Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Reading and Playing in January

What I've Been Reading...

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus - this was an audio book that I finished on December 31, and it was an absolute treat. I had read a few reviews and really loved the premise of a female scientist struggling to do her life's work in the pre-feminine mystique 1950s. 

I thought the character of Elizabeth Zot was terrific--in fact, she reminded me somewhat of Eleanor Oliphant in that she saw the world through a crystal clear lens without the fog of conventions, norms, and expectations. I absolutely loved her relationship with her dog, Six-Thirty, and his perspective and take on the course of events was both refreshing and insightful and very touching.  I also really loved the cooking show aspect of the novel and Elizabeth's explanations of why certain cooking techniques work. Kind of like an Elton Brown episode of Good Eats!

Not entirely sure why I didn't give this 5 stars on GoodReads instead of 4, but I loved it and would reread it. Actually, I think my stinginess with that 5th star comes from the fact that I was a child in the 1960s and while I wasn't a prodigy in the way daughter Mad was, nor was my mom a scientist trying to make it in a man's world, but I shad a hard time believing that so many of the people Elizabeth and Mad encountered were so rigid and limited in their acceptance of this unconventional mother/daughter pair. Yes, the world was less open for women to work in certain professions 50 years ago and competing for spots in academic programs was tougher, but it was by no means as closed as the author painted it.

Winds of War, by Herman Wouk - this is the first part of a two-part series on WWII, following the lives of a family from 1938 though 1941. I thought it was absolutely compelling, particularly the story of Pug Henry, a navy captain who is assigned first to the German embassy and then war production in Washington, DC, meeting Hitler, FDR, and Stalin along the way. He has a front-row seat during the Blitz in London, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany, and Pearl Harbor, and his family and appendages are witnesses to many other key events as the war becomes global. One particularly interesting aspect of the novel was that it included an account of the war from the German perspective as written by one of the characters after the war, and then Pug (again, after the war) provides his commentary on this perspective. The layering and analysis was really masterful and enhanced the story tremendously.

State of Terror, by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny - OMG, this was so good! Literally kept me on edge until the very end. Definitely a first-rate thriller. Penny is the consummate storyteller, and Clinton has the inside view of politics, world affairs, and Washington D.C.--definitely a powerhouse combo. I also loved how we got to visit Three Pines near the end of the book, and the main character (Secretary of State Ellen Adams) reads Ruth Zardo! 

The Girls on the Shore, by Ann Cleves - this was a short story in Cleves's Matthew Venn series. The premise and writing were both excellent, but I have no idea why this isn't a full-length novel. Maybe it is a tease for a future book, but I was left hanging, not believing the story really had that nice, neat wrap it appeared to.

What I've Been Playing...

Wingspan - my son got this card-based game for Christmas and we've played it a few times as a family. It is super fun, for birders and non-birders, and you get points for laying eggs, procuring food, building nests, etc. It took a round to get comfortable with how the game works and to develop a winning strategy, but I look forward to playing it again on snowy Sunday evenings.

(Disney) Villainess - this is the other board game we've playing while waiting for Spring (aka enduring Winter), and it is also super fun. The version we have is the Disney version, so I naturally gravitated to the Queen of Hearts as my alter ego for the first round, and won!

What I've Been Watching...

All Creatures Great and Small - season 3 is now airing on PBS, but we decided to renew our Sunday night All Creatures ritual and started over with season 1 of the new version. The original series is near and dear to my heart, but I am really enjoying the new version, especially the expanded role for Mrs. Hall (Audrey!) and glimpses of James's former life in Glasgow.

Veronica Mars - my kids have been saying for years how great this series is, so we finally started it. Just finished season 1, which was amazingly good. I really didn't believe I could get so caught up in high-school drama, but the acting is solid and the stories excellent and the character of Veronica is perfect (smart, sassy, and not perfect!).

New Amsterdam - it's been a long time since I watched a doctor/hospital series, so trolling Netflix looking for something to watch before commencing with season 2 of Veronica Mars, I found this. We've watched two episodes of season 1 and am loving it.

Abbot Elementary - watching season 2 as it slowly (I prefer not to wait a week or more between episodes) comes out. Loving all the characters (and loving to hate Ava) set in a poorly-funded public elementary school in Philadelphia. 

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Balancing Acts

The new year is a perfect time for reassessing goals, dreams, priorities, and what simply makes me happy and how I want to live. 

Reading - I used to say reading is like breathing, it's what I do. But, it's more than that--it both relaxes and stimulates my brain and helps me feel right. However, I lowered my GoodReads reading challenge from the 55-65 that I have been doing for years now to 50--I'm carving out time to read those history magazines that arrive every other month, chock full of great articles that really interest me but that sit in a pile unread because I feel pressure to finish my current book and move on to the next one so that I can meet my completely arbitrary goal. I also want to make time to read the New York Times at least once a month. I do want to know more about what is happening in the world than simply headlines on my smart phone's news feed.

Writing - not sure what I want here. I love my blog, and I treasure this outlet to articulate what I like and don't like about what I read, where I travel, and how I play. I used to have the goal of being a published writer (other than self-publication) but not so much anymore, but I still want to work on developing as an effective writer...which means writing here more consistently.

Working - I toyed with retirement a few months ago, and it is still there, but I am not ready to not work. I like having weekends and evenings and holidays to relax, although I have been able to shorten my work week to M-Th and lengthen my weekends to include Fridays. I honestly like the work I do in high-tech marketing, find it challenging and rewarding, and I like getting a paycheck. I realized that the first thing I would do if I retired would be to get a retirement job, so the question became why leave?

Playing - I received a tabletop loom for Christmas and am eager to learn to weave. I have always loved textiles, and this is one of those activities that I think will bring me joy. I also plan to make some projects out of the Underground Railroad quilt book my daughter gave me for Christmas. Oh, and I want to relearn playing the piano. I want to walk at least 30 minutes a day. We have some cool potential trips in the planning stages for 2023. And then there's the garden--so glad to have that extra weekend day as I am going to use it well come spring.

Best wishes for a healthy 2023 and for finding and being able to do the things that bring you joy!

Saturday, December 31, 2022

It's a Wrap - Back to the Classics 2022

Not my best year with regards to classics reading or this challenge, but I did manage to complete six classics.  

 1. 19th Century Classic: Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen - I might now be in the triple digits with regards to rereading this favorite, but I did reread it for the 2022 JASNA AGM in Victoria, and linked this in-depth review I did on GoodReads.

2. 20th Century Classic: couldn't quite finish The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, which is absolutely terrific, btw.

3. Woman Author: Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim - my first classic of the new year, and a tonic in the bleak midwinter.

4. Translation:  I had a couple of good possibilities, but got sidetracked...

5. BIPOC: The Big Sea, by Langston Hughes - fabulous memoir about the life of a poet as a young man.

6. Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic: Madam, Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart - I love Mary Stewart and this was recommended to me last year and it definitely fits the category.

7. Classic Short Story Collection: Best Short Stories, by W. Somerset Maugham - got three-quarters of the way done. Loved all the stories and admire Maugham's writing, but didn't carve out the time to finish.

8. Pre-1800 Classic: Camilla, by Frances Burney - this seemed like a good idea at the time!

9. Nonfiction: Garden of the Gods, by Gerald Durrell - third in the trilogy by the author about his life growing up in Corfu between the wars--I really want to read this in 2023, but didn't get to it in 2022

 10. Longest on your TBR:  Shirley, by Charlotte Bronte - I looked at my GoodReads list and this is the classic that has been languishing the longest on my tbr list. I there it remains!

11. Set in a Place You'd Like to Visit: The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne - set in Rome, need I say more? Okay, but not a 5-star read.

12. Wild Card: Envious Casca (aka A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer  - this was a reread, but it's been 12 years and I had forgotten 99% of it anyway!

Thanks to Karen at Books and Chocolate for hosting this challenge.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Christmas Party (Envious Casca) - Georgette Heyer

I first read Envious Casca, a 1941 contemporary closed-room murder mystery, in 2010. I just finished a reread, not because I loved the book but because the GoodReads TrueBookTalk group was reading it this December and joining in for a reread would 1) enable me to participate with a group I enjoy but have been woefully absent from this year, 2) enable me to rack up another Back to the Classics book for the 2022 challenge, which I have been woefully neglectful of this year, and 3) enable me to inch closer to completing my GoodReads goal of 55 books in 2022.

Envious Casca is also published under the title A Christmas Party, which I think is a better title--more appealing and less esoteric, and I am always looking for good, non-schmaltzy holiday books for December reading.

The setting is pure Agatha Christie--a collection of people, some related, some not, but most are ill-tempered and chock full of motives for murdering the poor rich guy who ends up murdered in a locked room. I was about one-quarter into the book and not remembering it at all before I had a pretty good idea of who did the murder but not how. Even by the time I reached the end and the various clues starting falling into place I didn't recall exactly how the murder was done, which is always a plus. 

This is a great book for book lovers as...spoiler alert...a book does play a major role in the solving of the mystery.

It's not the best mystery out there, nor the best Christmas-themed book around, and I think Georgette Heyer was much better at Regency Romances than Christie-esque murder mysteries, but it was a fun 3-star read.

I hereby designate Envious Casca (aka A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer as my Wild Card book for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge. That puts me at only five for the year, but I am working on Winds of War by Herman Wouk and might finish it by December 31 at midnight! Wish me luck. I also have a bird puzzle to finish (with only white pieces left), a book on weaving to study so that I can start using the tabletop loom I got for Christmas, and zillion other odds and ends that need to be done before we ring in the New Year.

Happy New Year, friends, and stay warm/cool and safe, and happy reading!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Phillipa Gregory's Fairmile Series

I recently finished book 3 in Phillipa Gregory's Fairmile series. Dawnlands, and it was a 5-star book until the very end when I almost threw the book against the wall and vowed to not read any more in the series. That said, I did grant it 4 stars on Goodreads because it was so good up until the end.

The 3 books in the series span the years 1648 to 1688 and chronicle the English Civil War that ended the reign of King Charles I and ushered in the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Restoration of the monarchy with King Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution which ended the reign of King James II and brought William of Orange and Charles's daughter Mary to England and established Parliament as the ruling power. I loved the time frame because I haven't read much about the 17th century in quite awhile so it was great to brush up on the historical facts in a fictional world. The other thing I liked about the series is how it didn't take place in just England, but we got to visit 17th century New England as well as Barbados, Venice (always a treat), London, Yorkshire, as well as the south coast of England.

I think the books in the series painted a really compelling picture of the various strata of society in the 17th century, from the poorest of the poor, to the growing middle-class of merchants and traders, to the gentry, and finally the court. I liked reading about the soldiering, the economic realities and physical abomination of slavery, and the very real conflicts over religion and religious freedom. 

I also really liked the family that Gregory creates and grows, from the wise Alinor who is a midwife, herbalist, and healer who is blessed/cursed with foreknowledge that creates serious challenges for her, her brother Ned (ardent revolutionary soldier who fights for the rights of the common man), her two children (Alice - practical business woman, and Rob - lovable physician with a romantic strain), her various grandchildren and great-grand children (Sarah - an adventuror, Johnnie - a businessman who can justify any course of action, Mia and Gabriella - Venetian girls who come to England for an education). There is even a first-rate villainess, Olivia, who lies, cheats, steals and is a beauty to boot--definitely cut from the same cloth as both Becky Sharp and Scarlett O'Hara. And there are marvelous side characters (Rowan - the Native American girl in book 3), James Avery (the aristocrat who once was a priest), and Captain Shaw (a sea captain and all-around good guy).


So what did I hate about the ending of book 3, Dawnlands? At the very end of the book, after James II is deposed and fled to France, the scheming, conniving Olivia turns up on the family's doorstep, again! Ready to make everyone's life miserable, again! 

Now, I like a good villainess, but I like them to get their just deserts in the end. For the entire book 3, as we approach the end of James II's reign, I was really looking forward to Olivia going down (or up) in flames as her massive web of lies caught up with her. I was literally crushed to learn that Gregory was going to feature her in what is sure to be a book 4 in the series. I honestly don't feel like reading more of the same--the same beauty that beguiles everyone, the same protestations of eternal love followed by callous back-stabbing, the same manipulation of characters I have grown to love. Enough already! Throw some other challenges at this family, but I've had enough of Olivia.

I really truly think that this series is some of Gregory's best work, but she needs to know when to let a villainess go so that we can have a fresh story for the next generation of characters. That's my rant for the day!

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Catching Up

Sorry for being AWOL, but I have been reading and listening and need to get back on track. The past couple of months have been characterized by WWII, opera, and LA lawyering. 

Let's start with the LA lawyer--I've been listening to Michael Connelly's Lincoln Lawyer series with my husband on our car trips. Listening to the first book in the series, The Lincoln Lawyer in Maine in September, then the second book, The Brass Verdict in Victoria, BC in October, and most recently, The Reversal on a trip across the mountains and back last week. I really love this series--Mickey Haller is a great character and I am fascinated by the details of the courtroom and defense and prosecution approaches. I know nothing about lawyering beyond The Good Wife, so this is really fun and interesting.

Now for opera. Opera? you ask. Yes, I grew up with opera and it never really left me. Colorado Opera in Denver started pinging me on social media with ads for their fall production of Verdi's Rigoletto. I decided to treat myself for my birthday--my husband had knee replacement surgery in October (so begged off with an ironclad excuse)--and decided I needed a refresher course. So, I ordered the libretto (Italian/English side by side), watched a YouTube video of Pavarotti's movie version, and listened to a 24-hour long, 32-lecture Great Course on the life and operas of Guiseppe Verdi, delivered by Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco. All of it was fantastic. The Pavarotti music with libretto in hand, the live production in Denver, and the detailed analysis of the opera with biographical context (there were 4 lectures on Rigoletto alone!). I finished the course yesterday, which culminated with 6 lectures on Verdi's last opera, Falstaff, based on Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. Greenberg has another Great Course on how to listen to opera, which I will probably do in 2023. 

On to WWII. Another Great Course, World War II: A Political and Social History, delivered by Professor Thomas Childers, followed by The Knight, Death, and the Devil, a fictionalized biography of Hermann Goring by Ella Leffland--this was a reread, but since I read it over 30 years ago, it was like reading for the first time. I also listened to two other related Great Courses: The Berlin Wall: A World Divided and Europe and Western Civilization in the Modern Age.

Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season. Thanksgiving was fun and relaxing (we dined out!), and I started transforming the house to its Christmas wardrobe today. Next weekend, the tree.

Looking forward to visiting all my favorite blogs and catching up with what you all have been up to.

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Travelogue - Victoria

I've been visiting Victoria, BC for a week, starting with the JASNA AGM on September 29 to October 2, and then for a week with my husband.

The JASNA AGM was focused on Sense and Sensibility, and I thought all three general sessions were excellent, and I enjoyed all the breakouts I attended. I picked up two new Austen-related books--on one crime during the Regency (by Susannah Fullerton) and one by Robert Morrison, who did one of the general talks. It was great fun to talk Austen for 3 days, hobnob with Janeite friends, and learn to English country dance (I did one of the workshops--Regency aerobics!).

Here are some photo highlights from the JASNA AGM:

Ready for the banquet, Saturday night!
No, I didn't dress Regency but pulled a tried-and-true out of the closet for the first time in years.

The belle of the ball, dressed in the theme, City of Gardens!

The promenade of Regency-clad Janeites headed from the banquet to the ball.

After the AGM, it was on to Butchart Gardens--one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.

The Sunken Garden - a former quarry complete with cement factory, transformed into a wonderland.

The Dragon Fountain -  one of many gorgeous fountains

So many landscapes - I especially liked this grove of trees encircled by impatiens.

I also really loved visiting the Moss Lady at Beacon Hill Park. Inspired by the Mud Maiden in Cornwall.

Victoria is a wonderful city that caters to walkers, bikers, readers (lots of bookstores), and coffee drinkers. It is truly a city of gardens, with flowers everywhere, even in October! 

I've also enjoyed visiting a few other spots on Vancouver Island--Sydney was lovely and we really enjoyed visiting the Shaw Center for the Salish Sea, which is a small aquarium staffed by some of the nicest people on the planet. The Esquimalt Lagoon Bird Sanctuary was wonderful, with a large variety of shore birds as well as sparrows and loads of Brewers blackbirds...and a swan!

The sun has shone every day I've been here, and the weather has been mostly warm with a refreshing cool breeze just when you need it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Off to Victoria, BC - JASNA AGM and Gardens!


Just a quick post to say stay tuned for posts about the JASNA AGM in Victoria, BC this weekend. After the AGM ends on Sunday, my husband is flying up and we'll spend the following week exploring the city, the island, and all the wonderful gardens therein.

It's been 11 years since I was able to attend an AGM (Ft Worth), which also focused on Sense and Sensibility, so I am very excited.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall

I love to visit Italy, and I love to learn about its history. Since I am on a mission to read all of the books I received as gifts last year, I eagerly turned The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall, by Christopher Hibbert. Published in 1974, it's not the latest scholarship, but I did enjoy it for the most part and read it fairly carefully until Part IV, 1537 - 1743. Like most people I am most interested in the rise of the family during the Renaissance, but I found my mind wandering while reading about the last of the Medici. I sort of felt like author did too, and the narrative became far less compelling in the last section. 

I also loved learning more about Florence, especially on the heels of reading City of Vengeance earlier this summer. I visited Florence in 2015 and although I loved seeing David in particular, I really expressed then and since that I had no desire to revisit the city because of the hordes of tourists. After reading so much about Florence, I'm reconsidering but would definitely go in the off season. I can deal with wind and rain better than I can crowds.

I was disappointed in the illustrations, which were just black and white images and some of them pretty grainy. Now, I am on the lookout for a more modern book, with color illustrations, on the same topic. Any suggestions?

I also want to watch, for the 3rd time, the marvelous TV series, Medici. I know it is not all historically accurate, but the production is great and fun to watch.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Old Filth - Jane Gardam

I picked up Old Filth, by Jane Gardam, a few years ago after a friend was shocked that I hadn't read it much less heard of it. And then it sat on my TBR shelf until I pulled it out on a whim last week. I really had no preconceptions going in, so it was a complete joy to find out what a superb book this is.
Here is the GoodReads blurb by way of synopsis:
Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood. Now an eighty-year-old widower living in comfortable seclusion in Dorset, Feathers is finally free from the regimen of work and the sentimental scaffolding that has sustained him throughout his life. He slips back into the past with ever mounting frequency and intensity, and on the tide of these vivid, lyrical musings, Feathers approaches a reckoning with his own history. Not all the old filth, it seems, can be cleaned away.

Borrowing from biography and history, Jane Gardam has written a literary masterpiece reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's Baa Baa, Black Sheep that retraces much of the twentieth century's torrid and momentous history. Feathers' childhood in Malaya during the British Empire's heyday, his schooling in pre-war England, his professional success in Southeast Asia and his return to England toward the end of the millennium, are vantage points from which the reader can observe the march forward of an eventful era and the steady progress of that man, Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth himself, who embodies the century's fate.
I loved the way Gardam told Eddie's story, as he remembers his childhood and grapples with the loneliness and failing health of his present. The writing is clean and elegant and deeply emotional without being overblown or hysterical, much like Eddie himself. My heart absolutely ached for the "Raj Ophans," like Eddie who were shipped back to Britain as very young children for fostering and then school while their ex-pat parents pursued their lives and careers in the far-flung corners of the empire.

My favorite part of the novel was when Eddie joins the army during WWII and is part of the guard protecting Queen Mary (the king's mother) from kidnapping while she was evacuated from London. Their intereaction made me want to learn more about this particular member of the royal family. His remembrances of this time while visiting it as an old man was absolutely compelling.

There are two more books in the series. The second, The Man in the Wooden Hat, is focused on Eddie's wife Betty, and the third, Last Friends, is the story of his nemesis, Terry Vedeering. Both sound terrific.