Friday, June 24, 2016

The Summer Before the War

My mom has always bought me books as gifts. In fact, I have children’s books bearing her inscription dating back from my first Easter. My aunts, too, introduced me to classics with gifts of A Wrinkle in Time, and when I was older, The Mists of Avalon. Members of my dad’s family, too, are avid readers though books were never exchanged at Christmas. However, one Christmas, my cousin surprised me with volume one of the collected works of Jane Austen.  I was smitten from page one.
Another British writer has caught my fancy lately with her Austen-like characters and plots of unrequited love. Lucky for us, Helen Simonson (of the beloved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) has released her second novel, The Summer Before the War.  

Beatrice Nash, recently orphaned, has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Although she is not as plain as her benefactor Agatha Kent had hoped, she is taken under her wing and introduced to the town’s notable residents. As a “spinster,” she must suffer the indignation of reporting her expenditures to her trustees and defend her aspirations to be a published author to naysayers.  Beatrice declares her intentions to remain single, but when she becomes close to Agatha’s nephew Hugh, she begins to have second thoughts.  

Meanwhile, Agatha tries to maintain diplomacy as various heads of women’s committees in town compete in fundraising efforts to support British troops who have just been called to war.  Soon the arrival of a group of Belgian refugees, food shortages, and death notices in the paper make the war all too real. Agatha continues to falter when both her nephews decide to enlist.

Simonson examines the early days of war as it affects two generations. She also adds a contemporary twist in examining issues of women’s rights, artistic expression, and repressed sexuality. Her characters will stay with you long after the book has ended whether it’s the young Gypsy boy who carries his tattered copy of the Aeneid into battle or the Belgian refugee who has seen unspeakable horrors.

This is a book I will enjoy giving this year. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

"Let that which had been written all be rewritten"

The challenge this week? Read the first book in a series by a person of color. Using the handy list compiled by the NYPL, I decided on The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Years after computers are relegated to desert caves, a nomad discovers an audio recording of a memory extract entitled The Book of Phoenix.

Phoenix narrates her life story which began as a genetic experiment. It’s only after she escapes Tower 7 that she realizes the extent to which she was manipulated. Magically, she sprouts wings and travels to Africa to return a seed given to her by the great tree that served as the “Backbone” of her home tower.  

However, her presence in the African village is soon detected and she is captured and taken to another tower back in the States. Here she is reunited with the speciMen who helped her escape, Mmuo and her close friend Saeed.

With the help of Mmuo and Saeed, she discovers that an inordinate number of the speciMen are African or of African descent. Dying and rising multiple times, she makes it her life mission to destroy the towers the Big Eyes have created. Through the violence and destruction, she discovers, “Human beings make terrible gods.”

Okorafor explores the parallels between the new world’s enslavement of the genetic experiments to the slave trade of America’s beginnings.  In addition to exploring the issue of race relations, her story also takes in to account the devastation of global warming. Phoenix is troubled by not only the treatment of her fellow man, but perplexed by the outdated social mores she encounters: “It was 80 degrees outside, balmy December weather. I still couldn’t understand why men in this day and age had to wear this outdated attire (a suit) to look professional and respectable. These clothes were from cold times, before the climate had changed. Why couldn’t the United States incorporate the world’s fashions as the English language incorporated so many of the world’s words? It was plain meshugana.”

We know through her legacy that Phoenix can only succeed through another fiery self-sacrifice. We also learn, in the end, how the nomad takes her story and puts pen to paper to disseminate this fantastical tale. However, the book’s epilogue provides an intriguing monologue by a new character, Sola, that makes us question the veracity of all we have heard.

And of course check out the next book in the series, Who Fears Death.

Friday, June 10, 2016

“Pudding wrestling with kangaroos”

The Northwest weather is conducive to naps. I’ve probably taken a few too many naps in the past few months to be considered healthy. But now that the sun is shining more, I seem to be a little more productive. Also back on track this week is my reading challenge. Funnily (surprising not ha, ha) enough this week’s challenge was to “read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.”

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson is a collection of essays on how she deals with her anxiety by hiding under desks, stays in bed as needed due to her depression, but mostly tries to live her life by finding ways to be “furiously happy.”  From a hashtag she created for her blog to this collection of essays, this phrase “furiously happy” refers to seeking out wacky adventures while one can in order to look back on those moments when one can’t.  

Mental illness not only affects her as an individual, but friends and family members as well. Lawson writes how she constantly debates her mental stability with her mother who insists she’s normal.  She comments she loves these conversations with her mother “because she gives me perspective. It’s also why she hates having these conversations with me. Because I give her details.”

Details which may include the side effects of the antipsychotics she’s taken, taxidermied giraffes, coffins filled with scabie glitter to thwart grave robbers, cannonballing possums, and stunning uteruses (uteri?).

She also exasperates her husband Victor with Rory-the-dead-raccoon. Rory tends to pop up in the background of Victor’s conference calls or can be seen riding cats at midnight. As Lawson states, “Other women might show their adoration with baked goods or hand-knitted slippers, but mine is channeled through animal corpses.”

One of the most enlightening parts of the book is the spoon theory. She uses spoons to explain the limits of people living with chronic illness. For instance, each task one must accomplish in a day is represented by a spoon. Healthy people have an unlimited amount of spoons, but those living with chronic pain or an autoimmune disease may only have, say, six. So if someone chooses to use a spoon to pick up the dry cleaning, he or she won’t have a spoon left to clean the house. Or as Lawson tells it, she may have even fewer spoons the next day after she tries to explain to her husband how she ran out of spoons, gets frustrated when he misunderstands, and has the argument in her head instead because, yes, she has no more spoons for defending herself.

When she is running low on spoons and cannot get out of bed, living a furiously happy life means Lawson can still go to “a storeroom in the back of [her] mind filled with moments of tightrope walking, snorkeling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind.”

That image alone is worth staying awake for. 

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.