Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Offer I Can't Refuse

Oh my gosh. If it seems like I forgot all about the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge, I did. The blogging bit, I mean. I've been reading steadily, and have gone from one-third-complete to one-half. All in five little books!

Let's start on a high note: Mario Puzo's The Godfather is an entertaining book. Every bit as good as the movie, and reading it makes me want to pop the DVD in the player. Between The Godfather and Elf, James Caan really doesn't need to make another movie to ensure immortality.

This book has aged well and unapologetically. Women are "broads" and almost irrelevant; racial slurs get thrown around; there's lots of sex and alcohol and violence. Five stars. I liked knowing more of the thoughts going on in people's heads, and there are a couple sub-plotty moments left out of the movie that are worth hearing about.

The Godfather is the only one of the books covered today that gets its very own allusion in the animated film Zootopia, so how's that for an homage?

Moving down the line, I also liked my second H. G. Wells foray:

This was a fun and suspenseful novella. Wells does such a good job of making the science plausible and thinking through the what-ifs. To become invisible seals Griffin's fate as an isolated individual, out of touch with the world. Wells does pacing, well, well. 4 solid stars.

Then there was the three-star bucket, of which I probably liked The Color Purple the best.

"So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." - from THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston

Alice Walker, of course, had a lot to do with Hurston's resurrection as an author, and this quote has a lot to do with THE COLOR PURPLE. Walker's main character Celie spends much of her life as her father's mule, husband's mule, stepchildren's mule, only to find love and self-worth as she grows older.

I loved the parts of the story told from Celie's perspective, as well as the characters' development and the author's sympathy for even the most ill-behaved of them. The timeline confused me a little, once Nettie's letters were interspersed, and the missionaries-to-Africa bit interested me less, but all in all a good read. 

One imponderable: were there really Chinese restaurants in the rural south around WWII, and could the fortune cookie possibly have been a common sight then???

And, finally, a tie between Return to Peyton Place and Catch-22. I'd say Catch-22 was the more interesting, more ambitious novel, and parts of it were clever and funny, but it was way too long, and I couldn't help thinking, as some of Yossarian's "superiors" did that, if everyone felt about WWII the way Yossarian did, we'd all be speaking German or Japanese now, and there wouldn't be a single Jewish person left on earth. Yes, war is horrible and absurd and even insane, but as long as folks are folks there will be war in the world. And thank you to those WWII veterans who fought in it! (Note: the rape and underage sex jokes in the book have not aged well. Unlike in The Godfather, there is no moral tsk-tsking over them, making them just icky.)

Did I say the last two books tied? Actually I've changed my mind. My hands-down least-favorite this go-round was Return to Peyton Place. Seriously it was just trashy. If not for the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge and my commitment to read this book, I would have abandoned it because I remembered not being crazy about the original PEYTON PLACE when my book club read it.

Don't let the demure cover fool you

In fact, that was one of only two things I recalled about the original PEYTON PLACE:

1. That the teenagers played Spin the Bottle; and
2. That is was soap-opera-y and trashy and I didn't like it.

RETURN TO PEYTON PLACE picks up where the original left off, and I had to read a plot summary to remind me of the characters and their over-the-top situations. Yes, I know the first book blew the lid off small New England town life when it was published, much in the way the town gets turned upside down in THE HELP (another non-favorite of mine), but I can't help thinking Metalious kept a paper bag full of Horrible Things People Do or Have Done to Them beside her typewriter, and she would just reach in when inspiration was required. RETURN has the added detraction of having character Alison become, like Metalious herself, a successful bestselling author whose book causes a stir and gets made into a movie. Which means we have to trek through all the behind-the-scenes of the publishing biz and Hollywood and the author's disillusionment. Might have been interesting to readers in the '50s, but pretty cliche now, down to Alison's tiresome love affairs. Bleh. And if you like '50s witty repartee, prepare yourself for a healthy dose. All the "smart" characters speak it like a regional dialect. Double bleh.

On the plus side, Metalious is lovely with the setting and seasons of her sorta-fictional town, and I enjoyed those bits. If only the town had been unpopulated!

Whew! We're up to date now. Nine books to go, and I'm tramping through one of the Sherlock Holmes books. Join me?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Delights of Escaping Your Genre Ruts

I'd have to say, the best thing about the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge is the fun I'm having, getting out of my usual reading ruts. Ordinarily, I love 19th-century British fiction (Austen to Hardy), popular science, adventure/survival nonfiction, and history. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, or historical fiction. And, having three teenagers at home, I haven't been able to read YA with much enjoyment for a while now.

But the BPRC has been getting me out and about, literarily. I've hit the 33% complete milestone:

And, in this update, I've ventured in 19th-century American lit, early-20th-century Scottish fiction, early sci-fi, and pulp fiction! If we're not Goodreads buddies, here were my thoughts...

Uncle Tom's Cabin (3 stars). A 19th century bestseller with such historical impact is certainly worth reading, if for its place in history, if not for its literary merits. My first encounter with UNCLE TOM'S CABIN came from the 1956 movie THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner, where they do a ballet version of the story, so wide-reaching was the book's influence.

Stowe's writing share all the worst characteristics of the 19th century. There's piety thicker than custard, heavy-handed addresses to the reader (she actually ends the book with a full-on sermon directed at us), generalizations about the African race which are embarrassing even when meant to be sympathetic, and lengthy descriptions. Remember that dreadful scene in A TALE OF TWO CITIES where Lucy Manet blubbers over her imprisoned father's fate, crying repeatedly, "Weep for it! Weep for it!"? If you cringed your way through that passage, you'll find a lot of that sentimental business going on in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Stowe makes Dickens appear restrained.

Eliza's escape makes for the most interesting part of the book, but it alternates with Tom getting sold South and not appearing, frankly, to miss his family much because he's so busy with his Bible and the angelic Little Eva, whose goodness will cause your eyes to roll so many times you risk permanent damage. And then Tom's Christ-figure-ness even tops Little Eva's in unbelievability.

It was also funny to me how, unlike any people I know nowadays, who won't bring up politics or religion lest they offend, Stowe's characters immediately go for the jugular whenever they meet each other, talking nonstop about weighty issues and pronouncing judgments, even if the other person is a stranger! What can I say? Behavior and manners must have changed greatly in the last 150 years...

On a side note, this is the second book Alexa read me in her mechanical tones. I learned that every semicolon gets read aloud as the word "semicolon," and every "think on't" gets read as "think on T," and every "ha ha ha" becomes "Ha. Ha. Ha." Enough to make you laugh along with the characters.

I'm glad I read (or listened to) this, but I can safely promise it won't be on the re-read list.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (3 stars)This was an odd and original book about a private-girls-school teacher in the 1930s who grooms six students of her preteen class into "her set," the "Brodie set." And I do mean grooms. Miss Jean Brodie has no interest in teaching Sandy, Jenny, Rose, Eunice, etc. the standard curriculum; instead she tells them stories of her travels, her love life, her opinions on fascism, and so on. As the girls grow, they go from idolizing Miss Brodie to finding ways to distance themselves or to resent her influence.

There are some funny bits, like Sandy's description of Calvinism: "God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died...he having made it [His] pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation, so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier."

Miss Brodie is melodramatic and somewhat tiresome, but having had a fourth grade teacher who was colorful and volatile and dramatic and charismatic, I thought Muriel Spark captured the situation exactly.

The War of the Worlds (4 stars)My first H.G. Wells book! I'm eager to read more from him because this book was well-paced, imaginative and yet very real in its characterization. I can see why it became a classic and inspired so many adaptations. I also enjoyed getting on Google Maps and watching the progress of the main characters and the Martians, since Wells grounded his story in the very place he lived.

Hoping I can get my 15YO son to read it. It's rather gory for 1897 (or so), but nothing we aren't used to seeing/hearing about in books today.

I'd say this and Tarzan were my favorites from this batch of BPRC books.

Speaking of which, 

Tarzan of the Apes (4 stars)This book was great fun! Pulp fiction at its most entertaining, and it made me realize it has never actually been adopted faithfully. For one thing, Tarzan reads and writes English but can't speak it, and when he finally is taught to speak, it's firstly in French! Shouldn't he be saying, "Moi, Tarzan--toi, Jane" in the movies?

The 75% of the book set in West Africa is much better than Tarzan in Paris and Wisconsin(!!!). In fact, the bit in Wisconsin is flat-out ridiculous. Imagine him swinging through Laura Ingalls Wilder's Big Woods... 

I can see why Burroughs wrote a sequel--this one ends abruptly with him not yet having gone to England and with Jane set to marry another. I immediately downloaded TARZAN RETURNS, only to find he's already making eyes at some other woman and somehow maintaining his godlike muscle tone after years out of the jungle. Pass.

If you decide to read this book, here are some things to ignore, to maximize your enjoyment:

1. Ignore the racial attitudes of 1912. If you like a politically correct Tarzan, watch the latest movie adaptation, which is so racially we-are-the-world that it makes NO sense for the time in which it was set. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe, who deeply, deeply believed in equality of the races, fell into lots of embarrassing moments in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN because she was a product of her time.

2. Along those lines, ignore the character of Esmeralda. Embarrassing! She gets the racial comic relief role.

3. The youth Tarzan kills arch-enemy lion Sabor, but then Sabor shows up later attacking Jane??? I don't know what happened here. I even went back and checked if the problem was with my brain. It could also possibly be with the free Kindle edition. In TARZAN RETURNS, the lion gets called Numa when he remembers killing it. So confusing.

4. Tarzan finds the cabin his parents built before they died, but it takes him a long time to figure out there's a door and a way in because he thinks the door is part of the wall. Later, the lion sees the same closed door and instantly knows it's a way in. Of course, Tarzan could be a dummy because he spends tons of time exploring the cabin and spending time there, and he STILL finds stuff he didn't notice before, years later.

5. People sleep on the jungle floor and hang out in the trees all the time and never get a single bug bite. Amazing.

Fast-paced, thrilling, and Jane only faints a couple times. Enjoy this one.

Next up on my list is Return to Peyton Place, which I confess I do not have high expectations of...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Four Book Reviews from the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge

Has anyone gotten under way yet with the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge? It's the best kind of reading challenge because you're probably 1/3 of the way done right from the get-go. So far the highest opening score I've heard is 40 out of the possible 53. That's 75% complete, folks.

Well, I got cracking and even made a spreadsheet to track my progress because I love to cross things out. Here's a link to it, if you'd like to make edits and use it yourself.

There's even a count function at the bottom, so you can see that solid integer, and a percentage-complete calculation. Yes!

My spreadsheet will not nag you, however, like the Goodreads Challenge, to tell you you're falling behind. That's a feature, to my mind, but you can add that if you operate better under pressure and guilt.

Since the BPRC began, I've completed four books from the list and thought I'd share my Goodreads reviews with you, in case we're not Goodreads friends. If you've read any of these ones, I'd love to hear your opinion on them in the comments!

Originally published in 1952

Great to kick off the New Year with such an excellent book. It's leisurely to start, recounting pampered Princeton boy Willie Keith's entrance into the Navy during WWII, after dinking in piano bars and getting casually involved with a girl out of his class and milieu. But once Willie is on board the Caine, things get rolling, and the development of Capt Queeg's behavior, the "mutiny" and the court-martial are riveting. 
I appreciated how the book didn't take the easy way out and make things black and white. There are things no one can know until they're alone in the hot seat--before that happens, IF that even happens, everyone's a critic. Wouk recognizes this and writes a richer book for it.

Published in 1970

Well, it's a quick read with some snappy dialogue and some father-son rapprochement by the end, which I appreciated. In fact, I found the father-son business moving and the tragic love story not very compelling. Since this book came out in 1970 and was made into a movie, I hope I'm not spoiling anything to say that Erich Segal goes Nicholas-Sparksy and writes what is basically a romance and then kills someone at the end so it isn't dismissed as a "girl" romance. 
I'm glad I read it as part of the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge in 2017, but I have to say, if you want to read about young lovers getting married over parental opposition and figuring things out while the fella goes to law school, Betty Smith's JOY IN THE MORNING is head-and-shoulders a better book. It's even got the wisecracking young gal and earnest young guy. No hockey, though.

Published in 2002
This beautiful collection of classic fairy tales would be enjoyed by any (adult) reader for its all-in-one-placeness and its full-color illustrations by various artists. I'd never read Puss in Boots before, nor Tom Thumb nor several lesser-known tales which have generally been left out for a reason. When you read fairy tales back to back to back, you quickly pick up on some themes, like the youngest daughter is always the most beautiful and charming, stepmothers and stepsisters suck, and ogres seem to marry normal women.
The annotations ranged from helpful: "Legend has it that storks were once men and that they returned to their human state in Egypt during the winter" to dumb and academic: "Susan M. Gilbert and Sandra Gubar try to move against the grain of conventional interpretations, which focus on the queen [in Snow White] as the source of evil. They view the queen as the consummate 'plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist" and as a woman who is "witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are.'" Sigh.
I wish the illustrations within the text were bigger because the full-size pictures before and after the tales are lovely.

Published in 1944

Having never been assigned this book in middle or high school, all I can say is Wow! Orwell's allegory of communism remains pertinent, clever, occasionally funny, and even prophetic. Pick a communist government--any communist government--and you'll find parallels, though the book was written in 1944. When Napoleon the pig gives himself fancy titles and the other animals are trained to bless his name and say how much he loves them and they him, we could be in North Korea or China under Mao. Sure, everyone (but the pigs) works like a slave and has to look over his shoulder lest he be denounced, but it's still better than when it was under that human farmer, isn't it?
The other "farms" don't get off scot-free, of course, and I appreciate Orwell's point that, in any form of government, someone is in power and someone has the money. Which group that is may change, but somebody's got the goods. To believe otherwise is to have an overly idealistic concept of human nature. Folks are folks.
Note: This is the first book I had Amazon's Alexa read aloud to me, and I think I was a greater fan of it than she was. Not only did she read mechanically, with odd emphases, but every 15-30 minutes she'd just stop altogether and switch to THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA.
 That's the update! Next on the BPRC list is Uncle Tom's Cabin. Alexa may be struggling through that for the next six months...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge

You've heard of the Goodreads Challenge. I participate every year (but this may only be my third year--can't recall), but I do wish Goodreads tracked a category for books readers attempted but abandoned. You can only delete them or mark them as "read." The former might lead to you trying the same lousy book again, as middle-aged forgetfulness creeps up on you, and the latter just isn't true. All of which to say is, I "read" 125+ books last year, completing my challenge, but at least five of those were dumped books, and by "dumped" I mean I gave up usually before I hit the 5% mark.

Anyhow, I signed up for the Goodreads Challenge again in 2017 but thought I'd add my own variation to it and invite any of you to come along.

Welcome to....the Bestseller Puzzle Reading Challenge!!!

This Christmas I gave my youngest a puzzle, which we worked on together.

Very fun puzzle, and fascinating to see how many bestsellers I'd never read. Historically speaking, not every bestseller turns into a classic, but seeing which stand the test of time is too tempting to resist.

If you're a reading addict like me, this challenge won't be too daunting because you've probably already knocked off many of the titles. Which are (if you can't see them in the little picture):

  1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. (Done. Read it a couple years ago.)
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. (I should get credit for reading this about 800 times because I have three children.)
  3. Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare. (Done in high school and again in grad school. Plus, I've seen it in movies and live several times--NOT THAT THAT COUNTS IN THIS CHALLENGE.)
  4. Return to Peyton Place by Grace Metallious. (My book club read the original Peyton Place, and it was not high literature by any means. I may not get to this one for a while.)
  5. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. (Another new one! I saw five minutes of the Maggie Smith movie, but again THAT COUNTS FOR NOTHING IN THIS CHALLENGE.)
  6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (I've only read a couple of these. Should be fun and annoying because Holmes is fun and annoying.)
  7. Sanctuary by William Faulkner. (I have a love/hate relationship with Faulkner. I love As I Lay Dying and I've abandoned his incomprehensible The Sound and the Fury.)
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by the non-senile Harper Lee. (I think we can all safely cross this one off.)
  9. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales edited by Maria Tatar. (Ooh! I put the library edition on hold for this one, since it's illustrated.)
  10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. (Read this in grad school. Once is enough.)
  11. Bare Fists by Marshall R. Hall. (This one may actually be the last to be completed. The story was published in a pulp magazine, and I bet I'll have to visit a library collection to see it.)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (Check.)
  13. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (Check check.)
  14. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Check. Thanks, book club!)
  15. The Case of the Lucky Loser by Erle Stanley Gardner. (Boom! The library has it. Thanks, KCLS.)
  16. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (Check. Great book, apart from Lucy Manet's ditherings.)
  17. The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. (Just read it and it was fabulous!)
  18. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (Looking forward to it.)
  19. Animal Farm by George Orwell. (Somehow, growing up in California, neither Orwell book got assigned in high school. Now's my chance to correct that deficiency.)
  20. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. (Check.)
  21. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. (Read the play in college, saw the Liz Taylor version, bought the t-shirt. Done.)
  22. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. (If you look carefully at the picture, you'll see Black Beauty somehow made it into the puzzle twice. What the heck? Does that mean I have to read it twice? I'm pretty sure I already have. I even remember my older sister crying over it.)
  23. Stuart Little by E. B. White. (Check.)
  24. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (I'm guessing the dumb-show version in The King and I doesn't count.)
  25. The Little Red Hen by ??? (The name is blocked out, but I've read all about this little red hen and understand her ungenerous mindset after years of slaving away for my ungrateful children.)
  26. The Godfather by Mario Puzo. (Could it be anywhere as good as the movie?)
  27. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. (I have high hopes the book will be so awful it's wonderful. Rather like the movie version.)
  28. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. (Sci-fi is a genre I am discovering in my middle age, and this one's so famous it's a shame I haven't yet read it.)
  29. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. (This whole book challenge is so phony.)
  30. Jaws by Peter Benchley. (Great fun.)
  31. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. (East of Eden is still my favorite of his.)
  32. Love Story by Erich Segal. (Yay! Can't wait!)
  33. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells. (Which explains why Ralph Ellison called his novel Invisible Man, with no definite article.)
  34. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. (Why did Peter get to bring his cat???)
  35. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. (Just read it a few months ago, to see if my teenage son might like it. Uh...doubtful.)
  36. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. (H. G.! Stop spinning out the bestsellers! Give someone else a chance!)
  37. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. (It's hard to read books after you've seen an adaptation with Whoopie Goldberg, but I'll give it a shot.)
  38. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. (All it takes is one year of gardening and a rabbit eating your sugar snap peas, and you will be firmly in Mr. MacGregor's camp.)
  39. The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock. (Ooh! A period piece!)
  40. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. (Check.)
  41. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. (Check. Good book.)
  42. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. (Check.)
  43. The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley. (Who knew it was a book?)
  44. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. (Very dated, but we listened to the audio book and cringed our way through.)
  45. 1984 by George Orwell. (See #19 comment.)
  46. Heidi by Johanna Spyri. (I used to think the midday snack Heidi and Peter shared was the tastiest thing imaginable.)
  47. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. (The rare case where it takes less time to read the book than to watch the movie(s)!)
  48. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. (You can tell it's written by a man because no woman on the planet would breastfeed a grown man, even for the literary symbolism of it all.)
  49. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. (A wonderful book that has never had justice done to it in film.)
  50. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Ditto.)
  51. Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (Strangely, a follow-up book to #6, but with a shorter title that makes you think the other one should be the follow-up.)
  52. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, because, at this stage in the game, you need a freebie, and you already read this one at #22.
  53. The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett. (Loved this. Loved her A Little Princess more, but this one was right up there.)
So there you have it! How many can you cross off, right off the bat? I've got 32 of 53 out of the way, which is the ideal way to start off a reading challenge, and the next BPRC book loaded on my Kindle is Erich Segal's Love Story. Whee!

Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Your 2016 Christmas Book List

Sorry this is late going out. It's been another busy reading year, and I didn't hit many contemporary fiction books I just loved (though I picked some--scroll down), but if you have nonfiction fans on your Buy list, there are some goodies out there...

For the art history fan:

This book alternates between one man's discovery of what he believes is a lost Velazquez painting, and art history/appreciation discussions of Velazquez himself and his existing, accepted works. For the right type of reader, this book is unputdownable, and on my last trip to NYC I dragged everyone to the Met to see their Juan de Pareja:

For the hypochondriac or the person who just loves to talk health:

Even before I read this book I was a yearly-mammogram resister and managed to wheedle my doctor into letting me slide every other year. After reading this book, I might work up the courage to bargain for every three years. Basically, the doctor/author's thesis is that there's a lot more uncertainty in medicine than folks will let on. A lot more false positives, a lot more stringency, leading to unintended consequences, a lot more unnecessary suffering on the patient's part. There's lots of data, but I didn't find it too technical.

For the person who considered moving to France after Trump was elected:

A fun memoir about the man who started the Breakfast in America restaurant chain in Paris. France basically puts the euro in Bureaucracy, and Carlson's adventures in business-owning and labor management will make you vow never to go as anything other than a tourist. Chances are, if Donald Trump struck terror into your fantasizing Francophile, that person won't be put off by Carlson's gay relationship, about which he is quite puppyish and a little cornball.

For the history-lover who only wants to visit France as a tourist:

I'm a David McCullough fan, having loved his Panama Canal and Johnstown flood books, and this one was no exception. I read it right before a whirlwind trip to Paris, so we were able to visit some of the places featured in the book. McCullough focuses on lesser-known Americans visiting the City of Lights, if you count James Fenimore Cooper and that senator who got beat-up in Congress as lesser known, along with medical students and artists. I stood outside Cooper's house near the Invalides and found the room in the Louvre which Samuel Morse painted:

<strong>Buyenlarge</strong> Gallery of The Louvre by Samuel F.B. Morse Painting Print
If your gift-receiver doesn't like looking at maps and illustrations, avoid this book. I ended up reading with a map alongside, but mainly because I wanted to do a self-guided walking tour.

For the Midwesterner/sport fisherman/ecologist:

I absolutely loved this book, a fascinating history of the Great Lakes that didn't end in the usual ecological hand-wringing, although there was plenty to wring my hands over as it went along.

Egan is a charming, funny, accessible writer who talks to all sorts without judgment, and he makes a winning advocate for these irreplaceable natural wonders. Explorers, politicians, fisherman, and citizens parade through this book--even Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother, Caroline Quiner Lake Ingalls, gets a mention! Having only seen Lake Michigan once when I was nine, I'm looking forward to another visit.

For those history-lovers feeling nostalgic after our tumultuous election:

I went on a miniature Kennedy kick this year, picking up the book on JFK in WWII because I love survival books, and being inspired by that wonderful read to pick up the Goodwin bio I bought my husband last Christmas. In a way it was fitting because Goodwin's book leaves off before JFK gets elected. As long as it was, it left me wishing for a sequel, to catch us up to date. Tell me about JFK's assassination! Tell me about JFK Jr and his plane crash! Tell me about Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger! Oh, well. One word of warning on the Goodwin bio: it's old, so make sure your recipient doesn't already have it on the shelf!

For the memoir fan:

I'm not into Hollywood star memoirs because they don't seem to have much interesting or original to say when they open their mouths in general, so no recommendations in that direction. But one of the few memoirs I read this year was this very moving one about an orthodox Jewish family struggling with an autistic son. Lots of tears and wisdom and love.

For the historical fiction fan:

It's a tie. Although I liked Euphoria better, a love triangle set among anthropologists, loosely inspired by Margaret Mead. I especially appreciate how author Lily King made her extensive research seamless in the background and didn't barf it out all over us, as historical fiction writers are wont to do.

Not that Sue Monk Kidd falls into that trap either, although her scenery (the antebellum, slave-owning South) creaks more. The story alternates between a fictional slave girl and the historical Sarah Grimke, who grew up in Charleston but became a women's-rights and abolition activist along with her sister.

That's all for this year! Hope something on this list will cross someone off of yours...

Thursday, October 6, 2016

I am the A-L-E-X-A-N-D E-R We Are Meant to Be

Oh, man. If I told you how much we spent to see HAMILTON on Broadway, you'd think we were pretty extravagant and that our kids must not be college-bound, so please do remind us, when our kids are shacked up in our basement ten years from now and still working for minimum wage that this was so worth it.

We packed our two days in NYC, joined by dear friends from way back in graduate school, which meant it was a trip full of highlights. And seeing HAMILTON was the highlight of the highlight reel. That's how awesome it was.

 Lit Night is just a month away! In case you don't plan on draining your 401k to get back to New York before then, there's still time to listen to the soundtrack, watch some YouTube videos, and even plow through the Ron Chernow biography, a Mount Everest of biographies you will feel duly triumphant over when you reach the last page.

We paid a visit to Trinity Church near the New York Stock Exchange the afternoon of the show, and while I neglected to find Hamilton's grave because we were on the wrong side of the churchyard, I did chance upon this marker for Angelica Schuyler!


BTW, if you ever want your tombstone to last more than three hundred years, I recommend you pony up for the deep engraving and don't cheap out on the kind of stone that sloughs off, as many of the buried did. Sadly, the main part of the church building was locked, so we could only stroll outside and down the street, where, at "Federal Hall" a statue of Washington marks the spot where he was inaugurated.

As for the show, we were bummed to miss many of the original cast members but happy to report that the new Angelica and new Aaron Burr are fabulous, and our musician friends called the show "well-produced" with "tight" music and effects. Neither of them had read the book or listened to the soundtrack ahead of time, and they still followed it, loved it and wished their kids could see it too.

One unexpectedly poignant moment came when George Washington was singing about leaving office after two terms and going home to Mount Vernon, saying of the new nation, "The scripture says they will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid." Well, we had just come from spending the afternoon at the 9/11 Museum at the World Trade Center, where Americans were pretty much sitting under their own vine and fig tree, and, on that day, we had been made very afraid indeed. (Excellent, if emotionally exhausting museum. I highly recommend.)

Wonderful country we live in. Can't wait for this musical to become so old-hat that every high school can mount a production and we can all catch it any time. In the meantime, my kids got t-shirts and a HAMILTON cup. It's not a college education, but hey.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Native Sons: Literary Night 2016

For those of you looking for some good, themed reading, here's the heads-up on this year's Literary Night. A month to go! Plenty of time to read two of the three books.


I've had a ball re-reading Richard Wright's powerful Native Son and Philipp Meyer's almost equally enthralling (if over-sexed) The Son. Great stuff about America--who owns it, who inherits it, who belongs, what gets passed on. Issues especially interesting in this testy election year.

We'll also be talking about HAMILTON, mainly the musical, although I did wade through the most excellent bio by Ron Chernow, as has Scott. (I'd recommend that book to you, too, if you have a few months of dedicated reading time to spare. It's about as long as Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Wonderful stuff.) I'm excited to say Scott and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary two years late by going to New York City to see the musical live and in-person. The big stars may be gone, but judging from video of a high-school version I've seen, the show shines no matter who's performing it. Can't wait! (If I don't get lazy, I'll post about it later.)

And then there's The Godfather, Parts I and II, which will get some air time. More "native sons" making their way in America.

Hope you can join us this year. And, seriously, if you're wondering what to read next, give Wright and Meyer a spin.