January 17, 2019

Small Great Things

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
2016 Ballantine Books
Finished on December 19, 2018
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

#1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult is a born storyteller who "writes with a fine touch, a sharp eye for detail, and a firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships" (The Boston Globe). Small Great Things is Picoult at her finest--complete with unflinching insights, richly layered characters, and a page-turning plot with a gripping moral dilemma at its heart.

Ruth Jefferson, a labor and delivery nurse, begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she's been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don't want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies, but the next day the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone on the ward. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case, but Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy's counsel, Ruth tries to keep her life as normal as possible--especially for her teenaged son. And as the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy come to see that what they've been taught their whole lives about others--and themselves--might be wrong.

I've read over a dozen books by Jodi Picoult and this may very well be my favorite. As always, Jodi is a marvelous storyteller and this timely novel is one I simply couldn't put down. In classic Picoult style, with her alternating points-of-view and courtroom drama, Small Great Things is a compelling read with believable dialogue and authentic characters. However, the white supremicist storyline was so disturbing that I almost quit after reading the first few chapters. I'm glad I stuck with it since it turned out to be such a thought-provoking and important book, one that I think would be an excellent book club choice. Reading Small Great Things was an uncomfortable experience; it made me angry, but it also made me think more deeply about racial awareness, intolerance and social injustice. This would be a great book to read and discuss in conjunction with Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson) and The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas).

January 16, 2019

Forward From Here

Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age - and Other Unexpected Adventures by Reeve Lindbergh
Nonfiction - Essays
2008 Simon & Schuster
Finished on December 10, 2018
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In her funny and wistful new book, Reeve Lindbergh contemplates entering a new stage in life, turning sixty, the period her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, once described as "the youth of old age." It is a time of life, she writes, that produces some unexpected surprises. Age brings loss, but also love; disaster, but also delight. The second-graders Reeve taught many years ago are now middle-aged; her own children grow, marry, have children themselves. "Time flies,' she observes, " but if I am willing to fly with it, then I can be airborne, too." A milestone birthday is also an opportunity to take stock of oneself, although such self-reflection may lead to nothing more than the realization, as Reeve puts if, "that I just seem to continue being me, the same person I was at twelve and at fifty." At sixty, as she observes, "all I really can do with the rest of my life is to...feel all of it, every bit of it, as much as I can for as long as I can."

Age is only one of many subjects that Reeve writes about with perception and insight. In northern Vermont, nature is an integral part of daily life, especially on a farm. Whether it is the arrival and departure of certain birds in spring and fall, wandering turtles, or the springtime ritual of lambing, the natural world is a constant revelation.

With a wry sense of humor, Reeve contemplates the infirmities of the aging body, as well as the many new drugs that treat these maladies. Briefly considering the risks of drug dependency, she writes that "the least we [the "Sixties Generation"] can do for ourselves is live up to our mythology, and take lots of drugs." Legal drugs that is -- although what sustains us as we grow older is not drugs but an appreciation for life, augmented by compassion, a sense of humor, and common sense.

And of course there is family -- especially with the Lindberghs. Reeve writes about discovering, thirty years after her father's death and two and a half years after her mother's, that her father had three secret families in Europe. She travels to meet them, learning to expand her self-understanding: "daughter of," "mother of," "sister of" -- sister of many more siblings than she'd known, in a family more complicated than even she had imagined.

Forward from Here is a brave book, a reflective book, a funny book -- a book that will charm and fascinate anyone on the journey from middle age to the uncertain future that lies ahead.

Well. That is one of the lengthiest blurbs I've read on a book jacket in a long time, and it pretty much sums up the entire book, about which I had mixed feelings. Some of the essays held my interest more than others, particularly the one about her father's secret life and her visits with her half siblings. Others were less interesting and at one point I was tempted to give up on the book, but decided to keep reading, hoping to discover a few gems. I love essay collections, but Lindbergh's writing didn't hold my interest as that of Kelly Corrigan, Ann Hood, and Anna Quindlen. I have no passages to share, which is rare for this sort of book, and reading this just before my 57th birthday, I don't think it was a case of not fitting the demographic (although I don't feel like I'm about to leave middle age!). Perhaps it was just a case of bad timing...

I really wanted to love this book, but it was flat and fell short of my expectations. Nonetheless, I still intend to read Under a Wing: A Memoir and Moving to the Country, which have been on my shelves for years. I am also inspired to re-read Gift From the Sea, the classic book which was written by Reeve's mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

January 15, 2019

The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
2016 Sourcebooks Landmark
Finished on December 4, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein offers us a window into a brilliant, fascinating woman whose light was lost in Einstein's enormous shadow. It is the story of Einstein's wife, a brilliant physicist in her own right, whose contribution to the special theory of relativity is hotly debated and may have been inspired by her own profound and very personal insight.

Mitza Maric has always been a little different from other girls. Most twenty-year-olds are wives by now, not studying physics at an elite Zurich university with only male students trying to outdo her clever calculations. But Mitza is smart enough to know that, for her, math is an easier path than marriage. And then fellow student Albert Einstein takes an interest in her, and the world turns sideways. Theirs becomes a partnership of the mind and of the heart, but there might not be room for more than one genius in a marriage.

I really enjoyed this compelling novel about Albert Einstein's first wife, Mitza Maric, and her contribution to his scientific theories. As with most historical fiction, I found myself wanting to learn more about this brilliant woman and her life with Einstein. As I read, I became angry with Mitza's situation and with Albert's cruel and selfish behavior toward his wife. My book club chose this novel and we had a long and lively discussion. I think almost everyone liked the book, but several were very annoyed with Mitza for putting up with Einstein for as long as she did. I like the author's writing style and am eager to try her previous novel, Carnegie's Maid and her new upcoming release in January, The Only Woman in the Room.

January 14, 2019

Shadow Over the Fens

Shadow Over the Fens (DI Nikki Galena, #2) by Joy Ellis
2016 Tantor Audio
Read by Henrietta Meire
Finished on November 18, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Someone terrible from DS Joseph Easter’s past is back . . .

DI Nikki Galena’s friend and neighbour meets a tragic end but there’s more to his death than meets the eye . . .

A man is found executed on a piece of wasteland in Greenborough town. The cold-blooded murder triggers terrible memories for DS Joseph Easter. Just when things seemed to be going well for DS Easter, he realises that the nightmare is coming back, threatening his career, his sanity, and maybe his life.

In a breath-taking conclusion even DI Galena begins to doubt him [DS Easter] as he faces a race against time to save someone very close to him.

Set in the Lincolnshire Fens: great open skies brood over marshes, farmland, and nature reserves. It is not easy terrain for the Fenland Constabulary to police, due to the distances between some of the remote Fen villages, the dangerous and often misty lanes, and the poor telephone coverage. There are still villages where the oldest residents have never set foot outside their own farmland and a visit to the nearest town is a major event. But it has a strange airy beauty to it, and above it all are the biggest skies you’ve ever seen.

Shadow Over the Fens is another entertaining installment to the Nikki Galena series. I figured out whodunit early on, but that didn't spoil the book and I'm eager to start listening to Hunted on the Fens. I'm enjoying the series and the audio reader (Henrietta Meire) is very good. This book held my interest quite a bit more than those in Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series (another mystery series I've been listening to) and I was inspired to go on longer walks just so I could continue listening.

January 13, 2019

Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Historical Fiction
2017 Ballantine Books
Finished on November 14, 2018
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancĂ©, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

As is my typical fashion, I did not read the publisher's blurb before starting Before We Were Yours. Even though it was my recommendation to my book club, I took a gamble, knowing nothing more than its popularity and high praise since it first hit the bookstores and that it's historical fiction, which is always fun to discuss. I had never heard of Georgia Tann or the Tennessee Children's Home Society scandal, so I really went in cold on this read. I normally don't care for dual timelines (an overused literary device with historical fiction these days), but in this case, I thought both narratives were equally compelling, with neither point-of-view outshining the other. Some of my book club members felt the contemporary storyline was too romance-y and predictable, but I never felt that way and enjoyed the suspense of the mystery, keeping track of all the names, searching for clues, trying to figure out which child became which adult (as the names were changed after adoption). 

After I finished Before We Were Yours, I began my research for book club and came upon several articles and YouTube videos about Georgia Tann and her accomplice, Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley. The information I learned about these two greedy and cruel women made me angrier than I was after reading the book. If you wish, you can read about them here, but I would recommend waiting until after you've finished the book.

In spite of the sad and depressing nature of the book, especially knowing that it's based on a true story, I loved it and couldn't wait to talk about it with my book club. I thought the writing was very good and the characters were fully fleshed-out and believable. I felt their fear and sadness. Other than those few who had quibbles about the predictability and romantic aspects of the modern storyline, everyone else in my group thought it was very good, as well. 

January 12, 2019

Birdbaths and Paper Cranes

Birdbaths and Paper Cranes: A Family Tale by Sharon Randall
Nonfiction - Essays
2001 Plume Books (Penguin Group)
Finished on November 8, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

From the nationally syndicated columnist Sharon Randall, Birdbaths and Paper Cranes is a new collection of heartfelt essays on life and family. Among the many poignant topics she tells us about are her blind brother's first attempt at driving a car, her daughter's penchant for tea parties, and her husband's courageous battle with a deadly disease. In Randall's hands, even a simple story about a birdbath has meaning. Through laughter and tears, all those who read Birdbaths and Paper Cranes will look at life in a different way.

This is my second reading of Birdbaths and Paper Cranes. I don't remember when I first discovered this collection of columns by Sharon Randall, but it's been on my "keeper" shelf for many years and it's one that I remember loving the first time I read it. Many of the stories made me laugh out loud and others tugged at my heartstrings, bringing a lump to my throat. I enjoy reading nonfiction when life is hectic or stressful and Randall's stories are the perfect in length, allowing me to read a half-dozen or so each evening before bedtime. I enjoy stories about family, motherhood, love and grief and this collection didn't disappoint and will appeal to readers who enjoy similar essays by Joyce Maynard, Anna Quindlen and Kelly Corrigan.

17 years have passed since Sharon's book was published and I was curious to see if she had anything else I could read. I didn't find anymore books, but I did come across her website and blog, which is just as entertaining (and more current) as the columns in Birdbaths and Paper Cranes.

January 11, 2019

A Room Full of Bones

A Room Full of Bones (Ruth Galloway #4) by Elly Griffiths
2012 Audible Studios
Read by Jane McDowell
Finished on November 7, 2018
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Combine a splash of Alan Bradley with a pinch of Kathy Reichs and you have a gripping new Ruth Galloway Mystery -- a good-hearted mystery series with a dark edge.

Set in Norfolk, England, A Room Full of Bones embroils, once again, our brainy heroine in a crime tinged by occult forces. On Halloween night, the Smith Museum in King's Lynn is preparing for an unusual event -- the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when forensic archaelogist Ruth Galloway arrives to supervise, she finds the curator, Neil Topham, dead beside the coffin. Topham's death seems to be related to other uncanny incidents, including the arcane and suspect methods of a group called the Elginists, which aims to repatriate the museum's extensive collection of Aborigine skulls; the untimely demise of the museum's owner, Lord Smith; and the sudden illness of DCI Harry Nelson, who Ruth's friend Cathbad believes is lost in The Dreaming -- a hallucinogenic state central to some Indigenous Australian beliefs. Tensions build as Nelson's life hangs in the balance. Something must be done to set matters right and lift Nelson out of the clutches of death, but will Ruth be able to muster herself out of a state of guilt and foreboding in order to do what she does best?

This was another good installment in the Ruth Galloway series, but not one of my favorites. I'm not in love with this series, but the books are entertaining to listen to while out on a walk or driving into town while running errands. The character development is what continues to hold my interest. Now that I've read this and A Dying Fall (#5), it might be time to switch over to the print editions and see if my enthusiasm for the series improves. I really like Ruth, Nelson and the supporting cast of characters, but frankly, the mysteries are a bit ho-hum.

January 10, 2019

Tell Me More

Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
2018 Random House
Finished on September 14, 2018
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent!)

Publisher's Blurb:

In "I Don't Know," Corrigan wrestles to make peace with uncertainty, whether it's over expected invitations that never come or a friend's agonizing infertility. In "No," she admires her mother's ability to set boundaries, her liberating willingness to be unpopular. In "Tell Me More," she learns something important about listening from a facialist named Tish. And in "I Was Wrong," she comes clean about her disastrous role in a family fight--and explains why saying sorry may not be enough. With refreshing candor, a deep well of empathy, and her signature desire to understand "the thing behind the thing," Corrigan swings in this insightful book between meditations on life with a preoccupied husband and two mercurial teenage daughters to profound observations on love and loss.

In channeling the characteristically streetwise, ever-relatable voice that has defined Corrigan's work, Tell Me More is a meaningful, touching take on the power of the right words at the right moment to change everything.

What a treasure! I have and will continue to read anything Kelly Corrigan publishes. I love her honest (and at times, often brutal) examination of life, death, love and family. I wish I knew her personally, as her anecdotes and feelings are so relatable. I can imagine sitting across from her, enjoying a cup of coffee and conversation, both of us laughing and crying over life's joys and heartaches. Having watched so many of her videos, I was able to hear her voice, imagining it breaking with emotion, as I read each page. Once in a blue moon, I read a book that touches me so deeply that I am inspired to write a fan letter. This is one of those books and I couldn't have loved it more. I'm very happy that I bought it in hardcover. It's a keeper.

Just a couple of favorite passages. (I could have easily marked the entire book.):
Every conversation fell into the same pattern. Cancer was The Enemy, treatment was A Journey, and I was A Hero whose responsibility was to weather the shipwrecks and beat back the sea monsters, returning from the odyssey changed and better. It was uncanny how many people said one or more of these three things: You’re so brave. Was it in your family? and What a wake-up call.
I love you.The first time the words pass between two people: electrifying.Ten thousand times later: cause for marvel.The last time: the dream you revisit over and over and over again.

Click here for more of my posts about Kelly and her books.  

January 9, 2019

Crime on the Fens

Crime on the Fens (DI Nikki Galena, #1) by Joy Ellis
2016 Tantor Audio
Read by Henrietta Meire
Finished on August 29, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

THE DETECTIVE DI Nikki Galena: A police detective with nothing left to lose, she’s seen a girl die in her arms, and her daughter will never leave the hospital again. She’s got tough on the criminals she believes did this to her. Too tough. And now she’s been given one final warning: make it work with her new sergeant, DS Joseph Easter, or she’s out.

HER PARTNER DS Joseph Easter is the handsome squeaky-clean new member of the team. But his nickname “Holy Joe” belies his former life as a soldier. He has an estranged daughter who blames him for everything that went wrong with their family.

THEIR ADVERSARY is a ruthless man who holds DI Galena responsible for his terrible disfigurement.

The town is being terrorised by gangs of violent thugs, all wearing identical hideous masks. Then a talented young female student goes missing on the marsh and Nikki and Joseph find themselves joining forces with a master criminal in their efforts to save her. They need to look behind the masks, but when they do, they find something more sinister and deadly than they ever expected . . .

The Lincolnshire Fens: great open skies brood over marshes, farmland, and nature reserves. It is not easy terrain for the Fenland Constabulary to police, due to the distances between some of the remote Fen villages, the dangerous and often misty lanes, and the poor telephone coverage. There are still villages where the oldest residents have never set foot outside their own farmland and a visit to the nearest town is a major event. But it has a strange airy beauty to it, and above it all are the biggest skies you’ve ever seen.

I had never heard of Joy Ellis (or this series) until I read about her books on Kay's blog last January. Kay reads A LOT of mysteries and has written reviews for several of the books in this series. Since I love listening to this genre on audio, I decided to give Crime on the Fens a try. Henrietta Meire turned out to be a great reader for this book! I enjoyed this first installment so much that I went on and listened to the second one right away. As with most of the mystery series I read (as opposed to thrillers), it's less about the actual mystery and more about the main cast of characters. Nikki and Joe are becoming two of my favorite duos. Thanks, Kay!

January 8, 2019

Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Classic/Travel Memoir
2002 by Penguin (first published 1962)
Finished on July 23, 2018
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

A quest across America, from the northernmost tip of Maine to California’s Monterey Peninsula.

To hear the speech of the real America, to smell the grass and the trees, to see the colors and the light—these were John Steinbeck's goals as he set out, at the age of fifty-eight, to rediscover the country he had been writing about for so many years.

With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.

It has been many, many years since I first read Travels with Charley. My memory of that first reading, while vague (and perhaps romanticized), is very positive. A dear friend sent me a copy several years ago and after Rod & I bought our travel trailer, I decided it was time to give the book a second reading. I began reading on July 30, 2017 and didn't finished until July 23rd - almost exactly a year later! Now, to clarify, I only read it while traveling in our RV, so it isn't as if it were a 1,000 page tome! Sadly, the book didn't live up to my expectations. I found it very dated and pedantic, which led to some skimming, which is not my style, but I was eager to finish and move on to something else. I'm sad that I didn't love it as much as I did that first time I read it, but I was looking more for inspiration about future destinations than for his message about mankind. So, with that said, I wonder if I should re-read The Grapes of Wrath, which I read and loved in high school (40 years ago!). I recently read East of Eden (reviewed here) and thought it was exceptionally good, so maybe there's a chance I'll still love The Grapes of Wrath.

Favorite Passages:
When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it.
Under the big oak trees of my place at Sag Harbor sat Rocinante, handsome and self-contained, and neighbors came to visit, some neighbors we didn't even know we had. I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation--a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move. 
The Pacific is my home ocean; I knew if first, grew up on its shore, collected marine animals along the coast. I know its moods, its color, its nature. It was very far inland that I caught the first smell of the Pacific. When one has been long at sea, the smell of land reaches far out to greet one. And the same is true when one has been long inland. I believe I smelled the sea rocks and the kelp and the excitement of churning sea water, the sharpness of iodine and the under odor of washed and ground calcareous shells. Such a far-off and remembered odor comes subtly so that one does not consciously smell it, but rather an electric excitement is released--a kind of boisterous joy. I found myself plunging over the roads of Washington, as dedicated to the sea as any migrating lemming.
Steinbeck's Truck & Camper

Steinbeck's Route

Our first RV

In Search of Inspiration

January 7, 2019

My Life in France

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
2006 Anchor Books
Finished on July 22, 2018
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

The bestselling story of Julia's years in France--and the basis for Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams--in her own words.

Julia Child singlehandedly created a new approach to American cuisine with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, but as she reveals in this best-selling memoir, she was not always a master chef. 

Indeed, when she first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband, Paul, who was to work for the U.S. Information Service, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching. Julia's unforgettable story--struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, rejections from publishers to whom she sent her now-famous cookbook, a wonderful, nearly fifty-year long marriage that took the Childs across the globe--unfolds with the spirit so key to Julia's success as a chef and a writer, brilliantly capturing one of America's most endearing personalities of the last fifty years.

I've had this book on my shelf for several years (probably since I first saw the movie Julie & Julia) and finally got around to reading it for the Nonfiction November challenge. I don't know if it's because I recently watched the movie for the second time or if Child's abrupt writing style (with a lack of segues between anecdotes) spoiled the read, but I didn't become fully engaged in the book until the details about writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared. At that point, I was hooked and very interested!

Life at La Peetch:
After moving around the world for so long, I was able to work in most places, but nowhere was I more productive than in our little kitchen at La Peetch. From mid-December 1966 through mid-June 1967, Paul and I holed ourselves up there, far from the noise and distraction of the U.S.A.  Bumping up the rutted driveway, we were struck, once again, by what Paul termed "the Reverse Hornet-Sting" of the place--the shockingly fresh and inspirational jolt we got from our lovely hideaway. It was the cool, early-morning layers of fog in the valleys; Esterel's volcanic mountains jutting up out of the glittering sea; the warming Provencal sun and bright-blue sky; the odor of earth and cow dung and burning grapevine prunings; the colorful violets and irises and mimosas; the olives blackening; the sound of little owls talking back and forth; the sea-bottom taste of Belon oysters; the noisy fun of the marketplace; the deeply quiet, sparkling nights with a crescent moon hanging overhead like a lamp. What a place! The very opposite of a hornet's sting, indeed.
I plan to read the other two books I own about Julia (As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon and Dearie by Bob Spitz), but My Life in France is not one I'll read again.

January 6, 2019

Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
2012 Penguin Books (first published in 2011)
Finished on July 3, 2018
Rating:  4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel her on a yearlong journey toward the upper echelons of New York society--where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.

Bravo! I have a new favorite author. A Gentleman in Moscow (which I wrote about here) was my #1 read in 2017, and as soon as I finished reading it for the second time (in preparation of my book club's discussion), I knew I had to read Towles' earlier novel, Rules of Civility. I loved both stories! Towles' prose is smart and luxurious and I found myself reading slowly, savoring each sentence. I enjoyed the wit and charm of A Gentleman in Moscow and I am in awe of this author's debut novel. What talent!

A favorite passage:
Powdered with snow, Washington Square looked as lovely as it could. The snow had dusted every tree and gate. The once tony brownstones that on summer days now lowered their gaze in misery were lost for the moment in sentimental memories. At No. 25, a curtain on the second floor was drawn back and the ghost of Edith Wharton looked out with shy envy. Sweet, insightful, unsexed, she watched the three of us pass wondering when the love that she had so artfully imagined would work up the courage to rap on her door. When would it present itself at an inconvenient hour, insist upon being admitted, brush past the butler and rush up the Puritan staircase urgently calling her name?
I am eager to read another book by Amor Towles and am happy to know that he's busy working on his third novel, which sound wonderful!
I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s… (Amor Towles)
Rules of Civility in a very easy way captures the casual motions of your early twenties that become both foundations and causalities--the small actions or inactions that become decisions before you realized you were deciding anything at all.... This book is filled with little moments that seem very right.... It's all the more surprising that this fictional young woman is so well caught by this man so new to the game, Amor Towles. ~The Atlantic

January 5, 2019

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2012 Anchor Books
Finished on June 28, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
Okoloma was one of my greatest childhood friends. He lived on my street and looked after me like a big brother: if I liked a boy, I would ask Okoloma's opinion. Okoloma was funny and intelligent and wore cowboy boots that were pointy at the tips. In December 2005, in a plane crash in southern Nigeria, Okoloma died. It is still hard for me to put into words how I felt. Okoloma was a person I could argue with, laugh with and truly talk to. He was also the first person to call me a feminist.
Publisher's Blurb:

What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun.

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a bestselling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.

I picked up a copy of We Should All Be Feminists to give to my granddaughter, who turned 16 this year. I have heard very good things about this thought-provoking book and decided to give it a read before I wrapped it up. A slim, pocket-size book (under 50 pages), which can be read in a single sitting, We Should All Be Feminists is a powerful essay collected from the author's 2012 TEDx talk about feminism. This is the first book of Adichie's that I've read and I plan to read Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, which sounds just as compelling.
I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently...
We should all read this book!

January 4, 2019

The Knitting Circle

The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood
2007 W.W. Norton & Company
Finished on June 21, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

After the loss of her only child, Mary Baxter finds herself unable to read or write, the activities that used to be her primary source of comfort. She reluctantly joins a knitting circle as a way to fill her lonely days--not knowing it will change her life. As they teach Mary new knitting techniques, the women in the circle also reveal their own secrets of loss, love, and hope. With time, Mary is finally able to tell her own story of grief, and in so doing finds the spark of life again.

Last year I read The Book That Matters Most, (Ann Hood's latest novel centered around a book club and the power of the written word) and immediately wanted to read more of her books. The Knitting Circle has been on my radar for many years, so I decided it was high time to pull it off the shelf and give it a read. Over the years, I've been drawn to books about grief and Hood's novel, which is drawn on her own raw experience of losing a child, is powerful and poignant without feeling too saccharine or overly sentimental. As with The Book That Matters Most, I was quickly drawn into the story and didn't have any trouble keeping track of all the characters and their own burdens, which tends to be a problem with some of the "friendship" novels I've read in the past. I'm not a knitter, but I enjoyed reading the details about learning how to knit and all the various stitches and patterns involved in the craft. 

I also enjoyed reading Hood's nonfiction book, Morningstar: Growing Up With Books (reviewed here) and am eager to read more of her books. The Obituary Writer and The Italian Wife are appealing, as is The Red Thread. I love discovering an author with a decent backlist on which to catch up. Ann Hood is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors!

Is there anyone who can write about the connections of ordinary people better than Ann Hood? ~Jodi Picoult

January 3, 2019

I'll Be Your Blue Sky

I'll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos
2018 William Morrow
Finished on May 26, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

This New York Times bestselling author revisits the characters from her beloved novels Loved Walked In and Belong to Me in this captivating, beautifully written drama involving family, friendship, secrets, sacrifice, courage, and true love. For fans of Jojo Moyes, Elin Hilderbrand, and Nancy Thayer.

On the weekend of her wedding, Clare Hobbes meets an elderly woman named Edith Herron. During the course of a single conversation, Edith gives Clare the courage to do what she should have done months earlier: break off her engagement to her charming--yet overly possessive--fiance.

Three weeks later, Clare learns that Edith has died--and has given her another gift. Nestled in crepe myrtle and hydrangea and perched at the marshy edge of a bay in a small seaside town in Delaware, Blue Sky House now belongs to Clare. Though the former guest house has been empty for years, Clare feels a deep connection to Edith inside its walls, which are decorated with old photographs taken by Edith and her beloved husband, Joseph.

Exploring the house, Clare finds two mysterious ledgers hidden beneath the kitchen sink. Edith, it seems, was no ordinary woman--and Blue Sky House no ordinary place. With the help of her mother, Vivian, her surrogate mother, Cornelia Brown, and her former boyfriend and best friend, Dev Tremain, Clare begins to piece together the story of Blue Sky House--a decades-old mystery more complex and tangled than she could have imagined. As she peels back layers of Edith's life, Clare discovers a story of dark secrets, passionate love, heartbreaking sacrifice, and incredible courage. She also makes startling discoveries about herself: where she's come from, where she's going, and what--and who--she loves.

Shifting between the 1950s and the present, and told in the alternating voices of Edith and Clare, I'll Be Your Blue Sky is vintage Marisa de los Santos--an emotionally evocative novel that probes the deepest recesses of the human heart and illuminates the tender connections that bind our lives.

It's been 10 years since I discovered Love Walked In and Belong To Me, both of which I loved and have on my "keeper shelf" for future re-reading. When I received an ARC of I'll Be Your Blue Sky, not only was I was excited to get a new book by Marisa de los Santos, but I was thrilled to learn that she had written a third installment in her Love Walked In trilogy, which continues with the lives of Clare, Cornelia, Teo, and Dev. Part comfort read, part mystery, this new novel pulled me right in from the opening pages. I love the author's lyrical prose, which I have to admit felt somewhat overdone in the opening chapters, but became less prevalent as the story progressed. I also enjoy her attention to domestic detail, which is reminiscent of Elizabeth Berg's popular novels, which I've also enjoyed for many years. I'll Be Your Blue Sky is told in alternating points-of-view, as well as time periods, both of which are seamlessly interwoven and equally enjoyable.  As soon as I finished this delightful story, I knew the previous two novels (reviewed here) would wind up in my stack of re-reads for 2019. I think they'll be just perfect for some post-holiday reading.

January 2, 2019

The Great Alone

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
2018 Macmillan Audio
Read by Julia Whelan
Finished on May 24, 2018
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Alaska, 1974. Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.

For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America's last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents' passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if means following him into the unknown.

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights' lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt's fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in 18 hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: They are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska - a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night audiobook about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.

I started this book in March and didn't finish until almost June. I'm not listening to audio books as much as in the past, but it wasn't for lack of time that it took me so long to complete this book, but rather that it never called out to me. The novel takes place in the early 70s and there were far too many references to time period, which became a distraction, as certain name brands were constantly mentioned. The characters were fleshed out, but the abusive relationship felt like a cliche and the final chapters were predictable and began to feel like a soap opera. This was by no means as compelling (or as well-written) as Hannah's outstanding World War II novel, The Nightingale (reviewed here). Unfortunately, it's going to take a lot to convince me to read any thing else by this author.

January 1, 2019

Every Note Played

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
2018 Scout Press
Finished on May 10, 2018
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

From neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice comes a powerful exploration of regret, forgiveness, freedom, and what it means to be alive.

An accomplished concert pianist, Richard received standing ovations from audiences all over the world in awe of his rare combination of emotional resonance and flawless technique. Every finger of his hands was a finely calibrated instrument, dancing across the keys and striking each note with exacting precision. That was eight months ago.

Richard now has ALS, and his entire right arm is paralyzed. His fingers are impotent, still, devoid of possibility. The loss of his hand feels like a death, a loss of true love, a divorce—his divorce.

He knows his left arm will go next.

Three years ago, Karina removed their framed wedding picture from the living room wall and hung a mirror there instead. But she still hasn’t moved on. Karina is paralyzed by excuses and fear, stuck in an unfulfilling life as a piano teacher, afraid to pursue the path she abandoned as a young woman, blaming Richard and their failed marriage for all of it.

When Richard becomes increasingly paralyzed and is no longer able to live on his own, Karina becomes his reluctant caretaker. As Richard’s muscles, voice, and breath fade, both he and Karina try to reconcile their past before it’s too late.

Poignant and powerful, Every Note Played is a masterful exploration of redemption and what it means to find peace inside of forgiveness.

Lisa Genova's books are an instant purchase for me. I have read all of her novels and while none are as good as Still Alice (reviewed here), I still love each and every one.  It took me a little while to get invested in Every Note Played, but I eventually came to care about Richard and Karina and was moved by their story. Once again, Genova reveals the horrors of another disease. ALS, Alzheimer's and Huntington's Disease are all dreadful, but after reading Every Note Played, I think ALS must be the worst.

About the author:

Acclaimed as the Oliver Sacks of fiction and the Michael Crichton of brain science, Lisa Genova is the New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice, Left Neglected, Love Anthony, and Inside the O’Briens. Still Alice was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, and Kristen Stewart. Lisa graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about the neurological diseases she writes about and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS NewsHour, CNN, and NPR. Her TED talk, What You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer's, has been viewed over 2 million times.