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July 31, 2019

Night of Miracles



Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg
Fiction
2018 Random House
Finished on July 26, 2019
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding)

Publisher's Blurb:

A delightful novel about surprising friendships, community, and the way small acts of kindness can change a life, from the bestselling author of The Story of Arthur Truluv.

Lucille Howard is getting on in years, but she stays busy. Thanks to the inspiration of her dearly departed friend Arthur Truluv, she has begun to teach baking classes, sharing the secrets to her delicious classic Southern yellow cake, the perfect pinwheel cookies, and other sweet essentials. Her classes have become so popular that she's hired Iris, a new resident of Mason, Missouri, as an assistant. Iris doesn't know how to bake but she needs to keep her mind off a big decision she sorely regrets.

When a new family moves in next door and tragedy strikes, Lucille begins to look out for Lincoln, their son. Lincoln's parents aren't the only ones in town facing hard choices and uncertain futures. In these difficult times, the residents of Mason come together and find the true power of community--just when they need it the most.

"Elizabeth Berg's characters jump right off the page and into your heart" said Fannie Flagg about The Story of Arthur Truluv. The same could be said about Night of Miracles, a heartwarming novel that reminds us that the people we come to love are often the ones we don't expect.

I own over a dozen books by Elizabeth Berg and have read at least a half dozen others. As I have mentioned time after time on this blog, Berg's earlier novels were much more enjoyable than her more recent works and I had pretty much given up on her. And yet, somewhere along the way, I read several positive reviews for The Story of Arthur Truluv and thought it might be one I'd enjoy. I kept an eye out for the book whenever I visited my local library, but never went to the trouble to request a hold. Last week, I stumbled upon the second in the Arthur Truluv series and decided to give it a try, even though I'm generally a stickler when it comes to reading books in order. I decided it probably wasn't quite as critical since these aren't mysteries, which lend themselves to ever-evolving character development.

After a few disappointments on the reading front this past month, I was so happy to not only get sucked into a novel that wasn't written by Louise Penny, but to fall back in love with Elizabeth Berg's writing. I could have easily finished Night of Miracles in one afternoon, but I lingered over the novel, stretching it out for three nights of blissful reading. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start over from the beginning! I wasn't ready to say goodbye to all of the wonderful characters. I especially like Lucille, who is eighty-eight but feels like she's forty-eight.
Lucille will not give up her baths. No. In the tub, she is what she thinks being stoned must be like: she enjoys a feeling of timelessness and wide content. A float-y, perfumed detachment. After her bath, she'll read her Maeve Binchy book, and then she'll go to sleep.
and
After Lucille eats the cake, she weighs herself in an effort not to have a second slice. It does not work, which she might have predicted, and so she does have a second slice. Well, she finished the cake. Maybe it's two and a half slices. Maybe it's three.
and
It is a spectacularly bright Saturday morning, the kind of day that always makes Lucille feel as though the sun has been through the car wash. It's a welcome thing after so many gray days in a row. She is still in her pajamas, just rinsing out her coffee cup, when she hears a rapping at the door. Who could this be, at such an indecent hour? She looks up at the kitchen clock and sees that it's 10:50. Alright, not such an indecent hour, but still, no call, no warning of any kind.
On Love and Marriage:
"I'll tell you something, Maddy. Half of a good marriage is having someone love you for who you really are. You've got that already. The other half is both of you making a commitment to stay together not only at the altar but smack dab in the middle of every ugly fight. One time when Nola and I were really going at it, I walked over and kissed her hard. And she kissed me back. And then, why, we went right back at it and finished the argument. And I'd guess she won it, she won most of them, fair and square.
"Marriage is like weather, Maddy. You take it day by day. You rejoice in the good days and get through the bad ones, though I don't think you'll have many bad ones because you found an ace of a fellow. But you go ahead and be as nervous as you need to be. A little nervousness never hurt anyone."
Night Miracles is a feel-good story that will have you laughing one minute and wiping a tear from your eye in the next. It's sweet, yet not saccharine. Charming, yet not cloyingly so. Romantic, yet not sappy. I am so glad I gave Elizabeth Berg another chance. Now to get my hands on a copy of The Story of Arthur Truluv (and the final in this trilogy, The Confession Club, which is due out in November). A wise, tender read, Night of Miracles is sure to appeal to fans of Fannie Flagg, Erica Bauermeister, Marisa de los Santos, and Anna Quindlen. 

My one and only complaint is the lack of recipes. I don't do a lot of baking, but there were several desserts mentioned that I would love to try. Berg's website has over a dozen recipes listed, but there are very few desserts. Maybe she'll write a cookbook... or at the very least, update her website. 

Final Note: Be sure to read the acknowledgments at the back of Berg's book. They are as heartfelt and tender as her novels. 

July 29, 2019

Ajo and Yuma, AZ

Thursday and Friday, October 11 & 12, 2018
Ajo to Yuma, Arizona
Blue Sky RV Resort
Distance: 146 miles
Duration: 1 night
Cost: $36
Weather: Cloudy and warm

We decided to skip a day trip to the Organ Pipe National Monument since I didn't feel like driving anywhere and Rod had to work on an editing project. So, I took advantage of our time at the Shadow Ridge RV Park and did a few loads of laundry, worked on editing some photos from our trip to the Grand Canyon, caught up on social media and did a little reading. Later that evening, while sitting on the couch, I though I heard rain, but not on the roof. Huh? I couldn't figure it out, so I poked my head outside of the RV. There were at least a dozen javelinas walking straight toward me. Freaked me out! I'm not sure what they would do, but I wasn't going to find out. Glad we hadn't planned to grill outside.


Not the prettiest RV park, but at least it was quiet.


Beautiful sunset!

The next morning we continued to make our way west toward San Diego. After gassing up in Gila Bend, we hopped on I-8 and headed to Yuma. It was an uneventful, albeit boring drive with a little wind, but nothing terrible. We arrived at the Blue Sky RV Resort, which is not much of a resort compared to some others we've visited. 

Blue Sky has level sites (gravel), with full hookups, a pool, club house, laundry, showers, etc. Looks like there are a lot of full-time residents and eventually snowbirds. No picnic table or fire ring, but it was too warm to spend much time outside. Thank goodness for our air conditioning! 






Not the most beautiful site, but for one night it was fine.






The park is fairly close to the Marine Corp. Air Station, so there was a bit of noise as the helicopters flew directly over us. Thankfully, they stopped before midnight!






Another gorgeous sunset!

July 28, 2019

Pachinko



Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Historical Fiction
2017 Grand Central Publishing
Finished on July 20, 2019
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant--and that her lover is married--she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son's powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan's finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee's complex and passionate characters--strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis--survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.


Spanning nearly 80 years (1910-1989) and close to 500 pages in length, this thought-provoking saga was a very quick and easy read. I nominated Pachinko for my book group, after reading more than a half-dozen rave reviews by some of my trusted blogging friends (all of whom, by the way, gave it a 5-star rating). I typically read only at bedtime and was worried that it would take me several weeks to read the book, so I started well ahead of our August meeting and was surprised that I finished it in just one week. I was quickly drawn into Sunja's story and the pages flew by. 

I had a mixed reaction to the novel, which I had been looking forward to reading for many months. I had envisioned a great historical novel in the same vein as Beach Music (Pat Conroy), Atonement (Ian McEwan) or A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles). Taking into account all of the accolades and positive reviews, I felt confident recommending it to my book club without any prior knowledge or personal opinion of the book. 

Min Jin Lee tells a compelling and highly readable story and I came to care about Sunja, Yangjin and Kyunghee much more than any other characters that appear later in the novel. I would have liked more depth into the lives of those later characters and felt as though parts of the narrative were rushed or glossed over, given snippets of details as time flashed by. One minute a child is born and after turning the page to a new chapter, the reader discovers that the character is now a teenager or married with four children. Those transitions between generations felt abrupt and disjointed, resulting in an uneven read, both in plot and character development. 

I love historical fiction and enjoyed reading about this time of history in Korea and Japan, but this too was not dealt with in great detail. Or not as much detail as I would have liked. I was not familiar with the racism, bullying and distrust of Koreans by the Japanese and found this aspect of the book very timely and, sadly, all too similar to what our country is currently experiencing.  I wanted to love this saga, but it fell short and was underwhelming. The ending was so abrupt, had I been listening to the audio, I would have felt certain that the final track was missing from the production. I had looked forward to being swept away, confident this bestseller would wind up on my Top Ten list for the year, but sadly it did not live up to all the hype. I'm not sorry I read it, but it was not the gorgeous, lyrical or memorable novel I had hoped it to be, and not one I will be recommending.

July 26, 2019

Looking Back - Ladder of Years

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.





Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler
Fiction
1997 Ivy Books (first published in 1995)
Finished in December 1998
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

This entrancing and deeply searching novel will touch a nerve in every reader. Delia Grinstead, 40-year-old mother of three almost-grown children, on a sudden impulse, walks away from her marriage, hitches a ride into the unknown, and settles in a strange new town. But soon after she begins her impersonal, unencumbered new life, fresh responsibilities inevitably accumulate.


My Original Notes (1998):

My first exposure to Tyler. Wonderful story, yet quite different. I like her style of writing. Will read more!

My Current Thoughts:

I'm surprised I don't remember anything about this novel, especially since I enjoyed it so well that I immediately picked up another book by Tyler. I'm very tempted to give it a second reading.

July 23, 2019

Blue Highways: A Journey into America



Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
Nonfiction - Travel/Memoir
2013 Hachette Audio (first published in 1982)
Read by Joe Barrett
Finished on July 20, 2019
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)

Publisher's Blurb:

Hailed as a masterpiece of American travel writing, Blue Highways is an unforgettable journey along our nation's backroads. William Least Heat-Moon set out with little more than the need to put home behind him and a sense of curiosity about "those little towns that get on the map-if they get on at all-only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi." His adventures, his discoveries, and his recollections of the extraordinary people he encountered along the way amount to a revelation of the true American experience.

Maybe I should stick to reading travel blogs. Apparently, travel essays are not for me; at least not those of Steinbeck's or Heat-Moon's. I have this book in both print and audio and having just finished almost 18 hours of listening time, I know the print edition would not have held my interest. The only reason I continued with the audio is because I really enjoyed listening to the reader. He was spot-on with all the various accents and his "performance" made the story just interesting enough to keep me listening. Meh.

July 19, 2019

Looking Back - Midwives

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.





Midwives by Chris Bohjalian
Fiction
1998 Vintage (first published in 1997)
Finished in November 1998
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good!)

Publisher's Blurb:

The time is 1981, and Sibyl Danforth has been a dedicated midwife in the rural community of Reddington, Vermont, for fifteen years. But one treacherous winter night, in a house isolated by icy roads and failed telephone lines, Sibyl takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency Caesarean section on its mother, who appears to have died in labor. But what if—as Sibyl's assistant later charges—the patient wasn't already dead, and it was Sibyl who inadvertently killed her?

As recounted by Sibyl's precocious fourteen-year-old daughter, Connie, the ensuing trial bears the earmarks of a witch hunt except for the fact that all its participants are acting from the highest motives—and the defendant increasingly appears to be guilty. As Sibyl Danforth faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.


My Original Notes (1998):

Very good novel. Brought back memories of my labor/delivery with my daughter. Good courtroom drama with enough suspense that I didn't guess the verdict until the very end.

My Current Thoughts:

This was the first book I read by Bohjalian and I really enjoyed it. It was probably an online book group selection and while I no longer own a copy, I'm somewhat interested in reading it a second time.

July 17, 2019

Wordless Wednesday

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
October 2018


Click on image for full-size view.

Click here to read more about our visit.

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

July 14, 2019

Green Valley, Saguaro NP & Ajo, AZ

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Green Valley to Ajo, Arizona
via Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Shadow Ridge RV Park
Distance: 187 miles
Cost: $18 per night (Passport America and AAA)
Duration: 2 nights
Weather: Hot (80) and sunny

After a delicious breakfast and our final hugs and goodbyes, we were back on the road shortly after 9:00. We gassed up south of Tuscon and headed west on Hwy 86 (Ajo Highway).


Our wonderful hosts, Maggie & Dick

Our first stop was at the Saguaro National Park (west entrance) where I spent some time in the Visitor Center before heading out to walk the Desert Loop Trail.


Visitor Center
Saguaro National Park


















Ocotillo




Fishhook Barrel Cactus


Cholla






It was beginning to get hot, so we decided to head down the road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is really more of a zoo, botanical garden and natural history museum all-in-one.  In spite of the rising temperature, I still enjoyed the winding trails around the park, stopping to watch the javelinas napping in the shade. I enjoyed the hummingbird aviary and spent quite a bit of time watching the hummingbirds, chatting with the volunteers, and wishing I had thought to bring my good camera with the zoom lens. Click here to read more about the Desert Museum.








Peccaries (also known as Javelinas) 

Little did I know that I would have an
encounter with some of these guys a few days later!






Back on the road, heading west to Ajo, the highway was very bumpy at times. We passed Kitt Peak Observatory, but didn't have time to stop, but we definitely want to plan for it next time! We arrived at the Shadow Ridge RV Park in Ajo right at 5:00. With our Passport America and AA memberships, we wound up only paying $18 per night. The sites were fairly level (gravel) with full hook-ups, a concrete pad with a picnic table, and oleander shrubs provided some privacy between sites. We had a good Verizon signal, as well as WiFi. It began to cool down as the evening wore on and we heard coyotes in the distance, but other than that, it was a peaceful evening.

July 12, 2019

Looking Back - The Cobra Event

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.




The Cobra Event by Richard Preston
Fiction
1997 Random House
Finished in September 1998
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:


The Cobra Event is a petrifying, fictional account of a very real threat: biological terrorism.

Seventeen-year-old Kate Moran wakes one morning to the beginnings of a head cold but shrugs it off and goes to school anyway. By her mid-morning art class, Kate's runny nose gives way to violent seizures and a hideous scene of self-cannibalization. She dies soon after. When a homeless man meets a similarly gruesome — and mystifying — fate, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta sends pathologist Alice Austen to investigate. What she uncovers is the work of a killer, a man who calls himself Archimedes and is intent on spreading his deadly Cobra virus throughout New York City. A silent crisis erupts, with Austen and a secret FBI forensic team rushing to expose the terrorist.

Even more frightening than Preston's story about the fictitious Cobra virus, however, is the truth that lies beneath it. As the author writes in his introduction, "The nonfiction roots of this book run deep.... My sources include eyewitnesses who have seen a variety of biological-weapons installations in different countries, and people who have developed and tested strategic bioweapons." In fact, the only reason The Cobra Event was not written as nonfiction is that none of Preston's sources would go on record.

Woven throughout the novel are sections of straight nonfiction reporting that reveal the terrifying truth about the development of biological weapons and the clandestine operations of Russia and Iraq. Three years of research and more than 100 interviews with high-level sources in the FBI, the U.S. military, and the scientific community went into The Cobra Event. The result is sure to shock you.


My Original Notes (1998):

Spellbinding. Gross detail. Not very well-written, yet suspenseful. Somewhat anticlimactic and predictable. Soon to be a movie?

My Current Thoughts:

I read The Hot Zone (also by Preston) a few years before this one and judging by my original notes, enjoyed that book better than The Cobra Event. However, I remember what a disturbing read this was and doubt I could read anything like it now. Too frightening! Count me out for Preston's upcoming release of Crisis in the Red Zone (Book 4 of the Dark Biology Series)

July 11, 2019

How the Light Gets In



How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #9
Mystery
2013 Minotaur Books
Finished on July 9, 2019
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Publisher's Blurb:

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec digs beneath the idyllic surface of village life in Three Pines, finding long buried secrets--and facing a few of his own ghosts.

Christmas is approaching, and in Québec it's a time of dazzling snowfalls, bright lights, and gatherings with friends in front of blazing hearths. But shadows are falling on the usually festive season for Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Most of his best agents have left the Homicide Department, his old friend and lieutenant Jean-Guy Beauvoir hasn't spoken to him in months, and hostile forces are lining up against him. When Gamache receives a message from Myrna Landers that a longtime friend has failed to arrive for Christmas in the village of Three Pines, he welcomes the chance to get away from the city. Mystified by Myrna's reluctance to reveal her friend's name, Gamache soon discovers the missing woman was once one of the most famous people not just in North America, but in the world, and now goes unrecognized by virtually everyone except the mad, brilliant poet Ruth Zardo.

As events come to a head, Gamache is drawn ever deeper into the world of Three Pines. Increasingly, he is not only investigating the disappearance of Myrna's friend but also seeking a safe place for himself and his still-loyal colleagues. Is there peace to be found even in Three Pines, and at what cost to Gamache and the people he holds dear?

What is left to say about this series that I haven't already mentioned? I loved this installment and couldn't put it down, but didn't want it to end! I continue to be amazed by Penny's ability to create such a riveting and complex mystery. Each time I finish one of her books, I have a full understanding of what has happened, never feeling like the mystery has become too convoluted or the plot full of holes. I'm growing more and more fond of Ruth and her dry wit, as well as her gentle tenderness toward Beauvoir and Gamache. To say much more would reveal too much about where this series has taken this reader, but suffice it to say that I am very excited to read more about Gamache and the village of Three Pines. I'm going to try (once again) to take a little break, though, and read some books from my shelves before I begin #10 (The Long Way Home).

A magnificent mystery novel that appeals not only to the head, but also to the heart and soul. ~ The Washington Post


July 10, 2019

Wordless Wednesday

Mission San Xavier del Bac
Tuscon, Arizona


Click here to read more about our visit.

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

July 9, 2019

Green Valley & Mission San Xavier del Bac, AZ

Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Green Valley, Arizona
Maggie & Dick's Hacienda

We enjoyed a quiet morning with our friends, who like to greet the day very much like we do --slowly and quietly.

Rod was busy with an editing job and Dick also had work to do (so much for retired life!), so Maggie and I took off to explore the Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is about 10 miles south of Tuscon.

From Wikipedia:

... [located] on the Tohono O'odham Nation San Xavier Indian Reservation. The mission was founded in 1692 by Padre Eusebio Kino in the center of a centuries-old Indian settlement of the Sobaipuri O'odham who were a branch of the Akimel or River O'odham, located along the banks of the Santa Cruz River. The mission was named for Francis Xavier, a Christian missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in Europe. The original church was built to the north of the present Franciscan church. This northern church or churches served the mission until being razed during an Apache raid in 1770.

Today's Mission was built between 1783-1797; it is the oldest European structure in Arizona; the labor was provided by the O'odham. An outstanding example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, it hosts some 200,000 visitors each year. It makes a cameo appearance in Cather's novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop when it's described by Fr Vaillant as "the most beautiful church on the continent, though it had been neglected for more than two hundred years."

The site is also known in the O'odham language as "goes in" or comes in: meaning "where the water goes in", as the water in the Santa Cruz came up to the surface a couple of miles south of Martinez Hill and then submerged again near Los Reales Wash. The Santa Cruz River that used to run year round in this section, once critical to the community's survival, now runs only part of the year.

The Mission is a pilgrimage site, with thousands visiting each year on foot and on horseback, some among ceremonial cavalcades, or cabalgatas in Spanish.

Unlike the other Spanish missions in Arizona, San Xavier is still actively run by Franciscans, and continues to serve the Native community by which it was built. Widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the United States, the Mission hosts some 200,000 visitors each year. It is open to the public daily, except when being used for church services.

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, who have taught at the school since 1872, continue with their work and reside in the Mission convent.


Love the contrast of white stucco against that blue sky!




Beautiful architecture!








Desert Garden














We headed back down to Tubac for a delicious lunch at Shelby's Bistro, then wandered around the shops as we chatted. I'm pretty sure we spent the majority of time talking about books! Maggie is a voracious reader and I always like to hear about the books she's enjoyed, as well as give her my recent recommendations.




Our good friends from Nebraska!




I fell in love with Maggie's rooster.


Investigating the rattlesnake situation...

We returned to the house and had drinks out on the patio with the guys before dinner. One of the landscapers told Dick that there was a large rattlesnake underneath a bougainvillea bush, which made me just a bit nervous! Definitely not uncommon for them to find rattlers around their house (and in their garage!).

After a delicious Italian meal at Melio's Trattoria, we headed home and were ready to call it a night by 10:00. Such party animals! ;)