like that so much, but I do.

"The Rose Bush" might be my favorite. I want to quote it in full, but will just share this part:

Dieback all the way back
before you were born ugly 
in the cradle, pretty at the table.

Something about that sounds like a song, the whole poem does, and I want to keep reading it over and over. It appears fairly early in the collection and I think it was here that it all began to feel somehow familiar. When I was in high school I wrote poetry - not terrible poetry either, poetry filled with sharp images and words that just sounded satisfying when you put them together. Had I continued to write poetry, I'm convinced it would have been a lot like some of the poetry in this book. What a strange response to reading someone else's book, but there it is.

I want to just continue through the collection, quoting all my favorite passages here, but I'd be here all night re-reading the entire thing. Suffice it to say that I'm very glad I picked up this book. For a while there I was trying out various recently-published books of poetry and not really finding anything I loved so I almost cancelled my library request for this one, only changing my mind at the last minute.

I may come back to it again sometime, and I may seek out another of her books. One of them is titled My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer and I can't imagine anything with that title wouldn't be good.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Memorial Medical Center was flooded and lost power. Backup generators were of limited help. Temperatures rose. The occasional rescue vehicle came and could only take a few people at a time, and staff had to make decisions about which patients should leave. As the situation became more desperate, the hospital was in survival mode. Treatments and routines halted as the focus was just on keeping people alive and hopefully getting evacuated. But poor communication and lack of disaster protocols both inside the hospital and out meant there was no clear directive and staff didn't necessarily know what was going on. It seemed as though some of the sickest patients were doomed to prolonged suffering and, ultimately, a certain death. Somewhere a decision was made to inject them with drugs that not only eased their suffering but hastened death.

It seemed like an impossible situation, one without clear leadership or a coherent plan. The hospital's parent company told staff to wait for the National Guard. But the government was also responsible for trying to rescue everyone else in New Orleans too, and didn't have the resources needed. Poor organization surrounding the rescues: helicopters, to save time and fuel, transported evacuees to just beyond the flood zone where, it was hoped, ambulances would meet them to take patients to hospitals. But those ambulances didn't materialize. Some helicopters were being turned away when they approached the hospitals helipad, but by whom? And why? There were still patients inside in poor shape who needed to leave.

All this was described in the first part of the book; the second part was devoted to the investigation and legal fallout that came later. One doctor in particular, Dr. Anna Pou, was implicated in possibly euthanizing patients and she became the focus of the investigation. She was a well-respected head and neck surgeon who was known to care deeply for her patients. Could she have possibly taken lives? Was the situation that desperate?

Fink provided a lot of context for the story and the issues. She began with a brief history of Memorial Hospital, described how some of the patients were actually patients of LifeCare, another hospital that had space in the Memorial building, a setup that didn't help communication when crisis came. She also described the medical community's code of ethics as it pertained to euthanasia, and the history of why it's not a popular idea in the professional medical world. The investigation into the events at Memorial during Katrina was also meticulously described. I didn't actually find the second part of the book quite as page-turning, but I can't deny it was all helpful relevant information that was necessary to tell this story.

It's no wonder this book won a Pulitzer. The myriad issues make it so complicated, and Fink did an excellent job of bringing in different perspectives. The result is not an argument for whether or not Dr. Pou should have been sent to prison, but a nuanced examination of the situation and surrounding issues without any clear answers. As I read, I found myself agreeing with conflicting perspectives. When doctors talked about the importance of never doing harm and how clear that directive is under all circumstances, I agreed that wrongdoing occurred. But when one of the evacuated doctors is taken to an airport and realizes that's where patients would have ended up - not at another hospital - and they would have died from lack of care, I agreed that the situation was extraordinary and the regularly rules did not apply. When family members had been forced to leave the hospital bedside of their loved ones to evacuate, only to find out later their loved ones had been injected with morphine and died, I felt the injustice along with them. And so on. When all was said and done, I think I came away feeling like people made mistakes, but they weren't heartless killers. They were doing the best they could under the circumstances and truly didn't want their patients to experience prolonged suffering only to die anyway.

There is so much to unpack and discuss in this book. I'll be thinking about it for a very long time.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Before She Knew Him

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson (2019)

Hen and Lloyd have just moved into their new house in the (fictional) town of West Dartford, Massachusetts. When they realize that their next-door neighbors are the only other couple around without kids, they decide to try and strike up a friendship. The neighbors, Matthew and Mira, invite them over for dinner. While touring the house, Hen spots a fencing trophy in Matthew's study and instantly recognizes it as having belonged to a guy who was murdered. Everyone notices her acting strange, but even though she tries to cover it up, Matthew knows she's onto him.

But Hen has her own history with the law, and one that doesn't make her any kind of a reliable witness. It doesn't help that the only reason she recognized the trophy as the one stolen from Dustin Miller is that during a manic episode (she has bipolar disorder) she had become obsessed with his case. So of course Matthew gets rid of the trophy and Hen can't convince anyone, including her husband Lloyd, that Matthew is a murderer.

We know by about page 12 that Matthew is a murderer, so this is no traditional crime novel. But Peter Swanson's never are. The real mystery is what Hen is going to do with the information she has, and what Matthew is going to do about the fact that she knows he's a murderer. This is all very psychological, which is exactly what I like in a crime novel.

Matthew is so interesting. His early life was completely screwed up and he is very influenced by his sadistic father. His father was horribly abusive to Matthew's mother, and the result is that Matthew only wants to kill men who harm women. It's hard to argue with that, I guess, but it's a pretty harsh sentence when the harm is defined as things like cheating on a girlfriend. Matthew's brother Richard was also influenced by their parents but in a different way. The less said about that the better.

Hen was the perfect person to have dirt on Matthew, as far as the plot goes. Because of her mental illness and how that manifested in paranoia previously, she cannot convince anyone that what she observes is true. She can see Matthew murder a person in front of her and there is still doubt about her as an eyewitness. Matthew is a beloved teacher; Hen is a mentally ill woman who suffers delusions. Who is going to be believed?

If I had to criticize anything at all about this book, it's just that I wanted more from Mira. We get her perspective at one point, a point at which she is becoming suspicious about her husband, but I would have loved more from her later. I just found the whole situation so fascinating and screwed up and there was more I wanted to know about. But if my worst criticism of a book is that I want more of it, that's the sign of a pretty good book.

If you like crime novels and haven't read Peter Swanson yet, get to it! I'm very much looking forward to seeing him in person at a conference I just signed up for. He'll be on a panel with a couple of other Massachusetts mystery/thriller authors and I can't wait hear what he has to say!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Paradox Bound

Paradox Bound by Peter Clines (2017)

In the town of Sanders, Maine an eight-year-old boy named Eli has an encounter with a mysterious woman wearing a tricorn hat and driving an old Ford Model A. He sees her again when he's 13. But when he next meets her as an adult, it's followed later by a visit from a faceless man. He asks Eli about the woman, forcing him to give answers about where she was headed, so Eli decides to head to Boston to warn her. He soon learns that the woman, Harry, is a searcher traveling throughout history looking for a literal incarnation of the American dream and that the dangerous faceless men are after her. Eli ends up hopping aboard the Model A with Harry and joining the dangerous search.

Honestly, it's so hard to describe this book because it sounds kind of ridiculous, but believe me when I say it's worth reading. I've been a fan of Peter Clines since I read 14 and he hasn't disappointed me yet. I don't actually want to go into too much detail because half the fun is figuring out what the hell it's all about as you go along. And I wasn't super clear on a lot of it, to be honest. I didn't understand what form the dream took - was it an actual object? And Harry was very particular in saying that she traveled through history, not through time, and correct Eli if he referenced time travel. I'm not sure of the difference. But none of this really matters, and it didn't make the story confusing for me.

Sanders was sort of a sleepy little town that hadn't completely caught up with the modern day, and Eli had lived there all his life so far. I think he was 29 when he leaves to travel with Harry. He always wanted to get out of his town but never quite got motivated. His childhood bully, Zeke, grew up to be a cop which can't have made things easier. He also had a relationship go South recently, so his life situation was pretty perfect for a grand adventure. As much as Eli was sort of obsessed with Harry, it wasn't a romantic thing, for which I am grateful. But they were a great duo as they traveled through history searching for the dream, encountering some famous actual people from history, and evading the creepy faceless men.

This is a page-turning adventure that moves quickly, but not so quickly that there's not good character development. It's very well thought out and well-crafted, which is exactly what I've come to expect from Peter Clines. The fact that a town in Maine features so prominently led me to look him up and discover that he is, in fact, originally from Maine. Turns out he has worked as a props master on Veronica Mars, which I am currently rewatching and somewhat obsessed with. Worlds collide.

Paradox Bound is on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, which I am almost ashamed to admit since he's an author I always read now so I don't know why it took me so long to get to this one. It was fun and entertaining and unexpected and strange. I've never read a story quite like it. I think I've said that about his other books too. As always, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what he writes next.