Monday, November 05, 2018

Ascending (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

"Ascending" is an odd choice of gerund for this particular book, especially since the main character descends in social stature as he is confined to a hotel in Moscow, never to step foot outside of its doors in house arrest. However, this gentleman Count Alexander Rostov ascends up the stairs to unused servant quarters in the attic. Rostov also ascends a ladder of growth in what really matters in life when much is taken from you. Much, but not all. Furthermore, the chapter titles start with 'A' and "Ascending" is one of the chapters.

A Gentleman in Moscow has a high rating on Goodreads (4.36 stars), and mine is not going to change that rating. Of the 52 books I have read this year (while this is only my 48th review this year, I have already read all 52), this one wins as my favorite fiction. The criticisms from those who did not give it 4-5 stars ranged from "too much historical fiction" to "not enough historical fiction" (so those cancel each other out in my mind), "too charming and like a fairy tale" (valid, but that's one reason I was drawn to the book), and "needs a quiet place to be read" (I indeed had a wonderful quiet place to read this book).

In a lovely vacation rental near the beach, where activities such as beach walks, puzzle building, craft making, eating, and conversing were happening, I had a comfy chair to sit in and read. It helps that I love Russia, Russian literature, charming vocabulary, lots of conversation, literary allusions, and gentle action with enough sad parts to keep it real.

This was a library discussion book (in which every member loved the book -- highly unusual), but I ended up buying my own copy. Whether one buys the book to read or borrows it from the library, it does make for a great discussion group book. It has been a couple of months since our group discussed this book so I will comment on discussion questions I could glean from my bookmarks.

Page 29: What is it that keeps us going? Revenge, goals, practicalities?
Pages 86-87: (a hard one to explain, but definitely discussable): What does it mean to be out of step with one's times (or in step)? What of poetry? What of the written word?
Pages 109-110: Is there value in marking time? "...if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or, if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can."
Page 121: If you found a tree and ate of its fruits which enabled you to start your life anew, would you?

At this point, I'm going to say "and many more" because the book is a hefty 462 pages long. Towles breaks it up into 5 books in one, but I felt each "book" moved seamlessly into the next. There are plenty of characters that also move in and out of the story just like in Russian stories. I thought I would get lost, but I didn't. Unlike Russian stories, Towles gave most of his characters only one name. The book would make an excellent movie or even series. The characters are all ages, and charming little stories are within the main story. I even learned some games to play while waiting for dinner in a restaurant! The ending is surprising, in a good way. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Surviving (Born a Crime by Trevor Noah)

I confess I did not know who Trevor Noah is (Jon Stewart's replacement on The Daily Show) because I don't watch television at 11 pm. I also did not choose this book to read but I read it for a local library discussion group (a group which I am leading so reading the book definitely will help with that). I do agree with the 4 star rating of my friends. It's listed under biography, but it is autobiographical. Trevor writes stories of his life growing up in South Africa when it was a crime for a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother to conceive a child. It would be best to go into a reading of this book knowing that the format is set up for individual stories rather than a seamless narrative.

If you're looking for sappy, romantic, or humorous view of South Africa, this is not the book to read. As an adolescent, the book cover states that Trevor was "mischievous".  That's one way to put it. Other reviewers found him to be a mouthy, smart-aleck brat. Let's say that he does not sugar coat his adolescence and he probably gave his mother a lot of gray hairs, but he survived under some truly dysfunctional circumstances both in his culture and in his family life. There is both swearing in this book (Trevor's and others) and faith in God (his mother's). There are poor choices, survival choices, funny choices (but not really as many as you might think coming from a comedian. A one point I was fed up with Trevor's sass and antics, but by that point I had learned so much that I did not know about South Africa that I hung on. It was important to me to walk in Trevor's shoes. There is both a shocking scene involving a boy named Hitler that will be incredibly thought-provoking and an equally miraculous scene involving his mother that is nothing short of amazing.

This book is a fast read and an excellent choice for discussion groups. I won't be buying the book new, but if I were to see a used copy for sale, I probably would buy it.  I also heard that the audio book is fantastic. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Losing and Living (A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety by Donald Hall)

I read this final book of Donald Hall's close on the heels of his Essays After Eighty (You can find that review here.) However, I did not want to review two growing old books, one after the other, especially one with a title about losses. At the time that I read the book, I still had all of my aunts and uncles and both parents alive (and I'm not a child). I have seen that they have had to live through the losses of loved ones and the loss of health, but they have continued to live. This book is about living even as it is also about losing, and there is much to be learned from Hall's story. Not to mention, as I have come to realize, there is much to learn from Hall's writing. He remained a master writer to the very end (he died in June of this year), no wonder as he continued to revise to extraordinary lengths. In his first essay "You Are Old," he writes: "You are old when an essay of reminiscence takes eighty-four drafts." However, he is comparing that number to the numbers he mentioned when he was younger -- up to sixty! Clearly, he hones his craft more than the rest of us.

Because Hall writes from the vantage point of nearing ninety, "he feels free to reveal...several vivid examples of 'the worst thing I ever did' which is different from someone trying to keep an untarnished image of him or herself. However, be prepared for an entire essay (only two paragraphs, one half of a page) dedicated to the F- word. It is on page 181 of a 216 page book. Some will get the book for that essay alone and others will want to burn the book. I wouldn't go that far. I both bought the book and also dislike that particular essay. I don't want obscene words in my head that will come out at random sometime in the future if I fall into my father's stage of Alzheimer's or have a stroke and the only words I remember are obscene. It may sound funny on paper or in a movie, but in real life, it's not humorous at all.

Here are the great parts: amazing writing, writing of images that make this book (and his Essays After Eighty) required reading for some medical students. Hall captures so incredibly well what aging can look like that medical students are asked to read the book so that they will have some understanding of their older patients, some understanding of what the ailments of growing older feel like. His essay "Solitude Double Solitude" is nothing short of amazing (I'm running our of superlatives for Hall's writing) and his final sentence was gut-wrenching.

A surprising element of reading this book happened as Hall recounted his life with various poet-peers. These were poets who were famous in their day, and some I had never even heard of. Hall didn't expect to be remembered for too long either, and I think, perhaps, his prose will outlast his poetry! Nonetheless, I read these chapters at the same time that I was pondering legacy. Not many people will have their names remembered for years upon years, but each person matters. Each person brings something to the world of living, whether it be for ill or good.

Hall's final essay "Tree Day" is the perfect essay to end on, a perfect transition from one generation to the next. I do recommend the book. 

Monday, October 08, 2018

Raining (Rain of Gold by Victor VillaseΓ±or)

This book was recommended to me by a family member, and she is right: the story is very good. I borrowed it from the library, and while I won't be buying it new, if I ever saw it on sale or at a used book shop, I would immediately buy it.

The story itself and the real people are fascinating. An added benefit was the amount of history (history in Mexico as well as prohibition history in the US) I learned. Most of the reviewers give this book a high rating. Of the two I saw who disliked the book, one person couldn't stand the mothers and thought they were evil. What?! The mothers are the life of the story not to mention the life of their families! Another reviewer mentioned the dialogue and writing style, specifically mentioning about "true love". 99.9 percent of us do not talk like characters in a television show. We're not witty or eloquent. The way the book is written made me believe the story as the non-fiction it is. This isn't to say that the dialogue is boring. While VillaseΓ±or's family members sometimes repeat themselves, they have plenty of interesting, raucous, thought-provoking conversations.

The story also opens up the reader's eyes to what it can take to survive (and it isn't pretty). The reader also has to be willing to read dialogue that includes not only cuss words but also words of faith which these families have in plenty.

Most book discussion groups don't take on such large size books (562 pages), but lots of good topics of discussion in this book: what happens when a precious metal like gold is discovered, immigration (used to cost an adult Mexican 10 cents to get across the border and 5 cents for a child), how people treat each other, racial inequality, family dynamics, education. I enjoyed reading the author's notes at the end: which family members helped with the story, who remembered what differently.

Quotes that could also be used in a discussion group: "Blood is blood, but justice is justice. And Don Pio never let blood blind his eyes to justice" (127).
"Remember to respect a fallen star takes much more dignity than to admire the rising sun" (175).
"Oh, mi hijita, you woman of such little faith! God respects my honesty that I admit that I lie. He's a hundred thousand years tired of people preaching the truth in His home, but then lying to all the world once they get away from the shadow of His domain!" (377).

Since a number of my family members and friends are Hispanic (and I knew some of the areas mentioned in the book), I wondered if their extended family members knew or where a part of any of the families mentioned in this book. I can think of at least one family member who would be intrigued with reading this book.

πŸ’•πŸ’•πŸ’• When I was in college the second time around, I took a foundational education course, and we did an activity where we all had color dots on our foreheads. We did not know which dot was on our own forehead but we could see everyone else's dot. We had instructions on how to treat classmates according to their dots. Ignore the blues. Be friends with the yellows. In an Exceptional Child class, we had to have some change which would make it more difficult for us to go out shopping and interact with people (broken leg, deafness, blindness). We all understand to some extent what it is like to be the not-popular student (unless you've always been the popular one). If we already have something genetic that hinders our interaction, we know how that feels, but many of the adults in my class did not. These are activities that can only be approached cautiously in a classroom; however, in a homeschooling community, we could even practice within limits what it would be like to be poor, even be a slave. Of course, it's not real, right? We know we will go back to being a free person, but anything that doesn't cause harm but will help open one's eyes to at least start understanding what it is like to be an outsider is a benefit to a child's empathy for others. Reading stories, traveling to other countries, helpful, as long as one does not take on an attitude of "I'm so important; I'm helping the downtrodden and unfortunate" as though others have less intelligence or knowledge or wisdom than we do. The families in this book, Rain of Gold, are smart, resourceful, wise, and hardworking. They just did not have money.

---Diving into the stream of social justice is a transformative practice. How to do it with humility takes thought and a tender heart. Still worth pursuing even if we're not at the point of humility yet. Being a genuine person to the people one meets as one shops at a store in a section of town where one does not normally shop might be a good start. I'm not to the point where I could go to the scariest parts of metropolitan cities, but any of the areas in my own county would be safe so I have no excuse. Also, if I was living back in my former home area, I would think going one section of town over from my own would be a good start. 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Educating (Educated by Tara Westover)

Maybe this book is a 5 star book, maybe only 4.5, but I give it a fairly high rating. I did buy the book, mainly because the 40 copies in my local library system had 220 holds on it, and I did not want to wait that long to read it. A colleague said it was a "must" read.

Storytelling and writing style: Excellent.

Redemptive qualities or of value because I want to remember something or quote something or look something up, again and again: Perhaps not as much as other books I have bought, but I cried throughout the "Pygmalion" chapter. I'm in love with Professor Steinberg (and Dr. Kerry, too).

Book Discussion Group worthy: Yes, definitely. Topics -- This memoir has it all: Education, Religion, Politics, Family, Friendship, Image of Oneself

Reality: The readers who rate this book the lowest struggle with believing the things in this story could happen. They don't believe Tara could have gotten into the top colleges she did. Scores are everything. Someone quite close to me scored a near perfect score on the SAT and universities welcomed this person who, while not having a complete lack of education during homeschooling, still vastly educated (him or her) self. It is, as Tara writes, that the scholarships are there; however, a student does have to maintain that scholarship and that is the difficult part. But, it can be done. Also, Tara makes clear that she had to have help with math. The second situation readers find unbelievable is the injuries that happen where people are still alive even without the care of doctors. I like essential oils but, if most of the things that happened in this book, happened to me, I would be at the emergency room of a hospital in a flash. However, I have known people to survive horrendous accidents. I can think of three reasons for a person to believe Westover's memoir. First, if you have known anything familiar in the story (and I have). If it is the most bizarre thing you have ever read, then you will find it difficult to believe (much like Westover found it difficult to believe what she heard and saw presented at the college). Second, the boyfriend mentioned at the end of the book, wrote to validate Westover's story even though they were no longer together and he may question her decision to publish the story (that's what it sounded like to me although he also assuredly backed up her story). Third, Random House employed fact checkers to check out her story. Do I think her childhood self may have recalled her memories inaccurately? Yes, especially since she writes of that possibility and gives alternate takes on the story in footnotes. The different views of the story does not change the main characterizations and threads that run throughout the story. Whether Westover should have published the story, I'm with her on this one. Maybe the published story will protect the younger generations of this family.

Hopefully, the story won't make readers think that all home schoolers fail to educate their children because that is not the case. Nor is anyone who ever used essential oils a crazy person. If they never ever take their child to a doctor....that's a little much for me.

πŸ’•πŸ’•πŸ’• Child rearing is challenging, but this book has enough "what not to do" actions to help any mom or dad avoid the worst of the pitfalls. Our family homeschooled for about ten years, so I would not list home schooling as a "what not to do." We made mistakes, but we did make sure our children had a top notch education. They did not have any academic issues transitioning into a traditional school setting. Other than, apparently, my daughter is never going to forgive me for not educating her on who Michael Jackson was before I sent her off to school. The tougher, more normal challenge, (even though in this book, it was totally abnormal), is how to help one's children have a good image of themselves. If I were to talk to my younger self, I would tell me to listen to older, wiser voices from different walks of life. Get a variety of opinions. Yes, even within the community of faith, find the different voices and check them out. Do the research.

---How I practice having a God loves me image: First, I started trusting that if God says God is Love, then God is Love. Then, I looked at what love is. I put those character traits together with God is Love. Finally, I practiced reminding myself that God says I am God's beloved child and God loves me with what love is. I remind myself of every good thing God has to say about what the Creator has created (you, me, others) and I practice walking in the knowledge that God is with me, in and through everything I go through, and God does it with kindness, gentleness, hope, goodness, charity, patience, self-control, and more. 

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Homecoming (The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie)

Best opening sentences that I have read in a long time: "I was ten when Gaysie Cutter tried to kill me. It was just like her, too -- always leaving a bad first impression." Best ratings on Goodreads that I've ever seen, especially for a Young Adult, make that Juvenile book at my library. First, on ratings, I only saw one person who gave it one star and the reviewer hated the characters and found the book difficult to read but found one character to be "aDORable". My guess is the reviewer was a young person with possible reading challenges? However, kudos to her, if that is the case, because she is reading and reviewing on Goodreads. Many of the reviewers were adults. This I know because they felt the need to explain that they enjoy reading YA or J literature. I'm with them. A good story is a good story, whether it is a picture book or a juvenile/young adult book or Plato...okay, so maybe not Plato.

This book begs for comparison to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. (See my review here.) The protagonist of Bradley's book, Flavia de Luce, has a vocabulary beyond her years. I enjoyed that, but Makechnie's book does not have the elements that annoyed me in Bradley's book. Her protagonist, Guinevere St. Clair -- Gwyn, does have a mother...okay, so she isn't quite a normal mother because of brain damage, but she is there. And, Gwyn has a sister that she actually likes and does not try to poison (see the relationship between Flavia and her two sisters). She even has a father who is not cold and distant -- preoccupied, yes, with trying to find the cure for his wife. There's even a Nana (grandmother) who is normal; she can be both kind and cranky. All this normalcy may appear boring; however, Gaysie Cutter of the opening sentence is eccentric enough to balance out our cast of characters. The character that annoyed me the most is the mom. I know it's sad for me to say that. I kept thinking that the mom, who can't remember anything after her thirteenth year acts more like a five-year-old, but maybe her memory is stuck at 13 and the brain damage caused her emotions to be more like a child in primary or elementary school. I want to know what happens with Mrs. Vienna St. Clair.

What Flavia and Gwyn have in common is their sleuthing. Whereas Flavia is precocious and often knows more than the adults, Gwyn's vocabulary and missteps seem to fit her age. Still, dead bodies pop up, literally pop up, and mysteries abound, or perhaps, one mystery and lots of secrets. The story begs for a sequel. I probably will go back and read another Flavia de Luce book (such good vocabulary), but I really hope Makechnie will write the next Guinevere St. Clair book. Other characters who made brief appearances in this first book must have a storyline, and Gwyn's dad has to keep up his search into the brain (while Flavia's forte is poison, Gwyn educates us in matters of the brain).

Since I write one piece for review and blog (which includes personal connections to the book), I'll segue into the blog portion with two of my favorite quotes from The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair to close out the review portion. (As for why the title of "Homecoming", it involves a plot spoiler so you'll just have to read the book to find out why.)

"I sniffed, wrinkled my nose at the old smell, and looked around, wondering if death stank. Ms. Myrtle's chair sat alone in the corner, and I felt a wave of wistfulness for the tales of my parents, and even of Gaysie, sorry I hadn't asked for more stories and information, sorry I would never get the chance. And even though she was a frightful woman, I suddenly missed that she wouldn't be watching us grow up or sticking her head out the door to tell me to 'hush up!'" (216).

"To Guinevere St. Clair. This is what I know of friendship: Hold on to the people you love. Know what they feel like, smell like, and act like, so that when they're not there to hold on to, you remember. G.C." (232).

Plus, there's a reference to and adventure because of Huck Finn. Yeah, way to win a teacher's heart.


Family life: I've got to go with those last two quotes. How often I hear many people say, and I've said it often myself: I wish I had listened better and asked for more tales.

Spiritual transformation: Listening to people has shown up in this section before (and worth practicing again and again and again), but I'm going to go with the practice of learning more and more about our bodies which includes our brains. The research that is coming out about our brains is fascinating and very spiritually transforming!

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Austening (The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn)

Yes, I did use that proper name as a verb. I was not the first. Given the number of Austen fan clubs, reimagining of her stories, and productions based on those same stories (and let's not forget the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, UK), "Austening" is something to do.

Desperately searching for something light to read this summer, I happened upon this book on the NEW shelf at the library. It turns out that there was a bit of science fiction involved, but that was fine with me, even if it was time travel which is quite the fad. Author Flynn does have a bit of a twist at the end when it comes to time travel. Because that element was thought-provoking, I won't include any plot spoilers here but will bring it up in one or both of the lower two sections of my blog.

The story itself:

Light, summer beach read, even if you are in the mountains snowed in: Check. This will work.

As good as Austen: Nah. Characterization so-so. But, see up above. Still worth checking out of library.

What did I like about the book (beside wanting something light to read): the historical and biographical parts of Austen's life are woven fairly seamlessly in, and I enjoyed learning about those parts of her life. Also, this commentary from the protagonist is a good response to people who find Austen's characters petty and annoying (yes, people who dislike reading Austen do exist):

"What I love about Jane Austen has never been the marriage plot; the quest for a husband in her novels struck me, even when I was younger and more susceptible, as a MacGuffin [for my non-English speaking friends -- an element used to move the plot, perhaps even develop the characters, but not explained], or at least a metaphor. I have always suspected this is how she meant her books to be read. Many people from my world find it strange, even tragic, that the author of such emotionally satisfying love stories apparently never found love herself, but I don't.

"For one thing, she was a genius: burning with the desire to create undying works of art, not a cozy home for a husband and children. For another, she wrote the world she knew, and what she felt would appeal to readers. The marriage plot is interesting mostly for how it illuminates the hearts of her characters, what they learn about themselves on the way to the altar. She concerns herself with bigger questions: how to distinguish good people from plausible fakes; what a moral life demands of us; the problem of how to be an intelligent woman in a world that had no real use for them" (113, italics mine as is the explanation of a MacGuffin).

Caveats: Requisite sex scene in the latter half of the book. I don't think it was necessary. Frankly, if publishers or authors think they have to have a sex scene in the book, I will just write here that Harlequin Romances are a lot cheaper (particularly when you can get them even cheaper at yard sales and thrift stores) with all the sex you want.

I mentioned a different take on the ending of a time traveling novel so, be aware, the rest of this blog post includes information about the ending.
πŸ’•πŸ’•πŸ’• If you're any type of introspective person, you're going to look back on the past and have at least one or two regrets. Most time traveling novels focus on how important it is not to change the past and the characters in this book follow that same protocol until you get to the end and Flynn switches it up.

They find out that changing the past is good. Time travel is still sci-fi so we don't have to consider this possibility in actuality; however, it makes for a great discussion. Would I go back and change the past, knowing that I would be a different person, hopefully for the better, right? Which elements of our lives are what make us to be the people we like being and which elements make us into the people we dislike or even hate in our lives? While thinking these thoughts, another book has come into my life by Amy Morin, but that review has yet to be written.

---A spiritual practice...hmmm, good question. God inhabits past, present, and future, yet the I AM is outside of time. Would the Creator go back and change the past? It's an intriguing question. Some of my friends will pray (as I do also) for a prayer request even if the event, say a surgery, already happened and we are just now seeing the prayer request because God is outside of time and, as all-knowing God, knew we would be praying. I wonder if a good practice would be to talk with God about the past, present, and future, but particularly in talking about the past sins, not always with a shame-faced, hopeless, "consequences are consequences" attitude, but with a forgiven, hope-filled, "You are God of the past" attitude.