January 24, 2020

Looking Back - Message in a Bottle

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.

Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks
1999 Grand Central Publishing (first published in 1998)
Read in April 1999
Rating: 1/5 (Poor)

Publisher's Blurb:

Thrown to the waves, and to fate, the bottle could have ended up anywhere. Instead, it is found just three weeks after it begins its journey. Theresa Osborne, divorced and the mother of a twelve-year-old son, discovers it during a seaside vacation from her job as a Boston newspaper columnist. Inside is a letter that opens with, "My Dearest Catherine, I miss you my darling, as I always do, but today is particularly hard because the ocean has been singing to me, and the song is that of our life together...." For Garrett, the message is the only way he knows to express his undying love for a woman he has lost. For Theresa, wary of romance since her husband shattered her trust, the message raises questions that intrigue her. Challenged by the mystery, and driven to find Garrett by emotions she does not fully understand, Theresa begins a search that takes her to a sunlit coastal town and an unexpected confrontation. Brought together either by chance or something more powerful, Theresa and Garrett's lives come together in a tale that resonates with our deepest hopes for finding everlasting love. Shimmering with suspense and emotional intensity, Message in a Bottle takes readers on a hunt for the truth about a man and his memories, and about both the heartbreaking fragility and enormous strength of love. For those who cherished The Notebook and readers waiting to discover the magic of Nicholas Sparks's storytelling, here is an achingly lovely novel of happenstance, desire, and the choices that matter most.

My Original Notes (1999):

Fluff. Pretty much a no-brainer and almost an entire waste of time. Simplistic and amateurish sentence structure, bordering on boring. Predictable. Why did I bother?? And everyone said the book was better than the movie. I certainly won't see it now.

My Current Thoughts:


January 23, 2020

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
2018 Grove Press
Finished on January 21, 2020
Rating: 1/5 (Poor)

Publisher's Blurb:

Keiko Furukura had always been considered a strange child, and her parents always worried how she would get on in the real world, so when she takes on a job in a convenience store while at university, they are delighted for her. For her part, in the convenience store she finds a predictable world mandated by the store manual, which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say, and she copies her coworkers' style of dress and speech patterns so she can play the part of a normal person. However, eighteen years later, at age 36, she is still in the same job, has never had a boyfriend, and has only few friends. She feels comfortable in her life but is aware that she is not living up to society's expectations and causing her family to worry about her. When a similarly alienated but cynical and bitter young man comes to work in the store, he will upset Keiko's contented stasis—but will it be for the better?

Sayaka Murata brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan. With some laugh-out-loud moments prompted by the disconnect between Keiko's thoughts and those of the people around her, she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind. Convenience Store Woman is a fresh, charming portrait of an unforgettable heroine that recalls Banana Yoshimoto, Han Kang, and Amelie.

My dear friend Meredith (of Dolce Bellezza) has been hosting a Japanese Literature challenge for the past 13 years. Every year I consider participating in this event, but I have to admit it's not a genre I particularly care for. Prior to reading Convenience Store Woman, I think the only other translated Japanese book that I've read is Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. I was disappointed with both of these books, not quite understanding their large appeal. While perusing the reviews on Goodreads for Convenience Store Woman, I was surprised to see so many 4 and 5 star ratings. Not only did readers love this novel, but they thought it was brilliant! I scrolled and scrolled, searching for a 1 or 2 star rating, but they were few and far between. I am definitely in the minority on this one. The dialogue was unrealistic and stilted and the premise of the story was unsettling and ridiculous. After a dozen or so pages, I grew bored and impatient to finish. Had it not been such a short book, I would have given up halfway through.

Click here to read Bellezza's thoughts on this novel.

January 22, 2020

California Road Trip 2019 - Red Rock Canyon State Park (Part I)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Playa Del Rey to Cantil, CA
Red Rock Canyon State Park
Route: I-405 to I-5 to Hwy. 14
Distance: 132 miles
Duration: 1 night
Cost: $23 (senior price)
Weather: HOT! 94 degrees
Cell Service: None

We had an easy drive through L.A. thanks to the slow traffic. We stopped for groceries at Trader Joe's on Sepulveda, got gas (and lunch) at Costco in Santa Clarita, and filled our propane tank in Mohave. It felt like the beginning of our big adventure!

We arrived at Red Rock Canyon State Park without reservations and didn't have any problem finding a site nestled up against the rocks.
Red Rock Canyon State Park features scenic desert cliffs, buttes and spectacular rock formations. The park is located where the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada converge with the El Paso Range. Each tributary canyon is unique, with dramatic shapes and vivid colors.
Historically, the area was once home to the Kawaiisu Indians, who left petroglyphs in the El Paso mountains and other evidence of their inhabitation. The spectacular gash situated at the western edge of the El Paso mountain range was on the Native American trade route for thousands of years. During the early 1870s, the colorful rock formations in the park served as landmarks for 20-mule team freight wagons that stopped for water. About 1850, it was used by the footsore survivors of the famous Death Valley trek including members of the Arcane and Bennett families along with some of the Illinois Jayhawkers. The park now protects significant paleontology sites and the remains of 1890s-era mining operations, and has been the site for a number of movies.
After wet winters, the park's floral displays are stunning. The beauty of the desert, combined with the geologic features make this park a camper's favorite destination. Wildlife you may encounter includes roadrunners, hawks, lizards, mice and squirrels.
There was nobody else in the park. Not even a ranger! The Visitor Center was closed, so I dropped our check in the payment box (this is a first-come, first-served park) and continued to ride my bike, checking out the other sites. The campground has 50 sites, all of which are primitive (no RV hookups or showers), but there are public restrooms and potable water. Our site had a picnic table and fire ring, but it was far too hot to enjoy a campfire. 

The rock formations look so pretty against the brilliant blue sky and the entire park was silent. We didn't see any animals and only a wren or two. Three other campers arrived in the late afternoon, but it remained very still and quiet. The stars were amazing and once again, I wished for a better camera to capture the night sky. 

Definitely not L.A.!

A Dr. Seuss band!

The sky was gorgeous!

With no neighbors close by, we had a very peaceful night.

January 21, 2020

The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline
2016 Random House Audio
Read by Cady McClain
Finished on January 17, 2020
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

It's been a few years since I first learned of Emma Cline's debut novel, The Girls, which is loosely based on the Charles Manson cult and brutal murders of 1969. Several of my blogging friends raved about the book, so I downloaded the audiobook over three years ago and only now got around to listening to it this month. I actually tried to listen to it when I first purchased it from Audible, but it didn't grab my attention, so I decided to wait and try again at a later date. Unfortunately, my second attempt was no better, but I stuck with it and pushed through to the final chapter. None of the characters felt fully realized and I didn't care about Evie or how her involvement with the group would eventually unfold. I read Helter Skelter many, many years ago and that narrative scared the daylights out of me. This tale left me bored, cold and somewhat annoyed. It certainly didn't live up to the hype and is not one I can recommend.

January 19, 2020

The Bean Trees

The Bean Trees (Greer Family #1) by Barbara Kingsolver
1988 Harper Perennial
Finished on January 16, 2020
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Publisher's Blurb:

Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a three-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.

I can't find a journal entry for my first reading of The Bean Trees (which I'm pretty sure I read in 1994), but I do know that it was my introduction to the works of Barbara Kingsolver. I recently read her latest release (Unsheltered) and decided it was time to give her debut novel a second reading. Always a bit nervous to revisit a beloved book from years past, I went into this reread a little apprehensive, wondering if it would live up to my memory of being a great book. I shouldn't have worried. I was immediately swept up by the beautiful writing, marvelous dialogue, and well-developed characters, many of whom I remembered as vividly as if I had read the book a few weeks ago. What I had forgotten was Kingsolver's sassy wit, which had me chortling as I read. I fell in love all over again with Taylor and Turtle and am now eager to reread Pigs in Heaven, the sequel to this delightful story.

January 18, 2020

California Road Trip 2019 - Dockweiler RV Park

Monday, September 23, 2019
Escondido to Manhattan Beach, CA
Dockweiler RV Park
Route: 78 to 5 to 405 (via toll road)
Distance: 112 miles
Duration: 2 nights
Cost: $55 per night (plus $10 reservation fee)
Weather: Upper 70s and partly cloudy

Our daughter's wedding was absolutely beautiful and everyone had a wonderful time helping her and Will celebrate their special day. I have shared a few photos from that lovely day here, in case you missed that post.

We enjoyed a slow morning over coffee and croissants at our gorgeous hotel in La Jolla before driving back to Escondido where we returned our rental car and got the RV organized for travel. The drive up to L.A. wasn't at all bad. There was a lot of traffic, but we didn't encounter any crazy drivers. We stopped for lunch at Rubio's in Manhattan Beach before heading on up to Dockeweiler's in Playa Del Rey. 

Dockweiler RV Park is nothing but an RV parking lot right next to the beach. It's a great place for families or those who love to spend long hours hanging out at the beach, but it's not really our favorite type of camping. We chose to stay at this park because we were visiting family in Manhattan Beach and there isn't anywhere else nearby to camp or boondock. I had done some research on Dockweiler's and was aware of the noise from LAX (we were directly under the flight path), but knew we could handle that for two nights. There are three rows, all facing the ocean, and each site has full hook-ups, a picnic table and grill. The sites are level and within a very short walk to the beach and the Strand (Marvin Braude Bike Trail). As I recall, there wasn't any WiFi provided, but we had decent cell service (Verizon and Sprint). There is virtually no privacy between sites and on our first night we noticed a few of our neighbors were sitting outside, talking and listening to music. We were thankful they observed the quiet hours rule and turned in a little after 10 pm. I can imagine it would be quite a party park in the summer. Definitely not somewhere we would want to be then or during Spring Break!  

On the plus side, I got to ride my bike! I went south from the park down to Redondo Beach and back, which was about a total of 13 miles. It was a beautiful morning for a ride and the bike trail is smooth and fairly flat. It would be fun to do the entire 22-mile trail, which begins in Pacific Palisades (at Will Rogers State Beach) and ends in Torrence, just south of Redondo Beach. 

Dockweiler RV Park.


The Strand and Dockweiler RV Park.

Quiet beach in late September.

Our view. Nobody in front or to the right of us!

One of the many, many jets to fly over us.

Nice site in the back row.

Dockweiler's is just beyond the volleyball courts.

Manhattan Beach Pier.

Such a great bike path!

Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant
(aka sewage treatment plant)

We had read about this treatment plant while researching the RV park, but didn't notice it until our second night. Not the most pleasant smell to waft into one's RV in the middle of the night!

I've never seen a hang glider crossing sign before!

Another view from inside our RV.

I usually take a lot of family photos, but for whatever reason I forgot to take any until the end of our visit. Maybe I was too busy catching up with everyone, telling them about all the events of the wedding week.

Aunt Alison and her grandson, Jude.

We have recently made plans to return to Manhattan Beach in a few months for a family reunion. I've reserved two nights at Dockweiler's and in addition to seeing everyone and enjoying another bike ride on the Strand, I have my fingers crossed that the ocean breeze provides nothing but fresh, odor-free air!

January 16, 2020

Top Ten List for 2016

In an effort to complete my list of Year-End Summaries (located in my sidebar), I have finally put together my Top Ten list for 2016. I suspect I was too busy (in January 2017) planning our move to Oregon and decided to skip this post.  It was a great year of reading, so instead of narrowing the list down to only ten favorites, I've selected every book with a rating of 4.5/5 or higher. 

Top Fourteen of 2016

You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris (4.5/5)

Behind Closed Doors by B. A. Paris (5/5)

Leveling the Playing Field by Rod Scher (4.5/5)

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (4.5/5)

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (4.75/5)

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern (4.5/5)

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson (4.5/5)

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (4.5/5)

City of Thieves by David Benioff (5/5)

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (4.5/5)

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (4.5/5)

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (4.5/5)

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (4.5/5)

What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas (4.5/5)

Favorite Novel: City of Thieves by David Benioff

Favorite Mystery: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Favorite Audiobook: Be Frank With Me by Julia Claborne Johnson

Favorite Nonfiction: Leveling the Playing Field by Rod Scher

January 15, 2020

The Only Plane In the Sky

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
Nonfiction - History
2019 Avid Reader Press
Finished on January 11, 2020
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent)

Publisher's Blurb:

The first comprehensive oral history of September 11, 2001—a panoramic narrative woven from the voices of Americans on the front lines of an unprecedented national trauma.

Over the past eighteen years, monumental literature has been published about 9/11, from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which traced the rise of al-Qaeda, to The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s definitive factual retrospective of the attacks. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through the voices of the people who experienced it.

Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff tells the story of the day as it was lived—in the words of those who lived it. Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Beginning in the predawn hours of airports in the Northeast, we meet the ticket agents who unknowingly usher terrorists onto their flights, and the flight attendants inside the hijacked planes. In New York City, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker underneath the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard the small number of unarmed fighter jets in the air, pilots make a pact to fly into a hijacked airliner if necessary to bring it down. In the skies above Pennsylvania, civilians aboard United Flight 93 make the ultimate sacrifice in their place. Then, as the day moves forward and flights are grounded nationwide, Air Force One circles the country alone, its passengers isolated and afraid.

More than simply a collection of eyewitness testimonies, The Only Plane in the Sky is the historic narrative of how ordinary people grappled with extraordinary events in real time: the father and son working in the North Tower, caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; the operator of in-flight telephone calls who promises to share a passenger’s last words with his family; the beloved FDNY chaplain who bravely performs last rites for the dying, losing his own life when the Towers collapse; and the generals at the Pentagon who break down and weep when they are barred from rushing into the burning building to try to rescue their colleagues.

At once a powerful tribute to the courage of everyday Americans and an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky weaves together the unforgettable personal experiences of the men and women who found themselves caught at the center of an unprecedented human drama. The result is a unique, profound, and searing exploration of humanity on a day that changed the course of history, and all of our lives.

I have so many thoughts about this book. As I began, I discovered I couldn't stop reading, very much like that September morning 18 years ago when I couldn't stop watching the news. It brought back vivid memories of where I was, who I was with, and how the shocking events of the attacks unfolded before my eyes as I watched the news reports in disbelief and horror. Like Garrett Graff's excellent compilation of interviews and transcripts, I simply could not pull my gaze from the scenes. I was afraid there would be more attacks and I felt compelled to know what was happening at every moment. At that time, my teenage daughter and I were living in Texas and my husband was working in Nebraska, so I was even more anxious, not being together as a family to face whatever might come.

From the first pages of this outstanding narrative, I was quickly engrossed, reading far into the night, which was not particularly a good thing since my dreams were full of images of that terrible day. I noticed that as I read, I was holding my breath, literally on the edge of my seat, despite the fact that I knew the terrible outcome as I turned each page. Yet, the intimacy of the oral histories revealed so much more than I saw on the TV broadcasts.

I had considered listening to the audio version of this book, but I'm glad that I decided to go with the print. Each chapter is arranged in a format of individual accounts, noting the name, place of employment, or relationship to a family member involved in the attacks. Without those visual references, I would have lost track of who was who; the print version made it easy to flip back and forth, refreshing my memory of the specific individual describing a particular anecdote. I also think the audio book (and hear all of those stories, which are read by a full cast of actors) would gut me. 

Here are just a few passages that gave me pause:
For those at the tip of Lower Manhattan, the only viable evacuation route turned out to be the water. A makeshift, unorganized armada of more than 130 ferries, pleasure yachts, sightseeing vessels, Coast Guard and police vessels, fireboats, and tugboats gathered--many without being asked--at Battery Park and nearby piers. By the end of the day, they had collectively evacuated somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people from Manhattan--a maritime rescue larger than the World War II evacuation from Dunkirk.
James Luongo, inspector, NYPD: At one point, there had to be 200 construction workers walking down West Street. I said, "Who's in charge?" They said, "Nobody's in charge. We're here to help." I'll never forget those men--big burly guys, coming down. So much of that day, so much of that day was just New Yorkers. People who can help people. A lot of credit goes to the fire department. A lot of credit goes to the police department and emergency response people. But that's what we get paid for. The amount of New Yorkers--just everyday New Yorkers--who stepped up to the plate that day was incredible.
Ileana Mayorga, management specialist, Volunteer Arlington: At 1:00 the phone started ringing, people who wanted to come and help. I put the names of all these people in an Excel sheet and what it is that they wanted to do. They wanted to help dig out the people at the Pentagon. They wanted to secure the area themselves. They wanted to enlist to go and fight. I had a man who called and he said, "I am 80 years old. I still fit in my pilot uniform from World War II. I can still see. I can still hear. I have kept up with my training as a pilot. Tell whoever you can tell that I'm ready to report for duty." That broke my heart, this 80-year-old man saying that.
Ileana Mayorga: It was completely amazing, the feeling of support, of unity. I felt so proud that my community, the Hispanic community, were calling. Suddenly the phones were ringing and saying, "This is the country that we chose to come to. Nobody will destroy our country." They would say, "I'm not legal in the United States. Do you think they will accept me to do volunteer work?"
As the morning of September 11th passed, a stunned, wounded nation found itself enveloped in a quiet--businesses and schools closed, traffic thinned, the normal air traffic overhead fell silent. Many Americans, both ordinary civilians and government officials, were glued to the television, soaking in the news, overcome with emotion.
At Ground Zero, an impromptu bucket brigade had begun work, trying to sift through the acres of burning wreckage in hopes of finding survivors and recovering the dead. The fires at Ground Zero would burn for another 99 days, until they were finally extinguished for good on December 19.
Paul McFadden [firefighter, Rescue 2, FDNY]: When everything settled, I lost 46 friends. The were either my friends or they were sons of my friends. 
I've read two other books that deal with the horrors of 9/11. The first is The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here). The second is a memoir by Abigail Carter called The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's Transformation (reviewed here). Both are excellent and The Only Plane in the Sky has inspired me to pull them from my shelves for a second reading.

Click here to listen to the Garrett Graff explain his research process and motivation for creating this comprehensive and important oral history of 9/11.

We must never forget.

January 13, 2020

California Road Trip 2019 - Escondido (Part III)

Saturday, September 21, 2019
Mark & Ana's
Escondido, CA

This would prove to be a very busy day! With plans to spend two nights in La Jolla for our daughter's wedding, we needed to get everything we would need for the weekened packed and loaded in our rental car. Once that was done, we were able to help get things ready for a family picnic at Mark & Ana's. Thankfully, it wasn't quite as hot as earlier in the week, especially in the shade. It was wonderful to see everyone, especially our granddaughter, who flew in from Virginia for Amy's wedding. This was the first summer in 17 years that she wasn't able to come visit us for three weeks, so we were very happy to have at least two days with her while she was in San Diego.

My mom and my three brothers (Mark, David and Chris).

Mark & Ana.


Caleb and Declan.

Rod and Steve (my nephew).

Andrew (my nephew), Mom and Val (my sister-in-law). 

My nephews, Tim and Andrew.

Rod and Shaylyn (our beautiful granddaughter).

These two always crack each other up!

It was a lovely afternoon, catching up with everyone, but after a few hours, Rod and I had to leave and head down to La Jolla for the wedding rehearsal and dinner. The rehearsal went off without a hitch, our daughter and future son-in-law looked so happy and excited, and our dinner (at a family favorite restaurant - Tony's Jacal) was delicious.

It was a long and exhausting, but joyful day!