Mini Reviews: Force of Nature by Jane Harper and Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

As usual my reading pace is way ahead of my blog posting, so here are some quick mini reviews as I try to catch up!

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #2.) A solid, enjoyable, page-turning 9182oC-vCTLmystery. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are investigating money laundering when their informant goes missing in the Australian bush on a company-sponsored wilderness retreat. As she did in her debut, The Dry, Harper excels at atmosphere, with the dense mountain foliage and isolation of the setting practically becoming a character in the novel itself. I like that we get a little more of a glimpse into Aaron Falk’s past, specifically more of a focus on his fraught relationship with his late father. But there is still a lot to learn about Falk, and I’m still curious. I also think the light glimmer of a spark with his partner is intriguing. The specifics of the mystery plot are well-written, although perhaps one might have to suspend one’s disbelief a bit to buy the circumstances in which the woman goes missing. If you can do that, you will enjoy the second in this series. I look forward to the next one! Four Stars.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. How to describe this weird, magical book? I read this in earlyMr-Fox-Helen-Oyeyemi-Penguin April for my book group, although we were just able to meet last weekend to discuss. We all loved it. A riff on the Bluebeard fairy tale, if I had to summarize it briefly I’d say that Mr. Fox, an author, and his muse, the fictional (or is she?) Mary, write stories back and forth to one another. Mary wants Mr. Fox to stop writing misogynistic stories about women. Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, is jealous of Mary and despairs about her marriage until she, too, begins writing herself into the story. I think that this book is about two things: the role of women in fiction and the challenges of vulnerable and equal romantic relationships. I’m not sure which one Oyeyemi is really emphasizing. But what resonated with me more was the love story between Mr. Fox and Daphne, and I have to say that the end left me with hope. This is one of those books that still perplexes me and challenges me, and I’d like to reread it again someday and try to puzzle it out some more. Four-and-a-half Stars.

Have you read either of these? Do they pique your interest?

 

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Classics Club Spin #17: The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker by Maeve Brennan #ccspin

Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.

Even after more than twenty-five years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a “real” New Yorker. If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. As a traveler she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. She is not a sightseer, never an explorer… She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition.

51auvQaKFML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My first Classics Club Spin (I joined back in February) was a mixed bag. The late Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan intrigues me, so I am glad that I read her collection of essays about living in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker. These were originally published as pieces in the magazine for which she worked for more than 30 years as as staff writer. I found the experience of reading the collection in a few weeks’ time to be challenging, despite its short length. I tried to space them out by reading one or two a day at the most, but they still started to blend together for me. Many of them are set in restaurants, observations of the people eating and drinking and the staff. Many of them are about buildings being torn down in favor of “progress.” There is a palpable sense of transience about the collection as a whole, of a city in flux, a time of great social change. Most of the essays are indeed about small moments between two people, whether between people Brennan observes or between Brennan and someone else.

Brennan is a talented observer and chronicler of human foibles and quirks. She has a way with words. In one piece I liked, “Balzac’s Favorite Food,” she writes of peacefully browsing a book shop, just starting to read about something that Balzac would mix into sardines that he mashed on bread, when she was interrupted by a group of obnoxious interlopers.

…I took off my glasses to get a look at them. Cruelty and Stupidity and Bad Noise – there were three of them, a man and a woman and another, but I did not see the third, who was hidden behind the tall spindle bookcase they were all looking at and making merry over. They called out names and titles, and made a lot of feeble puns, ruining the place for everybody, and I paid for the books I had under my arm, and left. I walked over to Le Steak de Paris and asked for sardines and plain bread, but when I began to mash the sardines, I couldn’t remember what it was that Balzac used to mix them with. It didn’t matter. Sardines with plain bread are very good. I said to myself that there was no use thinking about the hyenas in the bookshop. Their capacity for arousing violence will arouse somebody who is violent one of these days.

She decides she will go back to the bookshop that night, find the book, and before the night is through she will know precisely how Balzac’s favorite food tastes.

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121 Charles St.

Another essay I liked, one that sent me off the Google to do some research, is “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown.” And old farmhouse, really old, like 200 years old, was about to be torn down for a nursing home, so the then owners decided to save it and move it by truck to the Village! (It still stands today, as far as I can tell, and you can read about it here and here if you like. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and other children’s books, once lived there!)

It was a very tiny house – much smaller than I had expected. That must have been a very small farmer who built it. It was sitting up high on a sturdy cage or raft, of heavy wooden beams, on a wedge-shaped, weedy lot, with the old brick warehouses towering over it like burly nursemaids. It was a crooked little house – askew on its perch but crooked anyway – and it looked as plain and as insubstantial as a child’s chalk drawing, but it was a real house, with a real door, and a flat roof with a chimney sticking out of it.

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Image from The Guardian

 

But by far my favorite essay was “I Wish For A Little Street Music” (1968) which starts out bemoaning the humdrum and depressing state of the people along Broadway. (“I thought to myself: All these people are sheep, and I am a sheep.”) But then she spies a middle-aged father and teenage son reunion that tugs at the heart strings (and me me absolutely BAWL, I might add!)

The father stared admiringly up at his son, hearing every word, and you could see that what he longed for was to have the chance, just once again, to pick his child up and walk a few steps with him in his arms. And it would have taken very little to cause that boy to embrace his father and whirl him around in the air. What a funny trick Time had played on those two – or was it a trick of Light that made the son so big while the father remained the size he had been? It was as thought some cameraman had enlarged a picture of the child and left the father life-size. 

…Maybe they went to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. That is a nice place, especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that at a little distance there are no sheep on Broadway.

So while I did enjoy the essays, and some of them very much, overall I felt relieved when I finished the collection. This is probably more to do with the time constraints of having to get this read and written about by the end of April for The Classics Club than flaws in the material itself. If I’d spread this collection out for a few months instead of weeks I may have ended up giving it a higher rating. So I hope that if you are at all interested in essays about New York City, if you want a glimpse into what it may have been like (for a professional white woman) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if you are a fan of Brennan’s fiction, then please do give this one a try. There is much here to admire.

 

 

 

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Is this what’s become of me? A woman who gawks like a guppy at an every day lunch hour? A visitor from another world, awed by the miracle of a new grocery store? Deep within my dry-iced brain, something throbs, something angry and vanquished. A flush sunrises in my cheeks. This is what’s become of me. This is who I am.

Sometimes what you need is a purely escapist thriller. A don’t-think-too-hard-about-it, page-turning suspense novel. Something you can finish in 2 or 3 days, even with work and family and hard things going on in your life. I greedily gobbled up A.J. Finn’s best-selling debut, The Woman in the Window, grateful for the respite from reality. (It’s hugely popular in the U.S. right now – my library system has a wait list over 200 people long, usually reserved for the likes of John Grisham and James Patterson. I must have put my name down relatively early I guess!)

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az8458JDs9D0t2hphI9KAc!+WsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuAnna Fox is severely agoraphobic, a virtual prisoner in her New York City home. She has a physical therapist and a psychiatrist who come over weekly to tend to her. She orders food (but mostly wine) online. She plays chess and takes French lessons online too. A former psychiatrist herself, she gives mental health advice to her fellow agoraphobics on an online chat room dedicated to the condition. She speaks to and about her family, husband Ed and daughter Olivia, who don’t live with her in the home. We don’t know what’s happened, but hints are dropped bit by bit that something terrible has happened, something for which Anna has blamed herself and that has resulted in the lonely half-life she currently lives.

Oh, and she also obsessively watches her neighbors through her camera lens. When she becomes acquainted with the new family who has moved in across the park, the Russells, crazy things start happening. Anna witnesses a gruesome act of violence through her window, but she can’t get anyone to believe her or corroborate her tale – not the police, not the Russells themselves. A heavy drinker and liberal mixer of medication and alcohol, Anna starts to doubt herself. The reader is taken along with Anna as she tries to prove that what she saw was real and that more people – including Anna herself – are in very real danger.

So we’ve got an addicted, possibly unreliable narrator as we did in Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, but I have to say that Finn’s writing elevated this novel over that one in my mind. Also, Anna is a much more sympathetic character than Rachel was, and as the novel goes along we get a glimpse into the truly devastating event that changed everything for her. I wanted Anna to quit mixing her wine and her meds already and rejoin the world, but I can’t say that I blamed her when I found out what happened. Still, I rooted for her.

I seem to have a weakness for these big, splashy thrillers that “everyone” is reading. I LOVED Gone Girl, really liked both of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve read, and thought that Paula Hawkins’s follow-up, Into the Water, was even better than Girl on the Train. I have to say that I think it’s best to approach these books with the mindset of fun and escapism, and not try to deconstruct or look too closely at the undercarriage. Maybe it was my distracted frame of mind, but there was a twist in this one that I did NOT see coming. There was one red herring that I did guess, or at the least my radar was alarmed by and had confirmed by the end.

I recommend The Woman in the Window if you’re a fan of thrillers, or if you’re just in the mood for a page-turning read. Also, side bonus: Anna is a huge fan of classic movies, especially Hitchcock films. (There’s a Rear Window vibe to this book for sure.) There are a ton of films referenced in the novel, and it reminded me again how many of his films I’ve not yet watched. In fact, I ordered Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version) from my library to watch later this week. I don’t know that this book is one that will stay with me for long, but it was just what I needed to sink my teeth into recently. It would be a very good poolside read for the summer. 4 stars.

What’s the last escapist/page-turning book you read? Talk to me!

 

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.

51XDqHOJJGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.

Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.

If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.

The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.

Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.

See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.

From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.

Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!

I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.

Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!

BRL Quarterly Report # 10

It’s the end of March, which means it’s time for a Quarterly Report!

Big Reading Life Quarterly Report (1)Books Read (Jan-Mar): 26

Fiction: 20

Nonfiction: 6

Audio: 3 (The Book of Joy – Dalai Lama XIV and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein, and Hallelujah Anyway – Anne Lamott.)

Chapter Books/Middle Grade: 6

YA/Teen: 0

Authors of Color: 5

Published in 2018: 1 (The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory – review yet to come.)

Faves This Quarter: Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout, The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce, How Many Miles to Babylon – Jennifer Johnston, The Book of Joy – Dalai Lama XIV and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Last American Man – Elizabeth Gilbert (review forthcoming!)

Thoughts: On the Read Books I Own Goal, which was to read at least one book a month from my own unread stacks, I’m killing it! 🙂 I’ve read 7 so far. I am confident I can read 5 more by the end of the year, and fairly confident I will read more than that!

My audio books were all nonfiction, and that’s pretty representative of my audio books in general. I just focus better with nonfiction on audio for some reason. (Although I have had some great experiences with children’s fiction on audio.) My podcast addiction (utterly insatiable!) means that I don’t devote much time to audio books.

I’m not really feeling YA books right now. Not that I ever felt them that much to begin with, ha ha!

I am counting the books I read with my son in my yearly reading totals. The chapter books, anyway. (We still read picture books too.) I read them aloud to him at night before he falls asleep. We read the two Charlie books by Roald Dahl and now we’re steaming through The Magic Tree House series!

It’s been a great reading quarter, with only one two-star read. That was the last of the Elena Ferrante quartet, The Story of the Last Child.  It was disappointing, considering how well I liked the other three. Every other book this quarter rated three stars or better. Oh, and I joined The Classics Club! I’ve read and reviewed one book (Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train) and thought it was most enjoyable.

How has your first three months of the year been with respect to reading? If you made goals, are you making progress? Any surprises so far this year, or have you been following your usual reading patterns? Talk to me in the comments.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

27746288I finished Goodbye, Vitamin on a screened-in porch on Folly Beach, South Carolina. I didn’t read very much on my vacation. Something about taking a vacation with a family group makes my attention feel very scattered, and I only picked up my books sporadically. But this is a short novel, and I was already a third of the way into it when we left for the beach. I was determined to finish at least one book while I was there. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’m tempted to pick it up again.

Naomi, Deepika, and other bloggers I follow have read and reviewed this one favorably, so I knew I would probably enjoy it, despite the heavy subject matter. Fresh from a really tough break-up with her fiance, Joel, and at an impasse with her career, Ruth comes home (for a year) to help her mom care for her dad, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her dad, a former college professor and recovering alcoholic, is still under the impression he’s teaching classes because some of his students get together and take a fake “class” at various locations so that he’s not miserable. Ruth has a complicated relationship with all of her family members, including her younger brother Linus. In years past, her dad cheated on her mom and then there’s the whole alcoholism thing. But Ruth kind of idolized her father despite all of this, and seeing him decline is heartbreaking.

This sounds like a tremendous bummer. But somehow the mood of the book is never too sentimental or depressing. It’s quirky, because Ruth has a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone, and she is always including these odd little observations of her new strange life that have nothing to do with her family. For instance,

I see, walking on the other side of the street today, a man with enormous pecs. They look as inflated as popcorn bags right after microwaving.

The phrase “born humans” is what I think of whenever I see someone wildly different than me.

Fetal circulation is different from that of born humans. Fetuses have fine hair all over them that born humans don’t have. Fetuses do a thing like breathing that isn’t actually breathing – the motions develop their lungs. They take their first breath  when they’re born and that’s when the whole system changes incredibly: unborn to born.

We’re born humans, I think, about the huge-pec’ed man. With our functioning circulatory systems. Breathing, walking, having real hair. Just look at us.

Ruth is also slowly working her way back into life after the devastating breakup. She is on the verge of being detached, but this is probably a coping mechanism of her situation, I think. Her father gives her a book that he kept when she was little, where he wrote down the cute little things she said and did. That in and of itself is enough to trigger my tear ducts! But then, near the end of the book, Ruth starts keeping a book for her dad of the comical/strange things he says and does. When I realized this, I absolutely BURST into tears. I wailed and said to my husband, who was sitting on the porch next to me, “I don’t know if I can take this!” But I was so close to finishing I pressed on.  It’s a terribly crappy and unfair situation, one that everyone knows won’t have a happy ending. But in concentrating on the little things and living in the present moment every day, Ruth and her family come together in very moving and realistic ways.

In the end I am glad I read this. It was something I wouldn’t have picked up without the recommendation of bloggers I trust. I’m a sensitive reader, I cry easily, and sometimes I tend to shield myself from sad books. This one was really moving and tender without being maudlin or manipulative. I appreciate that so much. Writing this review made me start to cry again, just thinking about Ruth and her dad. Rachel Khong is a talented author who has created a family I didn’t necessarily want to join but one that I definitely believed and cared for. Four stars, sad but worth it.

 

Break Time!

Hi friends! Just a short note to say that I am taking a week off from the blog, and hopefully from social media in general. It’s my son’s Spring Break and we’re going to have adventures together. I’m going to try and unplug from social media as best as I can! Wish me well, I’m a bit addicted, I admit!

colorful-chairs-free-beach-wallpapers-beach-backgrounds-587fb9eb5f9b584db31f75d4I’ll see you lovely bookish unicorns in a week or so! Happy Reading!