#20BooksofSummer Wrap-Up

Well, since September is nearly halfway finished, it’s high time I shared a wrap-up of my 20 Books of Summer experience!  In my second year of participating in this reading challenge, hosted by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books, I stretched my wings a bit and tried to read 20 books instead of last year’s 10.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I thought.  Well, I don’t regret it, but I failed to read all 20 titles.  Despite swapping out several titles (to include book group picks and Anne of Green Gables Readalong that I’d forgotten) I still couldn’t stick to the list, and ended up with 14 books.

I’m not discouraged, though!  Being a staunch mood reader, I pretty much knew sticking to a list was impossible.  I knew the number of books would be a stretch too, since I do watch some television and have a job and a kid and sometimes I want to do yoga at night and just WHEN am I supposed to write these blog posts?!?  So I think I did pretty well considering.  I reviewed all 14, which I think deserves a gold star, or at least an extra piece of chocolate!  🙂

Here’s what I DIDN’T get to from my list (Note:  I did read Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which was AMAZING, but I didn’t finish it before the deadline of Sept. 3, and I still have to write my review…)

Books I didn't get to from 20 Books of summer

Expect a review of The Hate U Give soon!  (OMG I loved that book!)

I still plan on reading these.  I own five of them (the only one I’ll be borrowing from the library is The Cutting Season.)

So how did you do with 20 Books of Summer?  Is it challenging (or nearly impossible) for you to stick to a reading list, even one you make up yourself? Or do you do well with that kind of structure?  Will you participate in 20 Books of Summer next year?  Have you read any of the books from my list that I didn’t get to?  I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.

 

Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead (#20BooksofSummer 14)

Colson Whitehead intrigues me.  I’ve now read five of his books (I just have Zone One and his two nonfiction works, The Noble Hustle and The Colossus of New York, still to read.)  I read my first Whitehead novel, John Henry Days, somewhere back around 2001 or 2002, which feels like a million years ago.  I remember loving it and feeling moved by it, although the rest of the details are kinda fuzzy. (I really want to reread it.)  Whitehead’s writing is so smart, so cerebral and insightful and often wryly funny.  He fearlessly mashes up genres and challenges me, and I can’t stop wanting to read his work.

51qgfytS15L._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Apex Hides the Hurt is a quirky little book (212 pages) that felt a lot longer, unfortunately.  Our nameless protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” (irony!) who is hired to help figure out a new name for the town of Winthrop.  The three members of the city council are all pulling him in different directions.  The mayor, Regina Goode, is descended from the original black settlers of the town, who christened it Freedom.  Lucky Aberdeen, software CEO, wants to rebrand it New Prospera and bring in new people and new jobs.  And town eccentric, Albie Winthrop, is descended from the original Winthrop (a barbed-wire manufacturer) who renamed the town after himself.

Our hero is holed up in the Hotel Winthrop over a few days, drinking, talking to locals and conference goers, musing over his recent events in his life which have left him physically injured and jobless.  He engages in a rather funny war with the hotel’s cleaning woman over the state of his room.  We find out that, in his old job as a marketing wunderkind, he came up with the name for a brand of adhesive bandages that were made in various shades of brown and black, to match various ethnicities, called Apex.  We later find out how an Apex bandage figures into his injury and his breakdown.

Isn’t it great when you’re a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things?  He coughed into his sleeve.  Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it.  All those flying gliding things are just birds.  And etc.  Once we knew the name of it, how could we ever come to love it?  He told himself: What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name.  For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them.

This is an interesting book filled with clever observations, dazzling sentences, and quirky conversations.  But it never all came together for me.  I appreciated it.  I’m glad I read it, as I want to read everything Colson Whitehead writes.  But my predominant feeling upon finishing it was one of relief.  2.5 stars, rounded up to three.

Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery #AnneReadalong2017

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“Gilbert darling, don’t let’s ever be afraid of things.  It’s such dreadful slavery.  Let’s be daring and adventurous and expectant.  Let’s dance to meet life and all it can bring to us, even if it brings scads of trouble and typhoid and twins!”

68f9201c86e4a036de539fc195ea8766--anne-of-windy-poplars-large-housesAh, the power of low expectations!  I’d been warned by Melanie that the even-numbered books in this series weren’t as good as the odd ones.  Plus, my own experience with the second book made me set my bar pretty low for Anne of Windy Poplars.  How nice to be surprised!  I ended up really enjoying this and felt almost sad when I finished it.

Windy Poplars introduces a new kind of structure to the series, with many of the chapters in the form of letters from Anne to her beloved Gilbert Blythe.  I confess that when I read the first chapter I thought, “Dude, this chapter is too long to be an actual letter to someone!”  But then I just went with it and forgot about my minor quibble.  Anne tells Gilbert early on that he’ll only get a romantic letter from her when she has exactly the right kind of pen.  I am most grateful that we are spared the lovey-dovey stuff between Anne and Gilbert.  Call me a crank, go ahead!  This book is about Anne and her last years of being an independent,  single young lady. I can read all about shmoopy-ness in the next book (or so I hear!)

I didn’t know if I could take all the ridiculous Pringle business at first.  In fact, as I took notes during my reading I labeled two people “pills” and two others names that I won’t print here out of decency.  🙂  But Anne worked her innumerable charms (and wasn’t above a little innocent suggested blackmail) and turned around all the unfriendly and hostile Pringles and others in Summerside.  Two of my favorite victories of Anne’s were when she sat with the wheelchair-bound Mrs. Gibson, allowing Pauline to go to her friend’s wedding and enjoy a glorious day of freedom, and the matchmaking of Nora and Jim Wilcox.

I actually shed some tears when I read about poor Teddy Armstrong.  I could tear up just thinking about it now, his poor father all alone without a picture of his beloved little boy.  Finding his nephew Lewis brought some measure of peace but still it was a very sad event, the saddest so far in the series.

AnneOfWindyPoplarsI very much enjoyed Anne’s hosts, Aunt Chatty and Aunt Kate, and their no-nonsense housekeeper Rebecca Dew.  Rebecca’s funniest moment was when she grumbled, “Do you s’pose they’ll ask us at the judgement day how many petticoats we’ve got on?” and then went into the kitchen before anyone could comment.

I was left with a sense of melancholy when I finished the book, because I realized that this was the last installment before Anne and Gilbert get married.  Don’t get me wrong, I am all for their marriage.  It’s just that Anne is such an independent, strong, resourceful young woman in a time when most young women didn’t dare have dreams or independent lives beyond the hope of marriage and children.  Maybe I’m anxious because I’ve never read the series before and I just don’t know that Anne will retain her strong nature and not just become a mother to little “Davy and Dora”-type kids.  I want Anne to continue to solve problems and bring people together and charm people into doing what she wants!  Maybe those of you who have read this series before can soothe my fears on that score.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by Windy Poplars and would definitely consider reading it again someday. The epistolary nature grew on me, as did Anne’s (sometimes unlikely) propensity for matchmaking and solving people’s problems.  Four stars.

(This is book #13 of #20BooksofSummer.)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review.  I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year.  Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.22813605

I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation.  I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals.  I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.  I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are too very different things.

This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal.  Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve.  She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way.  She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.)  Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.

I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode.  I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.  

Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating.  She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going.  Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her.  She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life.  But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.

Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”)  She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events.  She is charming and insightful and very, very human.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.

Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay.  We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds.  Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her.  She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was.  I have let the right ones in.  I have found my voice.”  I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices.   This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir.  Five Stars.

 

Mini-reviews: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec (#20BooksofSummer 10 & 11)

So I’ve been needing to write these two reviews foreva.  What have I been doing so far tonight instead?  Watching videos of the band Cheap Trick on YouTube!  😀 It seems that my mom has hoodwinked me into going with her to see them play live in September at our area County Fair!  Before my YouTube explorations, I knew three Cheap Trick songs:  “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and “The Flame.”  So I guess I’m going to continue educating myself in preparation.  I just didn’t want her going by herself, you know?  And mercifully, it’s on a night that my husband has off, so he can care for our son.

25109947Now that I’ve had some caffeine and made myself sit down in front of my computer, let me tell you about Books 10 and 11 from my 20 Books of Summer List.  (Actually, Book 11 wasn’t on either of my lists, so shhhh!  Don’t tell anybody!)  Book 10 is Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.  It was a pick chosen by my book group last month.  I voted for it too, because it sounded promisingly weird and my fellow book group member who proposed it said that she loved it and no one else she knew had read it and she was dying to talk about it with people.  How could we refuse?

Goodreads Blurb: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.       

Verdict:  Three Stars.  (Maybe 2.75, honestly.)  I wanted to know why my book group mate liked this book so much, and oddly enough she praised the one thing that bothered me the most about this book:  character development.  I just didn’t really connect to or feel the authenticity of most of the characters in this novel.  I like weird, fantastical story lines, and I am open to supernatural and creepy plot developments, which this book has in abundance.  But I want my characters to feel real; I want to know enough about the inner workings of their minds to understand them.  And I just didn’t get that from this book.

What I did like about this book was the use of fantasy and horror to illustrate historical (and current) racial injustice in America.  For example, in one of the stories (oh yeah, this book is really a bunch of interrelated stories about a group of African Americans around Chicago in the 1950’s, not one long narrative, like I was anticipating…)  a black woman named Ruby drinks a potion that transforms her into a white woman temporarily.  As she inhabits this white body (which also happens to be beautiful) I loved reading her thoughts about the difference in how people treat her.

There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention.  She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.

What else comes with being you?

All in all, I’m glad I read it.  It wasn’t something I was likely to seek out on my own, but I think I learned something about the sad, sometimes horrifying realities of daily life for African Americans in the 1950’s, even with all the supernatural story elements.  I think that Ruff did the subject matter justice, even as I was a bit conflicted about this not being an Own Voices book. Our book group had a very fruitful discussion about it, and I think it’s a good choice for any group.

34296946Book 11 is The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m half Persian, but I’ve never been to Iran and my father really didn’t talk very much about his (and my) heritage when I was growing up.  So naturally I’m attracted to a book like this, which combines my interest in travel memoirs, food memoirs, and Iran.  This was a quick read for me and I really enjoyed it.  I loved getting a glimpse of other areas of Iran besides Tehran, a city that, understandably, seems to dominate books set in that country.  But let me back up.  Here’s the Goodreads blurb.

In her thirties, Jennifer Klinec abandons a corporate job to launch a cooking school from her London flat. Raised in Canada to Hungarian-Croatian parents, she has already travelled to countries most people are fearful of, in search of ancient recipes. Her quest leads her to Iran where, hair discreetly covered and eyes modest, she is introduced to a local woman who will teach her the secrets of the Persian kitchen.

Vahid is suspicious of the strange foreigner who turns up in his mother’s kitchen; he is unused to seeing an independent woman. But a compelling attraction pulls them together and then pits them against harsh Iranian laws and customs. 

Getting under the skin of one of the most complex and fascinating nations on earth, The Temporary Bride is a soaring story of being loved, being fed, and the struggle to belong.

Verdict:  Four Stars.  This was a lovely book.  The food writing is lush and evocative, but the real center of the book is the unlikely romance between Klinec and the son of a woman who is teaching her how to cook Persian dishes.  It’s a fascinating glimpse of a romantic relationship trying to develop in a country with strict and overbearing rules (both cultural and legal) governing contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Every day Vahid wrote to me.  Brief e-mails, sometimes two or three in one day.  In between short sentences of concern for my well-being and expressions of tenderness, he put the craving for foods in my mouth.  He urged me to wait in the long lines outside the Mahdi ice-cream parlor, to eat their chewy ice cream made with orchid root and mastic that can stretch for several feet without breaking. He described the torshi shops in Bistodoh Bahman Square where vegetables, roots, even young pinecones are pickled, swimming in buckets of caraway seeds and vinegar.  I bought cauliflower, caper shoots and tiny turnips scooped into clear plastic bags and topped with a ladleful of sour brine.  He made it so that when I ate I heard his voice in my head, missing his presence from every meal.  I felt him beside me adding lemon juice and salt, or tapping sugar or crushing sumac between his fingers. 

If you’re a fan of food memoirs or an armchair traveler like me, you’ll probably enjoy this compelling story.  My only slight criticism is that the events happen in such a compressed time frame (just a few months total, I think) that I wanted a bit more on exactly why Klinec fell so hard for Vahid, when everything in her logical mind and in the Iranian society was telling her that they shouldn’t be a couple.  I also wanted more at the end of the book – it felt a bit rushed.  Minor quibbles, though.

So, have you read any H.P. Lovecraft?  Have you read any good books about Iran?  Are you a fan of Cheap Trick?  Let me know in the comments.

 

 

The Dry by Jane Harper (#20BooksofSummer Book 9)

I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year.  When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice!  I have to say that I agree with her assessment:  The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!

27824826Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened.  Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier.  He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke.  Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son.  Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.”  Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now.  Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.

In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.)  Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death.  Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town.  So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago.  Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.

When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.  It all made such perfect sense.  But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me.  She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person.  Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential.  There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past.  We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between.  I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.

 

 

Thoughts on Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery #AnneReadalong2017 (Book 8 of #20BooksofSummer)

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

“I suppose you’ve gone and refused Gilbert Blythe.  You are an idiot, Anne Shirley!” –Philippa (Phil) Gordon

Anne IslandWell, I’m squeaking in at the last minute with the review of this!  I absolutely loved Anne of the Island.  Hands down it’s my favorite of the series so far.  I could see myself reading this one again in years to come even if I don’t read any of the others.  There is something beguiling about Anne’s experience of college.  Maybe it reminds me of my own wonderful college years – the fun and friendship, the first taste of freedom, the sense that anything could happen on any given day.

The focus of the book returns to Anne herself, rather than Davy and Dora or her neighbors, as was the case in the last book.  We see Anne cementing friendships, fending off marriage proposals right and left, and studying hard.  We see her watch her friends, particularly the ones back home, pair off and begin to get married.  Anne is content to be by herself, and even Gilbert Blythe’s gentle but steady attention is too much for her.  She is afraid to lose the friendship that they have and she’s attached to her romantic ideal, which she thinks Gilbert doesn’t meet.   It’s frustrating watching Anne crush his heart and push him away.  I was so pleased when good old Phil called her an idiot!  I practically pumped my fist in the air in solidarity!  I do understand that she just wasn’t ready to make the commitment to Gilbert, and to the seriousness of those adult emotions.  Still, it was rather maddening when everyone around her could see how perfect they were for one another and she couldn’t.

Speaking of Phil, she’s a great addition to these books, isn’t she? I do hope she turns up in future installments.  Besides calling Anne an idiot, I loved it when she said, early on, “I’ve been feeling a little blue – just a pale, elusive azure.  It isn’t serious enough for anything darker.”  Her own love story arc is sweet as well.

There was that whole unpleasant episode with the cat who wouldn’t die, and the mention of Mr. Harrison’s dog who was hung twice, but I guess times were different when it came to animals, weren’t they?  They didn’t exactly have mobile spay and neuter trucks coming to the local park, or a vet to come to the house with an injection.  Still, that sort of jarred me a bit.

The pace of this book just zipped right along, especially in contrast to the previous book in the series, Anne of Avonlea.  Alternating between visits home and time at Redmond meant that we don’t get bogged down in one place for too long.  There was just enough Marilla, Mrs. Rachel, and Davy and Dora to ground Anne’s story, but not enough to become annoyed with.  I rather enjoyed meeting crotchety old Aunt Atossa!  She was a hoot!  Diana and Anne handled her rudeness perfectly, with a measure of amusement.  It was a most entertaining section, though.

I feel like my “review” of Anne of the Island is rather light, but I don’t have a lot to pick apart about this book!  It was a fast read; I thoroughly enjoyed it and eagerly returned to its pages when I had to put it down.  It made for perfect comfort reading.  I’ve heard from Melanie at Grab the Lapels that the odd numbered books are better than the even ones.  So far she’s right!  Despite that, I am excited to read next month’s book, Anne of Windy Poplars. Reminder:  anyone can join in on this readalong!  It’s going on for the remainder of the year, one book per month.

So, reader, have you read this series more than once?  Which is your favorite book?  Do you have any more suggestions for “comfort reading?”  I’m always looking to add to my list.

 

 

 

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (#20BooksofSummer book 7)

(Note:  This book was NOT on my original list for 20 Books of Summer.  Nor was it on my REVISED list.  Ha ha!  I just really felt like reading it, so it’s going to bump off one of the books on my revised list.  I can do that, right? Sure I can!)

41tMa5BmZ2L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This is one that’s been on my TBR forever.  I am a big fan of Ann Patchett, especially Bel Canto and her memoir about her friendship with the late Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty.  I hadn’t read that one in a long time and I’d forgotten just how good Patchett is at writing nonfiction.  She excels at it, in my opinion.  I haven’t read a whole lot of essay collections, and the ones I’ve read usually are hit or miss.  But This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage is stellar.  There were just a few instances where I shrugged after I finished. Mostly, I stared contentedly into space and said, “Wow…”

This wide-ranging collection reads like a loosely structured memoir.  The reader learns much about Patchett’s parents’s doomed marriage, her Catholic school education, her early days as a writer, and her own disastrous first marriage.  We learn about her dog, Rose, and her grandmother, Eva.  We get a glimpse of the (ridiculous) controversy over Truth and Beauty when it was assigned reading for freshman at Clemson University in South Carolina, and we discover the genesis of Parnassus Books, the successful independent bookstore she co-owns in her hometown of Nashville, TN.  Patchett comes across as fiercely dedicated to the craft of writing and fiercely loyal to those she loves.  She is frank about her own shortcomings, both professional and personal.  She is not exactly a warm presence but there is an unsparingly honest and wise quality to her writing that is appealing.

Forgiveness.  The ability to forgive oneself.  Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

My favorite essay was “The Wall,” which was about Patchett’s father, who was a police officer with the LAPD for over 30 years.  Patchett got an idea to write a nonfiction book about the LAPD during the horrible time of the Rodney King riots.  She wanted to show a different view of the LAPD, the one that she was privy to as the daughter of a cop.  She decided to train for and take the test to be admitted to the Police Academy.  She details her self-styled training regimen (she was 30 at the time,) complete with clearing a six-foot wall, one of the biggest hurdles for women trying to enter the Academy especially.  Her account of the physical, written, and oral exam process is fascinating. The whole time she’s doing all of this, her father doesn’t exactly believe her when she says she’s only doing it for the book.  Part of him hopes she’ll actually go through with it and become a cop.  As I read this I was reminded of my favorite contemporary detective series, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, which are set in the LAPD.  Part of me marveled at Patchett’s dedication to her craft and part of me wondered, “Why are you wasting all these peoples’ time?”

This was a collection in which I wanted to read multiple essays at one sitting; when I had to put it down, I was eager to get the chance to pick it up again. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom here, a life in which mistakes have led to a deeper understanding and a greater sense of compassion, both for herself and for others.  If you’re a writer or enjoy reading about the craft of writing, I say pick this one up.  (“The Getaway Car,” another of my favorites, is a fantastic glimpse at the writing process.)  If you’ve ever deeply loved a pet or a relative, you’ll find gems here.  (Warning: I did cry a couple of times, as one might expect when reading an essay about a beloved pet or relative dying.) This was a terrific read, and even if you’re generally not into reading essays, I say give this a try.

Have you read this?  Are there essay collections you’re particularly fond of? I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

Thoughts on The Waste Lands (Dark Tower Book 3) by Stephen King

I continue to be entertained and ensnared by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.  A somewhat slow start snowballed into a tension-filled, exciting conclusion with a heck of a cliffhanger.  (Sidenote:  I have absolutely NO idea how one would adapt this series into a movie.  It will be very interesting to see what the filmmakers do with this.)  In the third installment, our three gunslingers from The Drawing of the Three, Roland, Eddie, and Susannah, are joined by a familiar face and a billy-bumbler, an adorable dog-like raccoonish creature named Oy, who is smart and sweet and loyal AND IF OY DIES IN LATER INSTALLMENTS I WILL LOSE IT.  (But don’t tell me, please, if you’ve read this series.)

34084Man, this series is hard to write about without revealing major plot points.  The Waste Lands opens with the three slowly making their way in the direction of The Dark Tower. Roland is not feeling so hot, and Eddie and Susannah (who’ve fallen in love) are worried about his mental state.  Enter a giant sentient bear (!) named Mir who is going insane and suffering from some sort of gross disease.  He rampages through their camp and (mild spoiler, but not really because it happens pretty early on) unsuccessfully tries to kill one of the three.  When Mir is killed they find out that he’s got some kind of machine attached to his head, and it’s gone haywire.  Roland tells Eddie and Susannah about the legends of the Twelve Guardians who stand guard at twelve different portals in and out of the world. At the center is the Dark Tower.  Mir was apparently one of the guardians. So they just have to find the door it was guarding, and they’ll be that much closer to the Dark Tower. This all happens in the first 70 pages or so, and my edition was 590 pages, so there’s a lot of stuff I’m not writing about!  There’s some shifting back-and-forth in the narrative between Mid-World and our world (late 1970’s era.)  The gunslingers (plus the familiar face and the billy-bumbler) eventually end up in a seriously scary dystopian nightmare of a city for the thrilling conclusion of the book.

What I like about this series so far, aside from the inventiveness of Mid-World and the compelling overarching mythology, is the camaraderie of our gang.  Eddie and Susannah’s relationship is sweet and feels natural.  Roland is assessing his companions in a new light given their growth since being pulled into Mid-World.  They are now fully capable and on equal footing; Roland has learned to trust them.  I am becoming attached to these characters, which I have a feeling is a dangerous thing to do and I quite possibly will be shedding some tears in future installments.  I am really intrigued as to how King will resolve this series, so I definitely plan to keep reading.

I’ve read that the fourth book in the series, Wizard and Glass, goes back and fills in more of Roland’s backstory, and doesn’t pick up immediately where this one ends.  If I’d been reading this as they were being published I would have been like What the heck, Stephen King?  Six years later and you didn’t even tell me what happened to our gang?!? But I have the privilege of being late to the party on this one.  So I’m not in a super hurry to read the next one. I’m taking a little break, at least until #20BooksofSummer is over in September.  I’m kind of surprised by how much I like this series.  As I’ve mentioned before, fantasy is not a genre I’ve read a lot in, and I had previously pegged Stephen King as a writer of “scary stuff” that I was too much of a wimp to read.  But I guess it’s just another example of how, in life, we are only limited by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  I like being surprised by reading.

(This is book #6 of my 20 Books of Summer.  I’m wavering on sticking to the rest of my list.  In fact, I’m fairly confident that I’ll be substituting a whole lot of my original list with picks based on my mood for the rest of the summer.)

So what was the last “pleasant surprise” read for you, or a book or series outside of your reading comfort zone that you ended up really enjoying?

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (#20BooksofSummer book 5)

408478My aunt is the one who started me on Agatha Christie.  She gave me an anthology with five Hercule Poirot novels in one (Death on the Nile, Murder On the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table, and Thirteen at Dinner) when I was about 12 or 13.  I read The ABC Murders first and I was hooked.  I fell in love with the way Christie constructed her puzzles and the way Poirot assembled all the clues to solve the murders.  I loved Poirot’s rather healthy self-esteem and his friend Hasting’s amusement at him.  Even back then I wasn’t one to binge-read an author, though, so I didn’t make it a point to read every Christie.  I’d read one here and there throughout the years, which is why it’s taken me until now, some 28 years later, to read the very first Poirot mystery published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. After enjoying this one so much, I think it’s high time I filled in the gaps in my Christie reading!

Set in the midst of World War One, the book is narrated by Captain Hastings, on leave from the war and at loose ends.  He meets an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites him to stay for a while with his family at Styles, their estate in Essex.  The reader knows from the beginning that something shocking has happened by Hasting’s opening narration:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known as “The Styles Case” has now somewhat subsided.  Nevertheless, in view of the worldwide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story.    

140290Cavendish explains to Hastings that his stepmother, Mrs. Cavendish, who raised him and his brother Lawrence from the time they were young, has recently remarried.  Hastings is taken aback – a quick mental calculation tallies her age at about seventy (gasp!) John explains that everyone in the family, and even Mrs. Cavendish’s stalwart “factotum, companion, Jack of all trades” Evie Howard, disdains the marriage and the new husband, and thinks it’s nothing but a money grab. We are also told that both Cavendish brothers are hard up for money, even though their stepmother has always been generous to them through the years.  So immediately the reader is alerted that there is much tension in the house at Styles, and we are invited to dislike Mr. Inglethorp, “the rotten little bounder,” even before we meet him.  Christie ends the first chapter with a delicious bit of foreboding spookiness:

A vague suspicion of every one and everything filled my mind.  Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.

Soon we are introduced the the inimitable Monsieur Poirot, who is staying in the village with some of his fellow countrymen – Belgians – who are refugees from the war.  Mrs. Cavendish’s generosity has allowed them a place of refuge.  We get a marvelous physical description of Poirot’s appearance and fastidiousness (“I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound”) but all too soon he is gone and we are back at Styles with Hastings.  The very next night Mrs. Cavendish awakens everyone in the household with her strangled cries of distress, but the doors are all locked from the inside.  When the men break down the door they find her convulsing, apparently dying from some sort of poisoning.  With so many suspects and so much tension in the air, it is up to the famous Belgian detective Poirot to start assembling the facts.  When Hastings tells him of the events of the previous night, Poirot  humorously tells him, “You have a good memory, and you have given me the facts faithfully.  Of the order in which you present them, I say nothing – truly, it is deplorable!  But I make allowances – you are upset.”  I enjoyed a good chuckle at that one.

This was a smart, delightful beginning to Hercule Poirot’s mysteries, and I can’t believe it took me all this time to read it.  I have to say that I was once again bested by Christie’s brilliance and had no clue who was behind the murder.  Hastings and Poirot have a playful, light and easy rapport, with Hastings standing in for the clueless reader as Poirot sheds light on the case.  Poirot gently needles him throughout and Hastings exhibits a generous spirit while an easy target.  There was one glaring instance of casual racism that took this twenty-first century reader out of the narrative for a moment.  It involves the discovery of a chest of dress-up clothes and disguises that the Cavendish family use from time to time during a “dress-up night.”  Apparently it was great fun to put on wigs and costumes to impersonate people of other ethnicities.  I know that this was published in 1920, so I make allowances for that sort of thing, but it still jarred me for a moment.

Yet it was a minor detraction from an otherwise superb mystery, and a grand introduction to a classic detective and his straight man.  A glance at the Goodreads list of Poirot mysteries tells me that I’ve many more books yet to enjoy, and I’m thrilled at the prospect.  Just don’t expect me to read them all anytime soon!

So this was my fifth book for #20BooksofSummer.  I am starting to doubt that I’ll be able to complete all 20 by the beginning of September, and I’m certain that if I do, I won’t have reviewed them all by then.  My blogging pace this summer has been glacial.  (I’ve made my peace with that – I think.)  If you’re participating in Cathy’s annual tradition, how is it going for you?  Are you on pace to complete all 20 in time?