Permission to Binge Read   1 comment

I like binge watching television shows, but I typically enjoy space/time between books when reading a series. Until recently, I’ve held to this; but all bets are off: it’s 2020.

Despite repeated rave reviews from friends, I’m a relative newcomer to Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries; I discovered them a few years ago.  Early on I realized I needed to pace myself because I knew I could easily fall under the spell of moving from one to the next with barely a breath in between.

I’ve read three in the past four weeks (with a brief break while waiting for a library copy to become available). When describing these mysteries I find myself using the word comforting, which probably sounds like an oxymoron given the context. Yet, the author imbues intelligence, sensitivity and humor into most of the recurring characters, especially Armand Gamache. With each subsequent work – Penny averages a book a year, sometimes more – the personalities are more distinct, more endearing.

Each mystery is finely crafted; the path to resolution is circuitous, but never superfluous.

Often, the setting is Three Pines, a village not far from Montreal. Initially, I wondered how such an isolated, idyllic and unpopulated locale could need the services of the national police so frequently. It’s no spoiler alert to simply note Three Pines is occasionally only a launching point.

I’m at the midpoint of Penny’s works and am wondering whether to charge ahead or slow down to extend the pleasure. It’s a quandary.  

     Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Another View of World History   Leave a comment

Review: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters – Meghan's ...

You‘d be forgiven for thinking A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters is massive with each section retelling what’s already been shared in the Bible, scientific journals and cultural studies. Instead, Julian Barnes evokes humor and pathos as he draws from those chronicles while creating a narrative about survival.

The half chapter, between 9 and 10, entitled “Parenthesis” is about love.

An unlikely narrator in the first chapter shares its experience as a stowaway aboard Noah’s ark. In a vastly differing account from what’s taught in Sunday schools, Noah is portrayed as unintelligent and a drunk. Although references to the stowaway occur in a few subsequent chapters, its role as narrator ends once the ark reaches shore much, much longer than the 40 days told in popular versions.

Ships, passengers and violent seas – well, in some cases, just violence at sea – set the scene throughout the narrative, as does a trial, space travel and contemporary searches for the ark. Each section (chapter) can stand alone, but it’s important to remember the book’s theme, which is what the title implies.

Just as some history books often get bogged down in too much detail, Barnes falls in line with the genre. For example, the chapter appropriately entitled “The Wars on Religion,” about the trial of woodworm accused of blasphemy, while initially amusing, gets old fast.

Even the final chapter, “The Dream,” which provides an idea of heaven is too long, especially since even the narrator grows tired of it.

A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Vintage International, 1989
307 pages

Studying for Citizenship   4 comments

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My grandmother came to the United States with her mother, two older sisters and younger brother when she was a young teen. I don’t know much about what her life was like when she arrived. I do know she was particularly proud when she became an U.S. citizen.

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I always thought she obtained her citizenship soon after her arrival. It turns out it was much later: when my mother was in high school. My mom said she drove her mother to the night classes. Other times during the week the two would study; each doing her homework as a means of reaching something better. My mom went on to be the first in her family to not only earn a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s and doctorate. Her mom studied for the opportunity to enjoy the rights associated with being a citizen of the United States.

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For many years my grandmother believed she was already a citizen because of her residency and marriage to my Grandfather. That proved not to be the case. Apparently, some things never change. One of our daughters-in-law is from Mexico. After marrying my son the process of her obtaining a resident visa was daunting, expensive and timely. She hasn’t even begun the journey toward citizenship. That’s another story.

Even though I wasn’t around when it happened, I do know becoming a citizen was something my Grandmother was extremely proud of. I remember her talking about it every election knowing she had a voice in democracy.

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I suspect, based on the book she used to study, she was more well versed in the U.S. Constitution than most people born in this country. She never took the right to vote lightly. I can only hope this is true of people in this, the 2020, election.

Expectations and Perceptions   Leave a comment

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In Trust Exercise Susan Choi raises the question of perspective; everyone has their own version of a situation. Here it isn’t immediately clear whose is who’s.

David and Sarah are students at an elite performing arts high school; they have a summer romance between their freshman and sophomore years. They, their peers and Mr. Kingsley, the theatre instructor, do little to acknowledge the relationship once school resumes in the fall.

The novel’s three sections are all entitled “Trust Exercise.” This is clever since it not only relates to the classroom experiences designed by Mr. Kingsley to teach the students to depend on each other; it also admonishes the reader to have faith in the narrative.

The first section focuses on David and Sarah’s relationship with supporting roles provided by their classmates, teacher, parents and exchange students from England.

The second “Trust Exercise” re-introduces Karen, a character previously, albeit briefly, mentioned. The switch takes some adjustment since the storyline is now more hers than Sarah or David’s. It’s as if the roles have been switched from supporting player to star. Additionally, a switch from the omniscient narrator to Karen’s voice regularly occurs.

Asides to the reader create a theatrical ambiance, as if to remind of the ties to the performing arts. Drama, in all its forms –onstage and beyond the proscenium arch – is ever present. 

Choi has crafted believable characters in credible settings with the challenge of considering different points of view regarding relationships, commitment and loyalty.

Trust Exercise

Four bookmarks

Henry Holt and Co., 2019

257 pages

Looks, Lies and Life   Leave a comment

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The Lying Life of Adults is Elena Ferrante’s new novel. Although it has similarities to her Neapolitan Quartet, notably the setting and a young female protagonist, it’s more introspective and a little less engaging.

Giovanna is a young teenager who overhears a conversation between her parents in which her father describes her as ugly. In fact, he says, she looks as bad as his estranged sister, Vittoria. Until this point, Giovanna has admired both her parents, felt secure in her family, and was completely unaware of any relatives, let alone her aunt.

The eavesdropping leads Giovanna to find Vittoria and discover not only a part of Naples she never knew, but also family secrets ultimately leading to a transformation of looking beyond the obvious. It’s not necessarily an engrossing narrative, but it is Ferrante. Adolescence is a difficult time; the author deftly illustrates this with the self-absorbed, manipulative youth and adults.

The author is at her best describing the class structure within Italy, in particular Naples. It’s easy to visualize how education plays a role in the lives of the residents of this southern Italian coastal city. References to dialect and coarse behavior further emphasize the line dividing social classes.

It is problematic Giovanna is not a particularly inspiring character. Yes, her independence does eventually surface, but her relationships with others are one-dimensional. Frankly, she’s a wimp. Granted, Vittoria is odd and her parents lose their bearings. Nonetheless, her efforts to find herself in their world of deceptions and accusations really should be more interesting.

The Lying Life of Adults

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Europa Editions, 2020

322 pages

More Than a Uniform   Leave a comment

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If you suspect The Women in Black is about nuns, you’re wrong. No worries, although the title would work for such a subject. Instead, these are saleswomen at Goode’s Department Store in Sydney, Australia, who wear black frocks.

Madeline St. John follows four, including Lisa a teenage temporary employee, who work in Ladies Cocktail and Model Gowns. Patty is in a childless, unhappy marriage; Fay is single and weary of the dating scene; Magda is a sophisticated Slovenian emigrant.

The writing is sparse, yet captivating. Each main character is vividly portrayed, as is Goode’s. With the holidays rapidly approaching, the store prepares for an onslaught of last minute shoppers.

Young Lisa has finished school and awaits the results of her final exams. She’s intelligent with dreams of being a poet and going to university – something her father adamantly opposes. Magda, who interacts little with Patty or Fay, takes Lisa under her wing.

When not at the store, St. John provides glimpses of each character’s home life. Only Magda is truly happy, which may be attributed to her appreciation and acknowledgment of what life in Australia offers her compared to what she left behind in her home country.

On the heels of the Christmas rush is the popular annual sale. Preparations for it, plans for how the women will spend New Year’s Eve and wondering about the results of Lisa’s exams, contribute to the anticipation the author creates. The result makes this a rapid-page-turner of a novel.

The Women in Black

Four Bookmarks

Scribner 1993

209 pages

When Timing is Everything — Even Reading   1 comment

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

I choose books based on reviews I’ve read, recommendations from friends or sometimes the title alone is enough to intrigue me. The latter and a review led me to Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars.

Unfortunately, there was no pull for me; I discovered this within the first 20 pages. The problem is that the background is the 1918 flu epidemic and the references to quarantines are simply too immediate — even more than a century later.

Donoghue’s novel is set in Dublin and its main character is Julia Power, a nurse in an obstetrics unit in a hospital decimated by the flu. By the way, World War II is still raging.

The Pull of the Stars

No rating

Little, Brown and Co., 2020

291 pages

Cooking, Camaraderie and Courtship   Leave a comment

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Give me a well-written book about food with recipes and I’m a happy reader. Cooking for Mr. Latte is Amanda Hesser’s account of how she met her husband, meals with family and friends and writing about food for The New York Times.

I’m no fan of the cover, but this is enjoyable. Hesser’s sense of humor is self-deprecating, but insightful. Her food knowledge is impressive and many of the recipes included at the end of the chapters are ones I want to try. Although some are more daunting than I’m willing to venture, most are enticing without being too challenging.

Mr. Latte is the name the author ascribes to her now husband. Their ideas about food are not at all on the same plate when they first meet. As the relationship grows, each makes concessions as their palates and dining encounters expand.

Hesser describes meals – those in restaurants and those at home – along with the role they have in creating and maintaining close friendships.

The courtship between the author and Mr. Latte is the main thread of the narrative with each chapter a vignette of her life as a writer, single female and foodie in New York City. Visits to her grandmother on the Chesapeake Bay illustrate the importance of family and the comfort of family meals. Her meeting with her future in-laws includes the combination of excitement and angst many can connect with. This isn’t quite a diary, but close. These aren’t private thoughts Hesser shares, but relatable experiences.

Cooking for Mr. Latte
Four Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2003
336 pages (includes index)

Finding One’s Place   Leave a comment

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A Long Petal of the Sea – the title of Isabel Allende’s new novel, refers to Pablo Neruda’s poem describing Chile. It’s an absorbing story about love, country and belonging.

When introduced, Roser is a young shepherd girl with an impressive ear for music. This provides opportunities far beyond expectations – including an education leading to a music scholarship at university in Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War is well underway.

Roser falls in love with the younger son of her music mentor, but it’s the older son, Victor, with whom she spends most of her life. From Spain, Roser and Victor arrive in France separately as refugees. They reconnect and, with the onset of World War II, realize they need to leave Europe and seek passage to Chile. Naruda led the charge getting Spanish refugees to his country. However, Roser and Victor must marry in order to travel together. What begins as a marriage of convenience slowly evolves into something much deeper.

 As they settle into their new lives in Santiago, Roser pursues her music career and establishes a name for herself in South America.  Victor continues his medical studies and becomes a doctor. He also has a brief liaison with the daughter of an upper class family.

Each chapter begins with a verse from a Naruda poem. The narrative moves through civil unrest in Chile, moments of professional success, parenting, another exile and love. Allende makes it clear, belonging is not just fitting into a place, but being with the right person.

A Long Petal of the Sea

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2020

314 pages

Another Look at Churchill and Others   Leave a comment

Erik Larson’s 500+ page look at Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister in The Splendid and The Vile is, no surprise, exhaustive. The author did his homework. Focusing on the time frame of May 10, 1940, to May 10, 1941, is smart. After all, much has already been written about the man who instilled hope in a daunting time.

The work is subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” Of the three, the sections about members of the family and those who worked closely with the prime minister are the most interesting – especially about his younger daughter, Mary; his daughter-in-law, Pamela; and one of his private secretaries, John “Jock” Colville.

Although there’s little interaction between Mary and her father during this time frame, as Larson chronicles. Yet, her love for her father and her realization of the changes facing her comfortable, upper class lifestyle are compelling as told through excerpts of her diary; she turned 18 in September 1940.

From the beginning, Churchill knew U.S. involvement was necessary for Germany to lose the war. His efforts to maintain calm in his country, while appealing to Franklin Roosevelt for assistance and enduring the devastation of London being bombed is well documented.

Interspersed with accounts from and/or about colleagues and family are brief sections about Hitler and his cohorts in Germany. Perhaps photos are all that’s missing. History buffs and anyone concerned about history repeating itself more than it already has should find this book of interest.

The Splendid and the Vile
Four Bookmarks
Crown, 2020
585 pages, includes sources, acknowledgments and index