Wednesday, July 06, 2022

June, 2022: What I Read



Here's what I'm thinking about today: Val dressed up like a tomato (pronounced Toe-MAH-toe) for the Toecheon Tomato festival in South Korea. For the talent show portion, she wrote and sang a song to the tune of "Feelings" about all the delicious things one can make with tomatoes. She even worked in some Korean lyrics. Val was the hit of the show, and her tribute was not misplaced; the tomatoes from Toecheon are the best tomatoes I've ever eaten.

Sometimes, I want to turn this into a Val blog. She was (is!) a lot more interesting than all my bookworming about. But then I hear her voice asking me, as she so often did: "Are ye daft?" And the way she asked it -- always like she was sincerely wondering. My answers varied.

I know that somehow I must bring this back around to my own book Blob. 



June, 2022 reading:

1. My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business - Dick Van Dyke. Memoir. Audiobook, read by the author. Enjoyable, but a little on the bland side.

2. Who Is Jimmy Carter? -David Stabler. Nonfiction. VERY well done. Carter's life has had so many acts, there is a vigor in the portrayal of him at all junctures and well into old age.

3. Who Was Johnny Cash? -Jim Gigliotti. Nonfiction. The first part of the book is good, then it seems to lose some energy. I think it's hard to pin down the essence of Cash's mystique in a book for younger readers. The best description I've ever read of him is that he was kind of a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley.

4. Happy-Go-Lucky - David Sedaris. Humor, Essays. Most of the essays seemed familiar; I listened to A Carnival of Snackery not too long ago, but I can never get enough of Sedaris. His father's long, slow decline struck a chord.

5. Pretty Baby - Mary Kubica. Fiction. Audiobook. Suspenseful. I liked the multiple narrators and the Chicago setting.

6. Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler. Fiction. Re-read. Book group read for July meeting. Anne Tyler is always comfort reading. This is her retelling of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. I want to go back and read Tyler's older titles, starting with A Slipping-Down Life or Celestial Navigation.

7. The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough. Fiction. Re-Read. Comfort reading. This time I was entranced by the description of Australia's many micro-climates. Paddy, Fee, Frank and even Mary Carson deserve their own novels. Meggie/Father Ralph had me rolling my eyes. Luke really struck me as a real bastard this time. Still find the Justine section of the book zzzz, although I recognize that Justine is the character McCullough most identifies with -- noticed they are approximately the same age.

8. Who Is Chloe Kim? - Stefanie Loh. Nonfiction. Usually I don't like the 50-page Who Was...? books, but this one was entertaining and well-paced. I didn't know much about Chloe Kim before reading this book, but now I look forward to following her snowboarding career.

The end of June meant that half the year was over, and out of the 39 books I had read so far, four emerged as favorites:

1. Taste - Stanley Tucci. Memoir.

2. Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco - Alia Volz. Memoir/Social History

3. Crying in H Mart - Michelle Zauner. Memoir.

4. The Leavers - Lisa Ko. Novel.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

June Is The Cruelest Month

Yes, I did read this month, but I'm not ready to talk about that yet. On June 6, I found out that Val died. She was one of my best friends. I met her while I was living in Korea. She died earlier this year on March 21 in England and news was slow to leak out. She was only 58. 

I don't always remember the first time I meet someone, but I know exactly where I was when I first met Val. I went to a book swap at The Wolfhound, an English pub in Seoul. I was excited about finding a book swap, and was intent on making the most of it. Gradually, I noticed a blonde woman with a pixie-ish haircut at the bar smiling at me. Really smiling, like my delight was her delight. I remember thinking: I want to be friends with her! and I went over and struck up a conversation. When I got home, I sent her a Facebook friend request, and then and there became part of Val's vibrant circle. A couple of years later, we ended up teaching at the same university and living in the same apartment building.

Val was fun. She could make anything into an adventure. One of our last outings before I left Korea in 2015 was a trip to an abandoned mental hospital near Seoul. A few years earlier, we toured an abandoned amusement park. How did she find these places? Strangely, I never thought to ask.

Even something as mundane as a trip to Costco could make you feel as if you were in a 1930s screwball movie. Val decided that she didn't want to travel the toll road, so she drove the long way around, and during this lengthy drive across the city in heavy traffic, she decided that she wasn't going to listen to Siri's instructions, and just started making turns whenever the feeling struck her. Somehow, we finally got to Costco. Katie, the other friend who went with us and I agreed that it was a miracle. On the way back, we accidentally ended up on the toll road, to Val's displeasure. At the toll booth, she sped through, and we were chased by the police. When questioned, Val put on her best innocent face. We paid the toll and were let off with a stern lecture.

Another time we went to Costco, we took the train, and Val decided to set us with a challenge: We would leave the train station, race the few blocks to Costco, do our shopping, check out and race back to the train station in time to catch the next train. This gave us about 40 minutes. Did I mention that there was also a rainstorm brewing? I'd been feeling draggy that day, but how could I say no to such exhilaration? We aced the challenge, breathless, laughing and wringing out our wet hair and clothing while balancing our purchases as the train made its way back.

A few years ago, Val decided to help patch some of the holes in my childhood book reading and introduced me to Enid Blyton. Her conversation with Paul, our friend from Liverpool, about how Blyton influenced their childhoods, they kindly let me reproduce here.
I find it comforting to have this glimpse of Early Val.

When she wasn't on some madcap errand, or organizing convenience store crawls, or teaching, or working on another Masters degree, Val was gathering anecdotes for the two books she wrote. Picky, Sticky or Just Plain Icky? is part one of a series she hoped to write about blind dating in other countries. What's Living in My Knickers? contains stories of medical mishaps and misunderstandings while living abroad. Both can be found on Amazon.

The last time I saw Val was on a Facebook video call, sometime last year. She had been seriously ill during the pandemic and was in the hospital and rehab for many months, but she was finally home again. She held out the computer so I could see all around her flat. I was so sure that I would see it and her in person one day. I was also so purely positive that she would come to the US, and I had some adventures lined up for her.

Val's Twitter handle was/is @FarawayHammer, which came from a complete misunderstanding of her full name. Now she really is far away. From what I understand, her final illness was brief and painful, and I gather that she was somewhat aware that time was running out. What I like to believe is that on March 21, she embarked on one last adventure and jumped into spring, and the solstice probably still has no idea what hit it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

May 2022: Slow Read, Take It Easy

I read a whopping four books in May, and maybe I gave you an earworm when you read the title of this post.  So all is good.

Just noticed that they're all library books! As the receipt at one of my libraries likes to point out, I saved a bajillion dollars. 

Did I mention Mother's Day? The Spawn gave me a gift certificate to Reader's World, the local bookstore. He also treated me to Thai food. He's definitely got game when it comes to this mother of a holiday.

Anyway, here's what I read in May:

1. Films of Endearment (memoir/film criticism) - Michael Koresky.

2. The Taking of Jemima Boone (history/nonfiction) - Matthew Pearl.

3. The Leavers (novel) Lisa Ko.

4. What is Juneteenth? (nonfiction) - Kirsti Jewel.

Films of Endearment stemmed from a project Michael Koresky undertook -- since he and his mother bonded by watching movies together throughout his growing-up years in the 1980s, he decided to revisit one film from each year of the decade. Some of the selections included: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Terms of Endearment, Places in the Heart, Nine to Five, and Aliens. These films were chosen because they all had strong female characters. Like works of art should do, each movie spawned memories and associations for Michael, as well as fresh realizations about what a remarkable, strong, multitalented woman his mother is. At first, I thought the book was all over the place, a little messy and disjointed, but now it's had time to settle, and now I deeply appreciate how Koresky's musings made Films of Endearment a far richer book than if he'd just stuck to a strict film essay format.

The Taking of Jemima Boone follows a chain of events that began with the kidnapping of Daniel Boone's 13-year-old daughter and two of her friends by one of the Indian tribes that were unhappy with white settlers streaming into Kentucky and violating previous treaties. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary War is just beginning, and the English are eager to have the Indian leaders on their side. This book is meticulously researched, and I particularly liked Pearl's acknowledgment of all sides involved.

The Leavers turned out to be my favorite book for May. 11-year-old Deming and his mother, Polly, a Chinese undocumented worker in a nail salon, live in the Bronx, New York City with Polly's fiance, Leon, Leon's sister, Vivian, and Vivian's son, Michael. One day, Polly goes to work as usual, but never comes home. Since she has an independent nature and has talked about moving to Florida, it's assumed that she has abandoned Deming. Within a matter of months, Deming's world is turned upside down, and he finds himself fostered then adopted by a childless couple living upstate, two academics who rename him Daniel and seem intent on having him forget his Chinese identity and turning him into a replica of themselves. Although this seems cruel, they are well-intentioned, and among the main characters, there are no real villains. Ten years go by, and upon returning to NYC, Deming reconnects with Michael, and begins to unravel the mystery of what really happened to Polly, who also relates events from her point of view. The Leavers is beautifully written. Fans of Barbara Kingsolver will be interested in this smart, honest, and perceptive novel.

What is Juneteenth? is a valuable resource that sheds light on and much-needed information about our nation's newest holiday. I knew a few historical facts about its origins, but in reading this book, I learned about how Juneteenth celebrations began, how they slowly spread around the United States, as well as the types of food served and popular games that are played. Recommended reading for all ages!

Friday, May 06, 2022

April, 2022: So Very Triggered

I'm really pleased with my April reading. A couple of books really triggered me, but like Kafka or someone said (and I'm wildly paraphrasing), we *should* read books that pierce us and chop like axes into where our deepest feels reside. Strangely, those visceral reactions still come as a shock, even more than a half-century after I burst into tears and threw Jane Eyre across the room after reading the first chapter.

1. The Devil All the Time - Donald Ray Pollock. Novel. I'm so annoyed with myself. Five years ago, my friend Mary M. told me, nearly ordered me to read this book. I dutifully bought it and stored it on my main fiction bookshelf in the living room for yes, half a decade. So finally, it jumps off the shelf and into my hands and for the next day-and-a-half, I could not leave it alone. Brilliant hillbilly noir. Like almost everyone else, I was reminded of the Coen brothers and Jim Thompson. The next time Mary M. makes a recommendation, I won't be so skittish.

2. French Braid - Anne Tyler. Novel. Did I walk? No, of course not. I ran to the bookstore. My excuses for buying a book as opposed to waiting for a library copy were threefold: 

First excuse: It's Anne Tyler, duh.
Second excuse: The bookstore almost fell into oblivion and was rescued at Christmastime last year. Use it or lose it.
Third excuse: I was feeling hard done by because of my poor smashed-up car. 

I won't say French Braid is my favorite Anne Tyler, but I'll always remember it for getting under my skin. Like most of her novels, French Braid deals in slightly dysfunctional family dynamics. But what got me was a cat who is in the novel for only about a dozen pages. I adored him, and then. Well, let's just say that one of the characters didn't adore him, and didn't change her mind about him, not ever. I had tears in my eyes. Desmond! For days, I kept grabbing up the Spawn's and my cat, Starman, and hugging him and saying Desmond, Desmond. I recounted this plot point to anyone who would listen and even voiced my dissatisfaction on Twitter. The Spawn's response: Ob-la-di, Ob-la-dah.

3. Ocean State - Stewart O'Nan. Novel. In Rhode Island, a teenage love triangle goes horribly wrong. Lots of atmosphere. Pitch-perfect cadences of modern life. Ocean State reads like a pulpy true crime book and I was also getting whiffs of Joyce Carol Oates, but a more controlled JCO. Another book that I couldn't put down. O'Nan is a master. Now I have to wait another two years for his next book to come out. Damn.

4. Crying In H Mart -Michelle Zauner. Memoir. It was bound to happen: My homesickness for Korea and my grief over losing my mother all came crashing together in a single volume. Zauner, the lead singer for Japanese Breakfast, writes achingly and vividly about taking care of her mother in the few short months between her cancer diagnosis and death interspersed with memories of their trips to Korea to visit family once every two years, and their shared love for Korean food and culture. Then after her mother is gone, Michelle has to negotiate the grief and the guilt and figure out how to deal with it. She travels. She makes a lot of kimchi. She visits family in Korea. She writes. She performs with her band. And it's all so true and exquisite and heartbreaking. Crying In H Mart was my favorite read for April. I want everyone to read it, and I want an H Mart that is closer than Chicago. Yes, I bought this book. Could not resist the red cover and the ramen noodles that make the H in the title.

5. Who Was Charles Schulz? - Joan Holub. Nonfiction. A serviceable, workmanlike portrait of the beloved creator of the Peanuts comic strip.

6. What Was The Harlem Renaissance? - Sherri L. Smith. The Harlem Renaissance was rich, complex, and exciting. That era from the nineteen-tens through the 1930s just exploded with art in all forms. It's too much to cover in one of the volumes in this series. The Harlem Renaissance just cannot be constrained into the 108-page format. Still, Sherri L. Smith provides a great jumping-off point for readers of all ages to learn more about this dynamic time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

March, 2022: Sideswiped

The last day of March found me as an unwilling and unwitting participant in a fender-bender. Doesn't that sound like too cute and trivial of a phrase? The impact really REALLY rattled my cage. I think it rattled all the words out of me. But up till then, March was a stellar month, especially for reading. I can't think why it decided to give me the finger on its way out. 

What I read:

And Never Let Her Go - Ann Rule. Nonfiction/True Crime.

The Lincoln Highway - Amor Towles. Novel. (audiobook)

Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco - Alia Volz. Memoir/Cultural History.

Mrs. March - Virginia Feito. Novel.

The Dressmaker - Kate Alcott. Novel.

Born With Teeth - Kate Mulgrew. Memoir.

What Were The Salem Witch Trials? - Joan Holub. Nonfiction.

Half-Empty - David Rakoff. Essays/Memoir. (audiobook)

My very favorite read for March was Home Baked. No one recommended it to me; I found it while browsing the shelves at the library. It's perfect. If I see this book in a bookstore, I will buy it. Alia Volz expertly weaves her own family history into the larger canvas of 1970s and 1980s San Francisco. Her writing is beautiful and audacious just like her mother, Meridy Volz who popularized selling marijuana brownies. She first got San Francisco stoned in the 1970s, then used the brownies to bring pain relief to AIDS patients in the 1980s.  I know that Home Baked will be one of the re-reads of my life.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Blob's 18!


Today my blog is 18 years old. I always like to mark the occasion of Blob's birthday because: 

1. It seems incredible that I should have written or even done anything for 18 years straight.

2.  I'm really fond of baked goods. 


Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Fishtailing Out of February OR I Don't Think Snow

 Yeah, I'm done with winter. You'd think that my being a December baby and my birth kicking off Snowmageddon 61-62 that I would love a snow globe world, but no. And where do I live? The Midwest! I want to castigate myself for my geographical shortsightedness, but my teeth are chattering too badly. Let's talk about books instead.

What I read:

Who Were Stanley and Livingstone? - Jim Gigliotti. Nonfiction. A dual biography of the internationally famous British scientist who went missing and the intrepid American journalist who set out to find him.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple. Novel. I really wasn't getting along with this book at all. It seemed brittle. Glib. Overly aware of its own cleverness. Then I read somewhere that Semple wrote for Arrested Development, and that helped. I began to see Elgie, Bernadette, Bee, and the other characters as extensions of the Bluth clan. But I have one last hangnail annoyance: Why doesn't the title have a question mark? I should have brought that up in book group. (More about book group later. Favorable impression!)

Chasing the Last Laugh - Richard Zacks. Nonfiction. I went down a sad little rabbit hole after finishing this book. I found articles online about a woman named Susan Bailey who had memories as a child that led her to believe that she was the secret great-granddaughter of Mark Twain, and even wrote a book about it. I was pleased because I'd always felt bad that Mark Twain's direct descendant line died out back in 1966 when his granddaughter, Nina died (presumably) childless. But then some Twainite who was really into genealogy wrote a lengthy paper disproving Susan Bailey's claims, and that seemed to put an end to the discussion. Feeling deflated, I ranged between Well, thanks for clearing that up and You asshole.

Garbo - Robert Gottlieb. Biography. Not just a biography, but an exhaustive one. I don't think I'll ever really be able to enjoy a biography again if the biographer isn't madly obsessive. This beautiful volume explores Garbo's early life and career in Sweden, and analyzes her US film career in great depth. There is also a large section of impressions by her contemporaries and much discussion of her abrupt departure from films and into a life where safeguarding her privacy became Job One. From reading Garbo, I got some good ideas for the wishlist. (See below.)

What I'm reading:

The Lincoln Highway - Amor Towles. Novel. Audiobook. I'm not sure how I feel about Towles' latest book. Right now, it's meandering along. Of course, it's meandering with purpose, but still meandering.  I'm engaged enough to be worried/curious about how things will turn out for the main characters, but I did swear at the narrator when the book made another hard left in the narrative. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think The Lincoln Highway will replace Towles' earlier novel Rules of Civility in my affections.

And Never Let Her Go - Ann Rule. True Crime. This is about the 1996 murder of Anne Marie Fahey, a 30-year-old woman who was an administrative assistant to the governor of Delaware. She was involved with Thomas Capano, who was wealthy, successful and also in the upper echelons of politics and business. Although married with four children, he was reluctant to let Anne Marie pursue a future without him. When his charm didn't work, he killed her. This is the first Ann Rule book I've read since Bitter Harvest, and I'd forgotten how she has a tendency to overwrite, but it's so compelling. I can't stop reading.

What I want to read:

What Were The Salem Witch Trials? - Joan Holub. Nonfiction.

Aru Shah and The End of Time - Roshani Chokshi. YA Fiction. This is the next pick for book group. Not really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed my first book club meeting in years, and want very much to continue. The leader, Sarah, is enthusiastic and well-prepared. I knew her when she worked at Reader's World. When we talked, it was like cartoon characters who have big hearts dancing in their eyes, except in our case, it was books dancing.

Dust Bowl Girls - Lydia Reeder. Nonfiction. Women's basketball. Barnstorming. 1930s. Must read. I've been needing a Dust Bowl-themed palate cleanser since I read the abysmal The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah last year.

Change Lobsters and Dance - Lilli Palmer. Memoir. An excerpt from Palmer's memoir was featured in Garbo. I loved her clear and lively writing.

James Harvey wrote about film, and in Garbo, Robert Gottleib included Harvey's gorgeous essay about Camille. I immediately wanted to go find all three of his books:

Watching Them Be: Star Presence on the Screen From Garbo to Balthazar

Romantic Comedy in Hollywood

Movie Love in the Fifties

It's supposed to snow again tomorrow. I see myself curled up on the couch with a book and a chai tea latte.