Saturday, September 10, 2022

August, 2022: Pendulum Swings

 What a month for reading! I made so many happy discoveries. 

But first, a Val story:

I had a complete Little House set. Val borrowed it. One day, she came to my door looking like a thundercloud.

"I'm reading The Long Winter now," she said. "And I'm really mad at Pa." Was she seething?

"Almanzo and his brother invited Pa for pancakes, and he sat down and ate with them. THEN he went home and ate that wee bit of food Ma fixed. And he never let on about eating those pancakes! What was it? Two stacks? Really shit behaviour."

I decided to try and defend Pa. "Well, he was getting out there every day in the blizzards and such, tending to the livestock --"

"I'm sorry," said Val. "It's just shit that he did that. Never said a word."

"My mom noticed it, too," I said. "She criticized him."

"And she's right," Val said.


Okay, so where was I? Reading in August. July was decidedly non-fictiony, and last month, the pendulum swung back the other way. I really love how my reading sorts itself out now, without my help.

1. A View of the Harbour - Elizabeth Taylor. Novel. Many thanks to my book blogging buddy Care for sending me this novel. I've wanted to read Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) for years, and she was definitely worth the wait. First published in 1947, A View of the Harbour takes place in a coastal village called Newby where nothing goes completely unnoticed. Taylor seems to have had a lot of fun with this book. One of the characters, Beth, is writing a novel that spans the length of this novel. Also like Taylor, she is sharp and observant, but seems oblivious that her husband and her best friend are carrying on an affair. The novel is witty, wry and so meta. Although the book is more than 70 years old, it feels very fresh. Elizabeth Taylor is one of my favorites now.

2. Lady Cop Makes Trouble - Amy Stewart. Novel. Audiobook. Many thanks to my book enabler Teri for recommending the Kopp Sisters series to me. I've been dancing around it for a long time. I saw the audiobook for this one, the second in the series and thought I'd plunge right in. What a delight! The lady cop of the title is Constance Kopp who is based on a real person -- the first female deputy sheriff in the United States. The stylish and retro book covers would dress up any bookshelf, but even better, author Amy Stewart has striven to write in a manner that convinces readers they are indeed back in the 1910s. Also, in Constance Kopp, I get a Mattie Ross (True Grit) kind of vibe.

3. My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh. Novel. Reread. I had such an urge to reread this book about a young woman who decides to sleep a year of her life away. The outrageousness of the plot and the characters (especially the shrink!) stayed with me, but this time I picked up on how it's really a novel about grief when you strip away the designer labels.

4. Bluebird, Bluebird - Attica Locke. Novel. Book group book. I liked the juxtaposition of the main character being a Texas Ranger and also being Black. These identities added some much-needed uneasy tension to a novel that creaked under the weight of constant information dumps that seemed the only way to advance the plot. I appreciated that Attica Locke didn't resort to predictable tropes. This is the first in a series, and I'm invested enough in Darren Matthews, who is very human and very flawed to come back and read another. Besides solving more crimes, he's got a hell of a lot of baggage to unpack, and I'm rooting for him.

5. Who Was Nelson Mandela? - Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso. Nonfiction. As usual, the writing team of Pollack and Belviso do not disappoint. Very well done.

6. Girl Waits With Gun - Amy Stewart. Novel. Audiobook. I doubled back and listened to the first book in the Kopp Sisters series. I cannot recommend these novels strongly enough. Cool and sturdy writing, much like Constance herself.

7. The Wicked Boy - Kate Summerscale. Nonfiction/True Crime. Book group book. In 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes stabbed his mother to death in East London, then calmly went off with his younger brother to a cricket match. Although the boys continued to live in the house with her corpse upstairs, it was not discovered until many days later, in a grisly state. Using contemporary sources, Kate Summerscale follows the tumult leading up to the trial, and explores the public's fascination and bewilderment about what could have led this "wicked boy" to commit matricide. Summerscale goes down plenty of rabbit holes in her research, but doesn't dwell there. She shares these side trips briefly, and efficiently ties them to the subject at hand. After the trial, Robert Coombes' story would seem as if it were at an end, but improbably, it's just beginning. It gets even better and more interesting. This is my favorite of all the book group books so far, and I've been after my bookwormish friends to check it out.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

The DNF Files: Let's Just Hiss and Say Goodbye

Meet Waverly (left) and Starman (right). They showed up for this installment of the DNF files. They've got opinions.

These are books started in 2022 that I could not, would not, shall not finish.

1. Who Was David Bowie?

Starman: I'm insulted that Bybee DNF'd this book. "There's a Starman waiting in the sky/he'd like to come and meet us/but he thinks he'd blow our minds..."
Waverly: One less book. Why the hell does she shelve right at the edge? How am I supposed to climb?

2. From Scratch: Inside the Food Network

Waverly: Oooh, Scratch. I like that.
Starman: For sure! Also Food. What's wrong with her?

3. Resistance Women

Starman: Resistance. Remember that time she put drops in my eyes?
Waverly: Hitler never met my back claws.

4. Murder on the Orient Express

Waverly: Hmmm, murder. Like what I did to that spider.
Starman: If you go on the train, you gotta ride in the cat carrier. No way.

5. Aru Shah and the End of Time

Starman: It's a YA book. I'm a YA cat.
Waverly: There's a bird. I'm intrigued.

6. The Secret History of Food

Starman: This is all stuff humans eat! So what?
Waverly: A long chapter about offal is needed.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

July, 2022: Reading. Seriously.

 Another Val story before we begin. This was one of her favorites. Every time it popped up in her Facebook memories, she'd repost it.

Val was moving yet again during her time in Korea. I was not particularly pleased because she would be moving out of my apartment building and over to a university way the hell out in the country and about 30 minutes away by train. Although I was dreading the day, I got caught up in the hustle and bustle of her packing.

About 9:30 pm, she decided that she would load some boxes into the boot of her little red Matiz automobile. Of course the boxes were terribly heavy, so she decided that we must get a trolley.

A what? I said.

A trolley.

I decided that she meant a dolly, but didn't say so. 

We looked around in the dark stairwell on the first floor for a trolley/dolly, but didn't see anything. Finally, we ran into a security guard. He didn't want to speak to us because of the language barrier, but Val neatly cornered him at the door of his guardhouse. She pulled out her phone and started typing into the translator.

She showed the guard the word on her phone and then said in Korean, "Please give me."

He looked at her like she was crazy. She nodded. I nodded, too. Finally, he sighed and got his flashlight and looked around in the hallways of our building. We followed. Then after a decent interval, he shook his head and started back to the guardhouse.

"Wait!" Val showed him her phone again. "I KNOW they have trolleys in Korea. I've seen them."

Dolly was trembling on the tip of my tongue, but I confess: Even though English is my native language, I've always had an inferiority complex about speaking American English around English English speakers. I usually throw in the linguistic towel and give Brits the win right away.

The guard sighed, mumbled something and repeated the walk, shining his flashlight up and down the corridors. Then he headed back to the guardhouse and settled in with his K-Drama. He offered up a final word in English: "Impossible."

We retreated to Val's apartment. "Maybe there's another word," she said, looking at her phone. "Oh, hold on. Uh-oh. Look." She showed me the phone. Turned out that her finger had landed on the wrong word, and we'd had the guard looking around in the gloomy stairwells for a troll.

I was really really glad then that I'd restrained myself from saying dolly.

"I'll try again tomorrow," Val decided. "If he'll even speak to me. The poor man."


1. What Are Castles and Knights? - Sarah Fabiny. Nonfiction.

2. The Witches - Stacy Schiff. Nonfiction. Schiff takes the reader into the world of Salem Village, 1692 to make us understand the time and place that created a toxic atmosphere where nearly everyone lost their damn minds and sent 19 innocent people to their deaths for witchcraft based on the word of a few shrieking teenagers. By the end, I felt claustrophobic and a little crazy, but mightily enjoyed counting up the many references to The Wizard of Oz that Schiff cleverly inserted.

3. The Poisonwood Bible - Barbara Kingsolver. Novel. I shied away from this book for decades, and now I'm a little mad at myself, but not too much because I think maybe I just wasn't ready for this story of religion, culture clashes, and revolution (of all kinds) in the Congo (now Zaire) in 1959. It's a searing and illuminating book and Kingsolver's masterpiece. I am adding it to my favorite reads of 2022.

4. Who Was E.B. White? - Gail Herman. Nonfiction.

5. What Is the AIDS Crisis? - Nico Medina. Nonfiction. A careful, comprehensive look at the AIDS crisis from its very beginnings. The government's indifference was chilling, and Nico Medina pulls no punches. No bullshit. Well-executed.

6. Long Walk to Freedom - Nelson Mandela. Nonfiction. I audiobooked this one. Danny Glover's narration was interspersed with African national songs, crowd reactions in real time to events unfolding in apartheid South Africa, and speeches read in Mandela's own voice, which made for a moving listening experience. Since this was significantly abridged, I don't feel as if I got all the nuances or even the whole story, but the crux is there and it left me in a thoughtful mood, eager to learn more about Mandela and the ANC and the struggle for a more democratic South Africa.

7. Who Was Ponce de Leon? - Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso. Nonfiction. MAD RESPECT for how this book was written! It starts out like a conventional biography of Ponce de Leon, conquistador in the making, then it makes a wicked left turn that nearly had me scrambling for the Dramamine, and it essentially says: You know what?! This guy, none of these guys were heroes. None of them were admirable. They ruthlessly rode roughshod over native lands and territories and ruined millions of lives. They disrupted cultures. They enslaved and murdered people with weapons and disease! Then the authors take a tiny step back and allow that maybe Ponce de Leon couldn't help it; he was conditioned at an early age to believe that as an agent of Catholic Spain, he was on the side of right. Then they gather themselves again and they're like, nah, he's still awful. And that cute Fountain of Youth story? What a bunch of hooey cooked up to make him look deluded at worst and whimsical at best. 

dI read 7 books in July. When I wasn't Who-Was-ing, I felt as if my reading had unexpected depth. Am I being and becoming? Is it just a stage I'm going through? Actually, two of the Who Was...? books I read went way beyond my expectations (What is the AIDS Crisis and Who Was Ponce de Leon) and handled the material in a manner that would create new levels of understanding in mature readers while introducing it to newer, younger reader1. What Are Castles and Knights? - Sarah Fabiny. Nonf

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.