Friday, May 27, 2016

TBR (ideally on a beach towel in the sun)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Well second most wonderful. Tis the season for summer beach reads lists. My favorite list by NPR is not out yet, but I’ve been busy browsing these:

The books everyone else has put on hold at your library

The books most likely to be found at Target

The books most likely to combat the summer slide

And on my TBR list for summer are the following new releases by some of my favorite authors:

What's on your list?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Comfort Reads

In the tongue-in-cheek tradition of shows like this, comes this series brought to us by PBS. Except, delightfully, it’s not a mockumentary. Amateur bakers ranging in age from 17 to retiree meet in a tent each weekend for a bake-off showcasing a different skill.  Although the baked goods look scrumptious, it’s the contestants’ asides, facial expressions, and repartee with the hostesses and judges that will keep you watching.

To bide my time waiting for Season Two to be made available somewhere on the Internet, I’ve discovered the Hannah Swensen murder mystery series by Joanne Fluke. Hannah owns a bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota. However, in between baking the next day’s batch of cookies or catering her mother’s Regency Romance club, she has a nasty habit of stumbling upon dead bodies.

Comfort food for the serial reader, this series is predictable in plot (find a body, eat chocolate, go behind boyfriend detective’s back to interview suspects, make a cake, get trapped in a small space with the killer, eat more chocolate).  Swensen’s obsession with new recipes (helpfully printed at the end of each chapter) and dilemma of which suitor to marry - detective or dentist - is quaintly old-fashioned, in our age of Pinterest and Also, comforting, once you’re hooked, is knowing that there are 17 or 18 more to read.

And recipes involving double or triple chocolate to try.

Friday, May 13, 2016

"It was the trip to the circus the day before the world ended"

In Days of Awe by Lauren Fox, Isabel’s best friend has died. Shortly after, her husband has moved out. Her daughter has turned surly and prefers spending time with her grandmother. And her maternal instinct is “buried underneath an unexcavated pile of clutter, along with the missing check [she] wrote for her field trip to the Art Museum and the bike key [she] lost last year.”

Upon meeting a charming gentleman in her grief group, she must decide if she’s ready to date again. Testing out her excuse for backing out of the date, she says, “I’m not looking for a relationship right now I’m looking for a relationship right now I need to focus on me I need to focus on cake.”

Slowly Isabel comes to terms with her dying marriage and the death of her friend. She remembers how to make her daughter laugh. And just maybe everything will be okay.

If you can relate to cake as a life goal, you will thoroughly enjoy this book.  If you are a forty something mother of a preteen, you must read this book. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

"There is everything left to cure"

This week’s reading challenge - read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel – was a challenge. I’ve tried reading other books in the same vein, but I’ve never made it past the first few chapters. Perhaps it was the epigraph by Haruki Murakami that greeted me on the first page, or the fact that the protagonist was safely ensconced in a hospital for the first half of the novel, but I actually finished Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg.

Joy, the protagonist of this novel, is one of a few people who have proved immune to a sickness that has swept across the United States. She, along with other asymptomatic Americans, has been shuttled to the Hospital. Ostensibly, they are there to be studied for a cure. However, the extreme security measures and questionable qualifications of the medical staff make them feel more like inmates rather than patients.

As the story progresses, we discover Joy had less than a stellar childhood. Abandoned as a baby, she grew up in foster care. After leaving the system, she finds work as a night clerk in a convenience store and whiles away the lonely hours sipping from shoplifted bottles of cough syrup. When the sickness starts claiming its victims, a dying relative contacts Joy and gives her the first clue in figuring out her mother’s identity.

It is the search for her mother along with her growing skepticism of the Hospital’s concern for her well-being that drives Joy to escape. On the road, she finds her way from Kansas to Florida. Kismet brings her a traveling companion, a former housemate from her foster home. Together, Joy and Marcus witness the desolation of communities devoid of people and the devastation of neglected infrastructures that predates the epidemic.

Unfortunately Van Den Berg’s chronicle of a sickness without a cure feels all too familiar in light of recent scares. But by focusing on memory and friendship as tools of survival for those lucky enough to survive, she infuses hope in an otherwise bleak existence.   

Friday, April 29, 2016

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Instead of the crazy lady in the SUV who thinks I’m the “b%*&h” who stole her boyfriend in junior high….

My encounter with the strange neighbor was foremost in my mind as I picked up Peter Lovenheim’s book In the Neighborhood. As he writes, it is rare for most Americans to know their neighbors. Even with social media apps trying to fill the gap (my Next Door update just informed me there is a “Creepy guy at 160th & meridian Little Ceasers”),  we are clueless as to who might be living a few doors down. He aptly observes that it often takes a natural disaster or tragedy to bring people out from behind closed doors.

I’ve experienced this first hand when it took a flood to meet my neighbors in Japan. More recently, a mild winter snowstorm brought the neighborhood kids out to shovel sidewalks and gave my kids an introduction to our latest neighborhood in Washington.

Lovenheim’s premise is that it shouldn’t take a tragic event or extreme weather for us to meet those living in close proximity. In fact, he wonders that if neighbors do know one another better they could be instrumental in providing a haven before tragedy strikes.

Lovenheim, going through his own separation, was influenced by a murder down the street to set out to meet his neighbors. Not only did he meet them, he even convinced some of them to let him spend the night and observe a day in their lives. His book is an account of those encounters as well as a brief examination of the influence our suburban lifestyles have on isolating ourselves from those around us.

In reaching out to his neighbors, not only did he benefit from finding friendship, he was able to connect others who had much in common. His book teaches us that nodding to the woman who walks her dog every evening is a start, but not an end. 

So even though I am now avoiding eye contact with anyone driving an SUV on my street, I probably will be braver about saying hello to the dog walkers and stroller moms I see on my afternoon walk. And maybe soon this "housing community" will actually start feeling like a community. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

"A palimpsest of old logging roads and game trails"

I met a lumberjack once. He lived in Oregon, sported an impressive beard, and ate vegan store brand Oreo’s. He recounted the dangers of his job - among them the brutal exposure to the elements on a daily basis.  

Peter Geye captures the brutality and desperation of men who worked in the lumber camps at the turn of the century. His novel The Lighthouse Road is set in 1890s and 1920s Minnesota. It follows the immigration of a young woman from Norway who finds work as a cook in the lumber camp.  She gives birth to a son. After her death, her son Odd is adopted by the town. When he’s older, he supports himself as a fisherman.  Odd falls in love with a woman who knew his mother and eventually learns the truth behind her death even as he’s facing the reality of raising his own son alone.

In the tradition of books by Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison, Charles Frazier, and Jeffrey Lent, The Lighthouse Road explores the effects of one’s environment on family, identity, and survival.  Its characters build boats by hand, travel by dog sled, fight wolves, and survive Atlantic crossings on one jar of sheep’s milk. With a spare yet vivid writing style, Geye captures a harsh reality that is both appalling and appealing. 

Not unlike a vegan Oreo. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Think of me with my nose in a book"

It has taken several weeks, but I have completed the challenge of reading a book over 500 pages long. It’s accompanied me on Sunday rainy afternoon reading sprees, flights to and from Chicago, kept me occupied on sick bed stints (as watcher and watchee), and been a constant companion at myriad baseball practices.  

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, we go back to nineteenth century England. The Napoleonic Wars are raging and the politicians are wringing their hands. Enter Mr. Norrell, a magician with not only a formidable library, but practical powers as well.  After being introduced to London’s social scene, he quickly becomes a celebrity.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange has also been mastering the dark arts. Inevitably, as the only two real magicians left in England, the men cross paths and Strange is taken under the wing of Norrell as a pupil. However, as Strange’s powers increase, he parts ways with Norrell. Whose brand of magic will win out without destroying everyone in their inner circle?

At 1024 pages, this is certainly not a book for reading in one sitting. However, every time I opened it, I was surprised, horrified, or fascinated by the next turn of events in these two men’s lives. Clarke breaks up the potential monotony of battle scenes and drawing room intrigues with wry humor and clever twists. This book transports the reader to another time, place, and even dimension, and proves a pleasant distraction from that delayed flight or overzealous little league coach.