Saturday, December 03, 2016

Lab Girl

I'm really torn between 4 and 5 stars for Lab Girl, a memoir by scientist Hope Jahren.  On the one hand, I loved the plant science, the discussion of life as a university scientist and professor, and the insights into living with mental illness.  On the other hand, I did find Jahren a bit wearying.  In a way, she is like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.  Their lives and issues make for good memoirs but neither is someone I warm to, have much in common with, or want to spend a lot of time with.  That's not to say I don't derive insight and inspiration from their stories, but...they are a bit wearying.

I listened to audio versions of both Lab Girl and Wild, which I think was good.  I only experienced the books driving around, doing errands, rather than long reading sessions by the fire.  Neither of these memoirs lend themselves to long reading sessions by the fire.

In addition to learning about trees, grasses, mushrooms, radishes, botany, earth science, and what the dinosaurs ate, I loved the sections of the book where Jahren connected a part of her story with a particular piece of literature.  By far my favorite was the section, fairly early, where she is a student and working in a hospital pharmacy and she links it beautifully to David Copperfield.  This thread is not a single strand but an intricately developed literary construct that plays in several ways.  For that section alone, I bumped it from 4 to 5 stars on GoodReads.  Anyone who can make sense of their life and situation by relating them to David Copperfield is worth reading and listening to.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wishin' and Hopin'

Last December I read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, and then moved straight into holiday reading in a big way. I really loved  I Know This Much is True and did a search on other books by Wally Lamb, and discovered that he had a Christmas novella, Wishin' and Hopin', which I promptly got and vowed to read as part of this year's holiday reading.

It was so much fun!

Felix Funicello lives with his parents and two older sisters in Three Rivers, Connecticut, same town where Dominick and Thomas live in I Know This Much is True, but apart from great writing, including sterling dialogue (and writing realistic dialogue for 5th graders isn't easy!), the two works don't have anything in common really.

Felix is an adorable kid (ala Dondi--I haven't thought of Dondi for probably 40 years!).  He's smart without being precocious or annoying, innocent without being unbelievable.  His best friend is 12-year old Lonny who has been held back and has a tough homelife, and who attempts to educate him on the birds and bees, when his father stumbles in this department.

We have a Catholic school setting, a French-Canadian substitute teacher, a new girl from the Soviet Union, a Pillsbury Bake-off, and an insufferable top-of-class, know-it-all girl with rich parents (Muffy from PBS's Arthur was who I kept thinking of, but she at least had a heart).  Lamb clearly had a whole lot of fun writing this novella and inventing screwy names for his characters, Sister Dymphana is a great example.

Oh, and did I mention that Felix's father is a distant cousin of Annette Funicello, whom the family all worship?

The final Christmas pageant that the school puts on is the best slapstick routine I've read since The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and it had me laughing out loud.

If you're still looking for great short holiday stories to fill out your holiday reading this year, I heartily recommend this one.

I just discovered there was a movie version of this in 2014.  Now, I have to find it and watch, but meanwhile here's a scene from the movie.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


I always like to read a few just-released books each year and since I am a newbie on the Ann Patchett fan club bus, I picked Commonwealth as one of my books released this year to read.  It was good, very good, but not in the same category of wow as Bel Canto for me, from which I don't want anyone to conclude that I didn't like the book.  

Despite having read a few reviews, I went into it with no real notion of what it was about.  In a nutshell, it is about divorce and what that does to families.  Two families, the Cousins and the Keatings both live in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and when Bert Cousins crashes a christening party at the Keating house, he changes the course of the lives of everyone in both households.

The really interesting part is that one of the characters, Franny Keating, tells her novelist lover about her childhood and how her family and the Cousins became entangled, and he turns that into an award-winning novel, called Commonwealth.  I do like the meta twist to the story and I think it adds an interesting layer to the concepts of family history, privacy, and relationships that Patchett explores in her novel.

I love the cover, by the way, with the oranges that are so much a part of the opening of the story. Made me long for a citrus tree of my own.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

I absolutely love books like Juliet Nicolson's The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which I read as part of my TBR Pile Challenge for 2016.  It had the right mix of social history and political history, upstairs/downstairs, royalty and abject poverty, urban and rural.  It chronicled May to September of 1911 and it provided an excellent way to really get a feel for the times, the issues, and the mood of England in particular, and Europe, by extension.

The summer of 1911 in England was hot.  There were endless days of over 90 degree weather, with a few that topped 100 degrees, with little or no rain.  It was the summer of the coronation of George V, whose father Edward VII, for who the Edwardians took their label, had died the year before.  It was the time when Nijinsky danced for England, Rupert Brooke finished his first book of poems, and dock workers throughout the ports of England struck for higher wages and better working conditions. Their wives, the jam makers, also struck, in their Sunday best.

The author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, and daughter of Nigel Nicolson, and it was fun to spot the times when she used family correspondence in her research.

Despite a decent number of illustrations, I found myself having to read with my iPad close at hand to look up images and people and events as I read.

I don't remember exactly who recommended this book to me--a wonderful book blogger out in the blogosphere--but I can highly recommend it, especially if you were devoted to Downton Abbey.  In fact, I got the feeling that Julian Fellowes must have read it as part of his research.  There is a good bit in the section on domestic service that worked its way into the script of the show over the years.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Like a Bird on the Wire

Already missing Leonard Cohen, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82.  A poet with the most amazing voice.  I literally grew up listening to him.  His first album came out in 1967, when I was not yet 10, and my older brothers bought it and the ones that followed and played them over and over.  I knew Leonard Cohen songs as well as I knew Robert Louis Stevenson poems and Laura Ingalls Wilder novels.

For me Bird on the Wire was his signature song, but one of my other favorites is Joan of Arc:

Rest in Peace, dear Leonard.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Bring Up the Bodies

I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel years ago and eagerly anticipated its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and got a copy as soon as it was released...and then proceeded to let it sit on the shelf until I finally got an audio copy and listened to it over the past few weeks.

What an amazingly good book.  I know the story of Anne Boleyn and HVIII very, very well, but I was still on the edge of my seat as Mantel told the familiar story with Thomas Cromwell as the protagonist. Mantel hit on a singularly brilliant premise since Cromwell is the guy everyone loves to hate, but how can you hate him when you learn about his relationship to his family and staff.

True, he is cold-blooded and calculating, but Mantel softened this by making his overriding motivation to be his loyalty to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.  Exacting revenge on those who brought Wolsey down guided Cromwell even more than self-preservation in Mantel's version of the story and I think it is this, as well as his treasuring of his son, Gregory, that makes Cromwell into the hero of this sad, sordid story.

I really enjoyed this as an audio book as well--the reader really made me dislike Anne, with her affected accent, and Henry, with his callous, slightly nasal sound.  I think the reader, Simon Vance, really enhanced Mantel's novel with his rendition of it.

Now I'm ready to rewatch Wolf Hall, seasons 1 and 2, as we await the third book in the series, The Mirror and the Light, which is due out in 2017.  Although it will be so very difficult to witness the downfall of Cromwell, as I expect book 3 to chronicle, I trust Mantel to close her story of Thomas Cromwell in a way that will make us mourn this much maligned figure of history.

The writing in Bring Up the Bodies is even better than Wolf Hall--clear, immediate, powerful, spare but rich in imagery and dense with meaning.  Absolutely first rate historical fiction.

This is the 9th book in my TBR Pile Challenge that I have finished so far.  

Monday, October 24, 2016

Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives

One of the books I was most excited to read on my TBR Pile Challenge stack was Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives, by Sue Wilkes.  When I first learned about this book, I was doing some preliminary research about my mother's family, who lived and worked in Oldham during the Industrial Revolution.  I got this book to help me understand the lives of my maternal ancestors, but it sat on the shelf until I finally made a vow that I would read it this year.

It was a great little history book, detailing the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire.  It's slim, only 160 pages, but full of interesting stories, facts, photos, and overall well-researched history, presented in a well-written, chatty style that is not at all dry or dusty.

Wilkes starts with the canal building craze, which was particularly fascinating to me because I knew so little about the canals in Britain.  She then covered the railway building craze that followed the canal building, and moved on to the various stages of textile production, detailing how the mechanization of various aspects, from spinning, to weaving to dyeing, affected the lives of the people, both men and women, who labored in the industry as it transformed itself from cottage to mill.

Not only did this book provide me with wonderful insights into the daily struggles that my ancestors faced--making it absolutely clear why my grandmother fled to Canada at 18 years old in 1920 when she was given the opportunity to break away--but it also helps me to understand better the context of the Victorian literature that I love so much.  Elizabeth Gaskell wrote of the plight of the working people in North and South, Mary Barton, and Ruth, and Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives serves as an excellent way to hear the voices and stories of the kinds of people that Gaskell knew and worked among and tried to serve with her fiction.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Spirit of Hadrian's Wall

The Spirit of Hadrian's Wall is an absolutely gorgeous coffee table book, with text by Mark Richards and photographs by Roger Clegg.  Here's their Amazon bios:

Mark Richards lives in Cumbria, on the fringe of the Lake District and has written a series of Fellranger guides covering the region, as well as Great Mountain Days in the Lake District. He has also written a guide to Hadrian's Wall, and several to the Peak District in England.

Roger Clegg is a professional photographer whose captivating and evocative landscapes have an unique quality all of their own. His photographs have been used in numerous exhibitions throughout Britain, and his particular specialty is the landscapes of Hadrian's Wall, a World Heritage site in the north of England.Mark Richards, author of 'Hadrian's Wall Path' provides an historical commentary.
This is the first book in my reading that will prep me for my trek along the Wall planned for next summer, and it was a perfect way to start.

The book moves east to west, as do most trekkers, documenting the countryside and the Wall along the way.  Even though we plan to hike west to east, it was still a good way to learn place names and familiarize myself with the terrain and geography that we'll encounter.

I noticed that many of the photos were taken in the Fall and Winter when the mist rises, the sky glows pink and orange, and the shadows are long and ghostly.

For all you armchair travelers, even if a visit to the Wall isn't in the cards for you, I can recommend this book as an excellent way to experience a beautiful countryside, rich in history and still relatively unchanged over the millennia.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Maisie Dobbs - books 3 and 4

I've been in the mood for historical mysteries lately and satisfied that mood with books 3 and 4 in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.

Pardonable Lies and Messenger of Truth take place in 1930 and both plots still revolve around the aftermath of WWI (or the Great War), although we get a hint of the growing unease in Europe in Messenger of Truth with Hitler mentioned a few times.

I really enjoy these books, and Maisie is an interesting, complex heroine.  I like her self-reflection, which reminds me of another favorite mystery heroine, Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon.  They both deal with demons, self-doubt, and have a strong conscience and need to do the right thing.  They don't always know what they want out of life, but they do know what they don't want.

I enjoy Winspear's attention to detail--the clothes Maisie wears, the food she eats, her hairstyle, the car she drives, etc.  This provides me with a real feel for the England that Maisie lives and works in.

I read the first two a year apart a year and it was nice to read these back to back as the continuity was strong from one to the next.  I hope to get to book 5 before year's end.

I like Maisie--I like her need for independence and her compassion.  I like the way she straddles several different classes--she's very much a modern woman who values tradition.  She's a character that works for me.  I also like the mysteries and the secondary characters--all in all, a great series for relaxing and losing yourself in an interesting world with interesting people.

I can't help thinking this series would make a terrific TV series--I hope others with a bit more clout think the same.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

R.I.P. Challenge Update

I signed up for the ever popular R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge this year and blithely set out to read four books.  I've got two of them under my belt, and I'm not sure if I will read the other two as horror is really not my favorite genre.

I read Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, which I thought pretty good. It was a fresh idea, an interesting twist on time travel, had a good dose of WWII, which is a time frame I'm currently much interested in, likable characters, and a healthy amount of tension and danger.  I like school stories and this was definitely a school story; it was a bit reminiscent of Harry Potter in that you have a very ordinary boy as the hero who becomes extraordinary because he has the courage to do the right thing.  There's also a Hermione type of girl character as well as an evil one who is disguised as a friend of the hero.  I'm not sure I loved it enough to read more in the series or to watch the movie, but it was a fun book.

My second R.I.P. book was Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes. Published in 1962, it is very much a product of its time, reflecting the fears of rampant technology that characterized the Cold War.  Just as Miss Peregrine reminded me of Harry Potter books, Something Wicked reminded me of Frankenstein, especially towards the end with Mr. Electrico being revived.  I liked the idea of the carousel adding or subtracting years to one's life.

Both books dealt with the problems inherent in immortality--being stuck in a time loop in Miss Peregrine and being alive but not "living" and endlessly riding the carousel forward and backward in Something Wicked but not having anyone left to love or care about.

I'm glad I read both, but I have to say I felt a sense of relief when I finished.  Neither gave me a world that I particularly liked inhabiting.

I have to say that Something Wicked ended up being exhausting. Early in the book, I tweeted that I was surprised at how poetic it was, but my GoodReads summary when I finished it was a "hemorrhage of words--good story but an overwhelming metaphoric flood."

I like writing that is leaner, with the occasional poetic flight. Not sure whether this is typical of Bradbury or not, but I found it too much for my taste.