Book Report: Olive Again

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I didn’t think I’d love the writing in a book as much as I loved Olive Kitteridge, but here I am, prepared to gush over Olive Again, by Elizabeth Strout, the woman of the bestest words ever. I keep reading paragraphs over and over, just marveling at how Strout manages to capture the inner lives of her characters so succinctly, yet evocatively. As I read her work, I am constantly seeing vivid scenes and smelling all the smells of Maine, yet she doesn’t write long, descriptive paragraphs full of endless adjectives and adverbs. Nope. She uses just enough words to do the job. That’s a writer, all right.

As always, Olive appears in each chapter, though she is often not the protagonist, and most chapters aren’t from her point of view. You get to meet many new people, as well as some of the folks from the previous book, and see how small things affect their lives so profoundly.

You learn that people really, really, don’t understand what’s going on in other people’s lives, and especially in their minds. I really needed some of this knowledge this week, as I come to grips with the fact that there are people I have known all my life who live in an entirely different reality from mine, and for whom the facts as I see them just aren’t relevant to them. It’s the same in Crosby, Maine.

Thanks to Strout, I learned many new definitions of love, too, and how it fits into people’s lives and fills the gaps in their loneliness. The point in both the Olive books seems to be that bad things happening isn’t the worst part of people’s lives, it’s a lack of connection to others. I think she’s absolutely right about that. Here’s what the character Bobby says in the “Exiles” chapter:

And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.

p. 195

If I were writing an actual book report, I’d cite Bobby’s musing as Strout’s “thesis statement.” That’s the essence of both the Olive books.

And what fills my heart with comfort is that each individual you glimpse in this book finds their own reason to keep going and to figure out their path in life. I’m going to borrow the reason that Suzanne states in the chapter called “Helped.”

I think our job – maybe even our duty – is…to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.

p. 116

This type of spirituality permeates Strout’s writings. She sees the divine in Nature and never lets the reader forget it for one second. I’ll see her sparkling waters and intensely yellow autumn leaves often in my own mind.

This was the book I needed to be reading right now, today. I hope you pick it up and it speaks to you, wherever you are on your life’s path.

Book Report: Olive Kitteridge

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A friend recommended I read the books by Elizabeth Strout on Olive Kitteridge, because I said I was interested in good character development. I ordered them, and just finished Olive Kitteridge. It’s a quiet masterpiece.

The book is a series of short stories, sort of, though the same people in a small Maine town appear and re-appear. Olive, a large sorta grumpy woman is the pivotal character who appears in each story. It’s fun to wait and see how she turns up and how the other people perceive her.

I love how normal and real the people in the stories are, but also how they each have personal tragedies that shape them. One theme I detected in the book was of people daring to do something unexpected or out of character. It usually works out well, but not always. It reminded me of my own attempts to get out of my shell, tell my truth, or speak up. Only mine tend to backfire. Never mind…

I did find many beautiful phrasings and observations about daily life, beauty, and appreciation of your current moment. But mostly it was about feeling lonely.

When he was in town, it seemed he saw couples everywhere; arms tucked against each other in sweet intimacy; he felt he saw light flash from their faces, and it was the light of life, people were living.

Starving, p. 99

And she has an amazing way of showing how disconnected and lonely people can let themselves be. I felt like framing a couple things Strout has her characters think or say.

It’s just that I’m the kind of person that thinks if you took a map of the whole world and put a pin in it for every person, there wouldn’t be a pin for me

Criminal, p. 236

What I get from Strout’s interrelated tales is that we can all feel our separateness deeply, and we all seek intimacy in our own ways. I’m grateful for all the glimpses into everyday intimacy that the stories in Olive Kitteridge provide. I will probably turn to this book often just to re-read some of the words and slip back into the feelings they elicit.

Great book. Thanks so much to the friend who recommended it!

Book Report: A Girl Is a Body of Water

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I was sort of sad to finish my latest relaxation read, A Girl Is a Body of Water, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, because I sure was enjoying my education in the culture, food, and clothing of Uganda. Basically, all I knew about Uganda before was Idi Amin, and he certainly isn’t something worth representing an entire culture with. Well, and I knew the Gandan people spoke Lagala there (among other languages), from when I studied linguistics. I guess that put me one step ahead of most people in my culture.

I also really like the cover.

Do you have to be interested in the culture of Uganda during the 20th Century to read this book? Absolutely not, because the story is beautiful, interesting, and very captivating. You grow to love the characters as you learn more and more about them, especially Kirabo, the main character, and Nsuuta, the blind woman of mystery who is inextricably linked to Alikisa, Kirabo’s grandmother. You just want to know what’s going on with this fascinating and many-layered family!

But for me, the information about traditional Ugandan culture, how it changed with colonialism, through Amin’s reign, to more modern times, was fascinating. The book does a fantastic job of delving deep into the traditional and modern roles of women in Uganda, which parts change and which parts stay traditional. Many of the women Makumbi writes about were among the first to try to do things differently, and you might be surprised at some of the consequences and who encouraged and discouraged them. The way feminism and traditional roles came together in A Girl Is a Body of Water was really skillful.

Makumbi does a great job of introducing new Ugandan words, ideas, and concepts in the course of developing the plot, so it’s easy to learn as you go. I found it fun to try to figure out what some of the words meant, especially foods and items of clothing. I admit to looking some words up, like luwombo, which is a kind of stew-ish dish served in banana leaves. Some words, though, I waited until I could figure them out from context. That is MY idea of a good time. YOU might want to keep Google handy.

Luwombo, from an online brochure. It can feature any meat.

The culture stuff was really fun to learn, too, like what constituted beauty to them, how who was related to whom was calculated, who counts as “family,” and how the deal about having multiple mothers in households with more than one wife worked. It sounded like a lot of love, actually. It was fun to imagine living in a society so different from mine, with different mores and guidelines, but that made perfect sense in its context.

I’m glad I finally was able to get around to reading this book, which I’d had to put off for a while. If you are like me and enjoy learning history through the eyes of women in a culture, you will enjoy this book very much. It’s going to stick with me, and I’ll always wonder how Kirabo did after the book ended. Hey, a sequel, that would be fine with me!

Book Report: A Simple Favor

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s time to report on all the books I read while I was freezing or had no power. The first one, A Simple Favor, by Darcey Bell, is the next neighborhood book club selection, and was recommended by neighbor Ruth C’s daughter. It says it’s soon to be a major motion picture, and I can see why. It’s plot would be great for a movie.

Scary

A Simple Favor is written from the perspectives of the characters in the book, which mostly focuses on Stephanie, a “mommy blogger,” who, just like me, only shows the perky side of herself in her blog (ha ha ha). I immediately disliked her because she refers to mothers as “moms,” and was amused to find out it also bothered other characters. She is a person who operated based mostly on instinct, feelings, and hormones. She has a LOT of hormones. I’m glad at least she has all those juicy sexual memories to share (don’t worry, it’s not graphic, just frequent).

Another “character” in the book is Stephanie’s blog, which she uses in all sorts of ways to try to get things accomplished, send messages, and bias readers in her favor. That was something I enjoyed in Bell’s writing.

The other main focus of the book is on Stephanie’s “best friend,” Emily, who has “issues,” shall we say, but certainly dresses well. She’s not big on telling the truth, but she loves to ask Stephanie for “simple favors.” The glue that holds the two together are their children.

(Aside, the names in this book were not great. Stephanie’s late husband was Davis and her child is Miles. Who would name the child of Davis, Miles? All you’d do is think about jazz. And the English man married to Emily is Sean, who goes to “Ireland” in the “UK” at some point. I shall charitably assume he went to Belfast.)

Where was I? Anyway, the plot revolves around Emily’s sudden disappearance and how Sean, her husband, and Stephanie cope with it. Oh yes, even Sean gets a chapter or two to tell his perspective. Since the book is a murder mystery kind of deal, I won’t go into much more detail, other than that it involves a lot of descriptions of meals, meltdowns, and sex.

By the end of the book, you really aren’t fond of any of the characters, who are by turns gullible, cunning, slow, selfish, shallow, and deranged. I guess they’re human, huh? I know I gave it a 2-star rating, but it’s a good book if you are stuck in the house under many layers of clothing and blankets, and you want to take your mind off the lack of water and electricity.

PS: I hope you enjoyed my over-use of quotation marks as much as I enjoyed over-using them!

Book Report: All My Puny Sorrows

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I’m only halfway through the Obama book, but I took a break to read this month’s neighborhood book club selection, so I’d be sure not to totally fail like last month. I’m glad I did, because All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (2014) was a beautiful jewel of a book.

My poet friend, Kelly, recommended it so strongly that I just had to get it. Then, when we learned more about it, the neighborhood women also wanted to read along.

I hope they like it as much as I did. A book about a Canadian woman (Elfrieda) who is driven to commit suicide doesn’t sound like fun, you end up enjoying the story very much. The interplay among the family members is so poignant and nuanced, that sometimes I had to re-read the dialog.

I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists, a family burdened by an oppressive Mennonite upbringing. The main character is the younger sister of the suicidal piano genius (Yolandi). She has her own issues, which are fascinating to watch unfold as the book progresses. She was fascinated by her sister, but readers will be fascinated by her.

Then there’s her mother and aunt, completely charming women on their own journeys of discovery. Their banter and insight will live with me a long time. That and all the poetry Toews shares just makes you want to savor this book. You’ll hardly notice that the book sort of lacks a plot.

Who cares. It’s both funny and poignant. I’ll be reading this again. I wish I were articulate enough to really convey the beauty of the language and the depth of the characters in All My Puny Sorrows, which apparently is semi-autobiographical. I’ll have to read Women Talking or another of her books, too.

Book Report: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The book I’m talking about today is next month’s topic for the cul-de-sac book club in Austin. The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was Joanna Cannon’s first novel, which came out in 2015. Since I wasn’t reading novels five years ago, I’d never heard of it, but dutifully ordered it when it was decided upon by the group.

I even read a paperback. Wow!

I got it on Monday, and finished it last night. It was a nice respite from the more solemn reading I’ve been doing lately, but it doesn’t mean that Cannon didn’t sneak in some messages, some of which are quite current today.

I’d say almost anyone would enjoy reading this, though it helps a LOT to be familiar with the everyday items in England in 1976. I know what Fairy Liquid is, thanks to spending so much time in Ireland, but do you? (It’s dish washing soap.) And candies are very important, at least to the main characters, so it would help to Google those as they come up.

The fun thing about the book is that it’s about a cul-de-sac and the varied characters who inhabit it, which of course reminds me and my neighbors of OUR little Bob Cat Run, with its fascinating cast of characters. We will have to decide who is the “Walter Bishop” of our street (he’s the one everyone has a bad opinion of). Oh wait, I think I already know, ha ha. It’s not me or Anita, either!

Much of the story revolves around two young girls who are best friends, Grace and Tilly. They are the junior detectives in the mystery aspect of the book, who, after one neighbor disappears suddenly, decide to find God in the neighborhood. Eventually Jesus shows up, which is a fun twist (I won’t tell you how that happens). All the neighbors get their chance to shine, too, and you eventually learn all their secrets. That’s the fun of the book.

You’ll love the woman who wears a bikini and tans in her front garden every day, the couple with the very nervous wife, Grace’s parents (and her very odd mother), the guy who lives with his elderly mother well into his forties, the friendly widow, the refreshingly rational gardening guy, the exotic new family, etc.

What really makes the book special, though, is how gently Cannon weaves lessons about honesty and lies, ignorance and enlightenment, and most important to me, about how each and every one of us has secrets we think will be ruinous if revealed, but are probably worse being hidden. It’s a fun read with interesting characters, but it also makes you think about morality and judgment. That’s what elevates The Trouble with Goats and Sheep from a pleasant escape to a book that will live with me for a long time.

By the way, it’s also really funny. I had to read passages aloud to Lee. I think I laughed the hardest when Grace’s father tries to convince the new neighbor he’s a worldly, tolerant guy by repeating racist stereotype after racist stereotype. I was happy to see the two of them actually ending up talking to each other from the heart and becoming friends. That’s what we all need to do when confronted with “the other,” I think.

I have a nice stack of books on my shelf, so I’ll start another one while patiently reading a chapter a day in Caste.

Book Report: Wonder

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Even though practically no one reads my book reviews, I have another one already. That’s what you get when you pick up a Young Adult selection; they go fast.

The Wall Street Journal is right! The cover does not lie.

Oddly enough, I am not sure where this book came from. Maybe someone loaned it to me? Maybe I bought it that last, wonderful time I went to Barnes & Noble and got it on sale? Anyway, I’m glad Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (apparently a pseudonym) showed up magically in my stack of books to read. I needed something uplifting and cheerful, in which everyone learns from their mistakes and grows.

I can see why Wonder was a best seller and why lots and lots of adults read it. All the characters in the book were interesting and fun to learn about. It made you want to follow them as they go through the rest of school. It’s great to see how people learn and screw up and keep learning, including the adults in the book.

Also, it’s just funny, and I think that’s important, since a book about the trials of a child with facial deformities going to school for the first time could be mostly heartbreak, otherwise. Instead, you empathize along with everyone as the hero, Auggie, shows how much of a normal (and resilient) kid he is and makes it through the ups and downs of his first year in a school.

Lee and Penney patiently waited for me to read the book aloud, but I told them I’d do it later.

If you have a child who’s “different” in any way, this would be good to read along with. And if you were a “different” child, you’ll enjoy rooting for Auggie and his family. I’m glad I had parents who were supportive like his, since I played the role of Auggie’s big sister in protecting my younger brother, who wore an eye patch and got picked on when he was little. We both ended up fine, or at least survived to adulthood!

I promise I’ll write something on another topic later. Until then, enjoy the new week.

Book Report: The Vanishing Half

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Been wondering where those book reports went? I had to take some time off while reading The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet, because at some point, my dislike of almost every character in the book made me not look forward to picking it up again. I was also disappointed that I’d scheduled a trip to Austin just to attend book club there, and they moved it to next week, when I have to stay in Cameron to attend all-day meetings that would drive Anita nuts.

I didn’t figure out that the cover art was anything more than blocks of color until five minutes before I started writing. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

In the end, I came to appreciate how everyone in the book constantly lied to themselves and each other, because it became clear that the theme to the Bennet’s story was that we are both tied to the labels we are assigned at birth, but we are also free to move away from them, when we are seeking our true selves. More on that in a bit.

The Vanishing Half was chosen by the book club members, and I wasn’t there for the discussion, so I knew nothing about it until I opened it up. I was hoping for something less intense than How to Be an Antiracist. Imagine my surprise when I found out the symbolism-laden Louisiana “town” the book centers around is populated exclusively by light-skinned Black people. It was a chance to explore race in a fictional context. Serendipity!

This skin color thing was a source of great pride in the community, which consisted of people with freckles, red hair, hazel eyes, and other combinations of superficial markings of White people. But, the surrounding area deemed them Black, and they worked at jobs that Black people in the South used to be stuck with. They were proud of being culturally Black, but also looked down at darker-skinned people. As you can imagine, that can complicate things.

Eventually, the very light twins who are the pivotal characters end up exploiting all the possibilities you can imagine for people like themselves. One stays home, and one vanishes. They each have daughters, one very light, one very dark. The daughters meet, and all sorts of racial stereotypes get twisted, turned, and explored.

Every single character you run across is very human, capable of truth, lies, devotion, desertion, prejudice, and acceptance (which explains why, at some point, I really didn’t like some of them). The only character I didn’t feel like I got to know well was the husband of one of the twins, but maybe it’s good that the stereotypical White business dude is the one who’s not worth fleshing out. At least it’s a nice change.

I liked how the daughter of the twin who lives an entirely new life after disappearing becomes an actor, herself, and feels most comfortable when playing a role. It’s all acting, for them. They fluidly go from identity to identity.

And I liked how Jude,the daughter of the twin who stays and plays the role tradition assigned her, knows who she is and what she wants to do, despite hardship and prejudice. She never doubts herself, just her confusing family. She never doubts the love of her life, Reese, sticking with him as he transitions his external appearance to match who he is inside.

I hope the world comes to accept everyone like the characters in The Vanishing Half. Be who you want to be. Love who you want to love. Cherish your roots, however tangled they may be.

Book Report: A Hundred Suns

I gobbled up this novel, which I found via my usual method of discovering books, an interview on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). I figure anything Scott Simon likes, I’ll like. I encourage you to read or listen to the interview about A Hundred Suns, with the author, Karin Tanabe.

Nice font on that title, huh?

Tanabe is known for writing historical novels, and this one’s about Vietnam before it was Vietnam, in the 1930s when it was still French Indochina. It’s a period and place I’m interested in and wanted to learn more about, so why not learn history through a novel (it’s how I learned when I was young; those novels about Queen Elizabeth I sure were more interesting than history books, even if they weren’t 100% accurate; after all, neither are history books).

There is so much to like about the book, and I especially liked how each and every character in the book (French people, Americans, and Annamites (what Vietnamese people were called then)) had a fully developed personality. Like real people, each of them had admirable aspects and made plenty of mistakes. Each had prejudices but learned not to be so confident. You end up empathizing with each major character, even though they do some pretty icky things.

Ah, let us pause to enjoy some sedge seeds with curly tendrils. Also enjoy my lack of nails. I miss certain Vietnamese friends, who happen to also do my nails, a lot.

Tanabe, of course, weaves a lot of history into the narrative. You get to see the country from the eyes of the French colonists (ooh, la la, they were fancy), local people who tried to assimilate into French society, wealthy communist sympathizers, grass-roots communists, and of course, random mercenaries. I found it easier to understand the Vietnamese point of view on communism from this book than I did in books I read when I was younger, which all took the capitalist viewpoint exclusively (one character in the book was like me, neither colonial nor communist nor really capitalist…just wanting the best for everyone).

One thing I really liked about the book is how Tanabe portrays relationships between people of different cultures and races. As someone who’s enjoyed being close to Asians in the past and remembers how people STILL looked askance at it in the 1980s, I appreciated how the relationship between the characters Marcelle and Khoi in the 1930s was depicted. I’m so glad that people are much freer to love whoever they want to now.

I actually liked how she portrayed all relationships. She made arranged marriages make more sense, yet showed that both friendship and true love that can grow and change as people mature, as well. Here’s my favorite quote, from Khoi, the rich and handsome silk merchant, talking about two friends:

“We are not perfect people, you and I,” he said, “No one is. Even Anne-Marie and Sinh. I know we hold him up on a pedestal now, but he wasn’t perfect. We all have moments of weakness, of strength, of stupidity. But if we’re lucky, we’ll have even more moments of love.”

A Hundred Suns, page 340.

There were a couple of things that bugged me about the writing style of Tanabe. Sometimes she gets a little didactic and seems to be giving a history lesson rather than letting it come out through the characters. But, there IS a lot of historical context about rubber plantations and such to get through.

And she has a writing style that sometimes bothers me, where at the end of any utterance she inserts some bit of physical description of the character’s eyes, or skin, or something. I have no idea why that style annoys me, but it always seems like the author couldn’t find any other way to add these details, so they get stuck into the dialogue. And I always wonder if whether someone’s skin is tanned or not matters to the story (in this case, I’ll assume the main character’s deepening tan symbolizes her growing understanding of the Asian culture she finds herself immersed in).

Shoot, I’ve totally forgotten to say what the book’s plot has to do with. You see, there’s a nice social-climbing American woman named Jessie who gets her wealthy family sent to Indochine to escape her past. They are a part of the Michelin family, and the husband wanted to do more with tires and rubber and less with writing tour guides. Jessie meets up with locals, both French and Annamite, deals with her servants (fascinating in their own right), travels through the country, and gets drawn into intrigue as she begins to doubt her sanity. Mayhem ensues.

Wow, can I summarize a book, or what? Anyway, I’d say A Hundred Suns is worth getting a hold of. It will take your mind off the present, and you’ll get to meet a lot of fascinating people in an interesting historical context. You might as well learn something!

Book Report: Ragtime

I didn’t buy a hardback copy. But, it was a well-constructed paperback.

Proud of myself, I am, for finishing the latest book in the neighborhood book club series, especially since this is not something I would have picked out for myself. But, the assignment was Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow, so I read it!

As someone interested in history, I did enjoy all the historical references and real people who came and went throughout the book, some of whom happened to be favorites of mine (like Emma Goldman, the anarchist). I think it helps to have some clue as to what was going on around the beginning of the twentieth century, though I guess you learn a lot even without any helpful background knowledge. This great review by the late John Brooks said it really well:

This mixture of fact and fiction may confuse or mislead the unwary or historically uninformed reader, and it suggests a projection onto the past of the suspect techniques of the New Journalism. I, for one, although no friend of that aberration, am willing to forgive any historical novelist who makes his flights from historical fact as funny and pertinent as Doctorow makes his. Like Houdini’s audiences, I am made to enjoy being fooled. As to the topical descriptions, they appear to be accurate enough to satisfy an exacting student of Americana. Certainly they are alive enough never to smell the research in old newspaper files that they must have required.

John Brooks: From the Archives: A review of E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’, Chicago Tribune, March 05, 2015 (Suna’s birthday)

Now, as much as I enjoyed getting to know some fun details about historical figures, especially the imagined inner thoughts of Harry Houdini, the ground-breaking way the book was written seemed a little contrived and sometimes annoying. Here’s how John Brooks (a man of many more words than Suna) put it:

Continue reading “Book Report: Ragtime”