Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

When Edith was feeling low like this, baking a pie had never failed to make her happy. Like how some people talk about yoga or mountain climbing or music, it was how she lost herself and touched something else. It was her church away from church. It wouldn’t solve any problems, but it might make her and a few people forget them for a while, and that was something.

She stocked up on ingredients at Cub Foods. She took out the last of the canned rhubarb from Lucy, and used the fancy lard from Block’s Provisions, that expensive and tiny store on Hennepin. She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.

51a2My+6uGLI’ve found my leading contender so far for favorite book of the year. I know there’s a lot of year left, so I’m leaving the door open for something else to come in and touch me more than J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. But it had better be darn good, because I’d give this book more stars if Goodreads would let me.

Lager Queen is about sisters and pie, and yes, beer. It alternates points of view between three characters: sisters Edith and Helen, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana. Helen is an unlikely sort of young woman in the 1960s, who figures out that she wants to make beer, and she knows she’d be good at it. Her older sister Edith is the settled one, the dependable one, the one who Helen says “putting cake frosting on a bran muffin” is her idea of fun. When their father gives all the money from the sale of the family farm to Helen to help start her beer making venture, Edith and her sister stop talking, and the silence only gets louder and louder over fifty years. Year later, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, who Edith has to help finish raising after a terrible accident, exhibits both Helen’s fiery spirit and her grandmother’s practicality. But after getting caught making some very questionable choices, she is given a new opportunity to find something she’s good at, and it’s closer to her great-aunt’s path than she could ever guess.

This book just hummed with authentic characters and believable dialogue, two of my criteria for good fiction. J.Ryan Stradal has a gift for creating characters the reader cares about, people who aren’t perfect but are fully dimensional and whose actions are credible. And just like his first book, Kitchen of the Great Midwest (which I loved,) featured some killer foodie scenes, this one is filled with interesting and zingy writing about beer. I’m not a beer drinker but I almost wish I was reading these sentences.

The four examples of IPAs were meant to break Diana’s brain open about the possibilities of what an IPA can do, but these beers were too far beyond her comprehension.

Her first, second, and third impression of each IPA steamrolled her ignorant palate; drinking them was like losing a boxing match to become a better boxer. It’s unfair, she thought, that whatever the hell she’d made would be called beer, on a planet where these beers existed. They her feel terminally bewildered.

Other sentences I loved:

“Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places.”

“It was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history, but Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.”

All three women go through a lot over the course of the book, which feels like real life too, with loss, disappointments, and victories big and small over the years. By the time the end comes around you can feel all the threads coming together, only you’re not sure if it’s all going to end the way you want it to. I’ll say this: it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time, and I totally bawled. It’s the kind of book I’m tempted to immediately read again, but I can’t because it’s a library copy and people are waiting on it! And then I had the thought that I need to buy Kitchens of the Great Midwest and read that again. So I guess I’m a J. Ryan Stradal-head now. This is one of those books that I am sure I can’t do justice to in a review, so I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly loved it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

 

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

In Mississippi that summer we suffered more than 1000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, and 30 bombings. Doctors who evaluated volunteers returning home from Freedom Summer describes the symptoms of the emotional and physical toll as “battle fatigue,” marking a “crisis in the  lives of those youths who experience them.”

March: Book 3 is a marvel. I read Books 1 and 2 back in 2016 (review of Book 2 here) and loved them. They gave me a window into what it was like to put your body and life on the line for the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, how horrible the violence and hatred that met these young people was, and also gave me a new respect for what a true hero Representative John Lewis is.  I didn’t read the concluding volume when it came out because demand was high at my library and there were few copies. And then it got lost in the shuffle – you know how that goes. I’m so glad I chose to finally finish the series. Book 3 is another enlightening, moving gem, focusing specifically on the push for African Americans’ right to vote in the South, ultimately leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Opening with the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls, the graphic memoir next explores the ways in which Southern whites prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote, through intimidation, literacy tests, threats to their jobs and homes, or any other whim that the local Registrar of Voters could come up with. Lewis’s work as leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) along with others like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, coordinating marches, sit-ins, and protests across the Deep South to enforce voting rights was met at every turn with violence, intimidation, and police brutality.

The graphic novel format is the perfect medium to tell this story because it makes the violence and hatred feel so visceral and terrifying. Some brave young activists, white and black alike, were killed in the line of duty and their killers were never brought to justice. I hope this series is taught in high schools across America – until we truly know and confront our past we can’t hope to make progress against the deep strain of racism still alive and well in our country. I wish I had read something like this when I was in school so that I would have been aware of what the Civil Rights heroes were up against. These events seem far away sometimes, but my mother was a little girl when all of this occurred – it really wasn’t that long ago. Some people in power today were young people growing up steeped in the segregated culture of hate and violence.

The brutal, televised beatings of non-violent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis included, forced the rest of America to finally look at the brutality enforced by state and local governments in the South.  March portrays President Lyndon Johnson as a sympathetic, if at times halting and measured, ally of the cause. The political maneuverings of 1963-1965 were interesting but not as compelling as the stories of the activists fighting for justice on the streets. When we finally get to the end of the volume, back in the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, it feels bittersweet, knowing how many people who worked for equality didn’t make it to see that great day.

In short, this series is phenomenal and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t ever read graphic novels or graphic memoirs. What a gift this series is.

Have you read this series? What other histories, biographies, or memoirs of Civil Rights heroes would you recommend?

BRL Best Books of 2018

Some of you may remember that I keep a paper book journal in addition to my Goodreads account for book tracking. When I read a book that particularly moves me I give it a star in my paper journal, which equals a five-star rating on Goodreads. As I looked over my 2018 reading I realized that TWENTY books had rated a star this year! So I had some choices to make as it came time to make my Top Ten List for the year. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2018. (Note: I’m a huge backlist reader so not all of these books were published this year.)

In no particular order:

  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016). This was a life-affirming, uplifting audio book that truly inspired me. I learned a lot about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and how each man approaches life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974.) Set in Ireland in WWI, this beautifully written novella explores the growing friendship between a young member of the landed gentry and one of the workers on his family’s estate as they both set off to fight in the war. Truly moving with a devastating ending.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018.) Just a gorgeous, emotionally probing book about two people who fell in love with the best of intentions – and then life throws them a horrific curveball that reverberates for years. It’s a beautifully told relationship story with well-drawn, believable characters. Unforgettable.
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015.) What a surprise! A book that had been on my TBR list for a few years and I’m so glad I decided to read it. It was one of those absorbing reads that made me want to ignore my family for a few days. Linked short stories, all centering in some way around the character of Eva, a young woman in Minnesota with a passion and a gift for cooking. Foodies will love it, but anyone who just wants a good story will enjoy it too.
  • Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016.) The BEST AUDIO BOOK I’VE EVER LISTENED TO. Funny, surprising, illuminating, moving. I learned so much about South African history through this story of Noah’s unlikely existence. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would read (or listen to) again for sure.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956.) This novel is exquisitely written and emotionally tough. A portrait of a man utterly in denial about who he truly is. David, a young, rootless, white American living in Paris in the 1950’s, has a fiancee he’s running away from when he meets a handsome Italian waiter and falls in love. His denial sets off a tragic chain of events for everyone involved. Baldwin is a genius! I intend to read everything he’s written.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018.) I recently wrote about this one, but it’s just a gem of a nonfiction book, about the importance of libraries today and Orlean’s emotional connection to them through her late mother, as well as a gripping true-crime account of the devastating library fire in L.A.’s Central Library in 1986. Lots going on here, but Orlean weaves all the strands together beautifully.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017.) That rare super-hyped novel that is worthy of all the praise. What starts off as a quirky portrait of a lonely young woman who doesn’t connect well with other human beings becomes a moving and warm-hearted novel about unexpected connections and the capacity for change and growth. A lovely book that I will definitely read again someday.
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2018, first published in Canada and the UK 2017.) Not one word wasted in this slim but powerful novel about two brothers growing up in a poor, multi-cultural part of Toronto in the 1980’s. There is tragedy here but there is also terrific beauty and great love, especially in the character of the boys’ Trinidadian immigrant mother, who works herself to the bone to provide for her sons and tried to give them a better life. I just adored this.
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018.) Another book I recently read and can’t stop talking about – thank you Oprah! Hinton’s ridiculous sham of a trial for crimes he didn’t commit will make you angry, and his emotional journey living on death row in Alabama for 30 years will move you, inspire you, and make you question your beliefs about the death penalty.

51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Honorable Mention: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (2017.)  Linked short stories, a companion piece to Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Spare prose and heartbreaking, real characters in small town middle America. Strout is a hell of a writer.

 It’s been such a good reading year. Have you read any of the books on my list? Do any of these pique your interest?

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.