Book Report: The Lincoln Highway (or a Fine Way to Spend a Couple of Days Off)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s been a while since I did a book report, but no, it’s not because it took me that long to read The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles (2021). I spent the last number of weeks knitting and reading magazines (and I admit, not reading very much of Oh, William, by Elizabeth Stroud, to savor it). This big, fat book of 500+ pages took me only three days to read, because once I started, I kept saying, “One more chapter…” many chapters in a row. Yeah, it was a good book.

Maybe there will be a volume 2 and they will finish going down the highway.

Once again, I am grateful to the Bobcat Book Club for deciding on a book that I’d never have chosen for myself based on its description. But y’all, if you want to take some time away from your troubles and go on a Heroic adventure about Heroic adventures, here’s a book for you! I can easily see this book becoming part of undergraduate humanities classes where you assign The Odyssey and every other epic journey…then conclude with this book and tell the kids to go write their term paper on the themes therein.

I give Amor Towles a lot of credit for building out the many heroes, both tragic and triumphant, who flow through the book, weaving and interweaving their stories and adventures into a big ole bundle of enchantment. You just can’t wait to find out who does what next or to fall deeply into the backstory that makes you think you’re suddenly in The Canterbury Tales. Geez, this book really IS like a long demo of all the forms of storytelling in Western Civilization, all presented in modern language. I’m glad Towles didn’t try to shorten the book by skimping on any of the stories. Stories are important, all of them, and that’s what he tried to convey in this book!

This is one of those kinds of books where you find yourself growing so fond of the characters that you don’t want it to end. They are all so multi-faceted, and of course, each hero has his or her own fatal flaw. You can draw a lot of lessons from them, too, like how people who are labeled “criminals” may well not be and people who label themselves as “good guys” may not be. A little bit of humanity makes a story a lot of fun and will get you through any overly contrived coincidences and improbably good timing.

I invite you to sit down and get to know Emmet, Billy, Duchess, Woolly, Sally, Sarah, Ulysses, Pastor John, the nuns, and of course, “Dennis,” the only completely unlikeable character in the whole book, who is never without his quotation marks. Adventure awaits!


(And hey, thanks to all of you who were so fascinated by photos of an old cabin that I had my biggest day of blog stats ever yesterday. I do know book reviews are not the big hit generators.)

Book Report: A Year in Provence

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is certainly not the kind of book I usually read, but it’s what the Bobcat neighborhood book club chose, and I want to stay in the book club, so I read it. As many of you who read this book years ago already know, A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle, came out in 1989 originally. The copy I have contains an update from ten years later.

Much wine and pastis are consumed in this book. And why is that doomed fox smoking?

This would not be a beloved best-selling novel if it didn’t have its charms, and Mayle most assuredly can paint a picture of a culture in just a few words and a few bucolic tales of the neighbors and neighborhoods. I think any Francophile would just love the little vignettes and word portraits of the people in a remote area of Provence and how their activities and non-activities change from season to season.

There’s the problem. I’m not, alas, a Francophile, even though I once married one and have beloved friends who adore France. Too many years of watching French cinema could be a cause. Or it could be the particular set of grumpy, chain-smoking French people with strong superiority complexes I’ve known. (Before you rebuke me, I realize there are plenty of people in this continent who could be characterized similarly.

I didn’t find the way the contractors working on the house just disappeared for months with no warning nor any explanation (this may be because our pool workers have done the same). I didn’t find the smelly, mean-spirited neighbor, who Mayle seemed totally enchanted with, at all fascinating. He reminded me of half of Milam County, Texas.

And I know he was a sweet old man with much going for him, but Mayle came off to me as someone with more money than he knew what to do with, and no ability to make his own decisions. He just went along with everyone else and their ideas and timetables. Oops, I hope I didn’t just describe myself. I may have described how I must come across sometimes (I assure you; I do NOT have more money than I know what to do with–each horse and swimming pool expenditure comes with sacrificing something else and with the sad bonus of annoying my dear spouse).

This book review is not about me, it’s about Provence, an area of France where it gets quite hot and is often very windy…much like Milam County. Maybe I found too much of my own life in this book to find it a real getaway.

Oui, c’est un gros trombone – I did not know paperclip was “trombone” in French.

And also, I’m a linguist and all that, but I didn’t know what a lot of the words in the story meant. I’m not ignorant in French, but I wish more context from which to figure out the meanings of some of the liberally sprinkled French words and phrases had been included. Some of us studied Spanish, you know.

Still, anyone will enjoy some of the little bits you learn about Provence, the stories of grapes and mushrooms, and learning about how hunters of over thirty years ago a lot like the ones are today (they need their modern conveniences!). At least there is a lot less trash on the side of the road after hunting is over in Texas. You can enjoy a few days with this book and not get upset, angry, or bored, so it’s worth a shot.

Monsieur Renard is not happy about what is happening to the fox on the book cover.

My favorite part of reading A Year in Provence, though, was that I got to use my new bookmark that I got in Breck. It’s a cool fox, or dare I say, renard, on it. Its little face looks très amusant” peeking out from the top of a book. I can’t wait to use it again.

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.

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