Dept. Of Speculation–Jenny Offill (Audio Book)

When this book first began, I was not sure if I like it.  It was all over the place and weird.  I rechecked the summary.  The wife narrates almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts as she progresses through infertility, motherhood, professional struggles, and infidelity.  She quotes philosophers.  She says things most of us have thought at some time.  She seems a little mean and vindictive.  I became frustrated with her, frankly.  Infidelity is awful, but there are worse things in life.  Disease, pain, death, unending grief resulting from death.  Infidelity because your love no longer loves you.

But I loved “the wife’s” voice.  I missed her when the book ended.  I need to find more Jenny Offill.

Finished 8/21/15

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Thomas Cromwell–Tracy Borman (Audible)

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the BBC adaptation of which aired in the US this year, has made Thomas Cromwell an object of popular interest again.  In fact, Borman’s website reports that the paperback version of the work was released the day after episode one of BBC’s Wolf Hall aired and the book shot to #4 on the NYT Bestseller List.  Hitting this audience seems to have been Borman’s goal.

A brilliant rags to riches story, with all of the emotional power of a medieval morality tale as the executioner takes three blows to sever Cromwell’s head from his body, Cromwell should fascinate American audiences.  Born the son of a tradesman (of many trades in his attempt to make a living), Cromwell left home to serve many masters on the continent and proved himself an apt student of politics and business.  Loyal to his masters and brutal to his enemies, Cromwell served both Wolsey and Henry VIII and oversaw the executions of many, including Anne Boleyn and Thomas More.  Borman’s Cromwell is, above all, rational.  He is also loyal and takes care for the poor, particularly widows.

Borman’s biography does not make new claims.  In fact, at times, Borman repeats old saws that bear greater scrutiny, such as Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.  Borman includes an epilogue that discusses the subsequent historical interpretations of Cromwell, which fell heavily along religious lines.

One of the difficulties of an audio book is that any critical apparatus is not visible (or, usually, read).  Borman is an PhD and former professor of history and has written other works (and has forthcoming works) on the Tudor period.  She seems to have been early on the alt-ac track, having worked for historic preservation organizations.  Although at times repetitive, Borman retells Cromwell’s story coherently and with significant reference to primary sources, even if she does not always put those sources and/or their authors in context.

Finished 8/1/15

The Woods–Harlan Coben (Audio)

I will not say the writing in this novel was at classic level, unless it is classic murder mystery prose.  These types of weaknesses become more apparent in audio, where you read at the narrator’s speed rather than letter your eyes fly over the words as you look for the next clue.

The premise was interesting, which was what led me to purchase this from Audible.  The son of Russian immigrants turned New Jersey prosecutor is in the midst of a difficult rape case when the decades-old disappearance/murder of his sister and three other summer campers resurfaces in the shape of a middle-aged man’s body found in an alley that seems to be one of the missing campers.

Paul Copeland, “Cope,” is a widower (his rich beautiful perfect wife died of cancer six years previously) with a young daughter.  His father is recently deceased and his last words, to find her, haunt Cope.  Fortunately, he has a saint for a sister-in-law and a jovial brother-in-law who help pick up the slack with his daughter when the overpaid nanny is unable to care for her.  He has a solid moral center, but he lied to investigators the summer his sister disappeared.  He left cabin guard duty to sneak into the woods and make love to his girlfriend.  He lied, of course, to protect her, but our hackles go up a little.  Lies from a prosecutor?

The Woods is full of stock characters, including Cope’s lead investigator, Muse, a middle-aged, single woman who wears practical shoes and, although reed thin, eats like a horse.   Cope’s teenage love is an alcoholic English professor with a doctorate in psychology whose students all post positive online reviews of her classes.  Her father, the owner of the summer camp, is a stock aged hippie, complete with vintage yellow VW Beetle.  And, yes, because Cope is the son of Russian immigrants, the KGB makes an appearance.

I cannot say with confidence that I would have listened to this book had I known the level of writing, which became distracting to the point that my husband and children were mocking it when they were in the car when I was listening to it.  The end was also disappointing–cliche and vague.  If you like a book that lets you make fun of it or you want a quick beach read, The Woods might suffice.

Finished 6/21/15

Orange is the New Black-Piper Kerman (Audio)

The rave reviews for the Netflix series have been so persuasive, that I added the audiobook to my listening library.  When our oldest daughter joined the chorus of those advocating for the series, I moved it up on my listening list.

What I have to say will not make me popular with fans of the series (which I have not yet watched).  I did not much like Piper Kerman.  She is a privileged white woman caught in a web of crime that she did not need to commit and in which she became involved because she was seduced by the luxury it brought.  She made the right choice and left the life of crime when she realized her girlfriend would sell her out with little provocation, but her past catches up with her and after a torturous wait for trial, she lands in Danbury women’s prison.  Piper does a wonderful job describing how her identity and privilege were stripped from her, how tribalism became a way to survive the early days of prison, how some of the guards went to great lengths to emphasize their power and the inmates’ weakness.  The drop and squat routine on visitors’ days is horrifying to anyone who has lived in a culture of privacy.

As the book went on I found myself liking her less and less.  She recognizes and names her privilege–many times.  She repeatedly relates guards and others asking how a girl like her ended up in a place like that.  This demonstrates the racism and classism of the system, but it also reminds the reader that Piper is not the kind of girl who belongs in prison.  Her crime was old and minor.  At one point she realizes that her role in the drug trade helped make possible the crimes of the women in much less privileged positions who are her sister inmates.  She feels shame and guilt, but there is not much  further discussion.  She is enraged that the system does so little to prepare the other women for life on the outside, but offers no suggestions.

Why, I started to wonder, these brief nods to the problems of others and the reminders of her own status?  Life in prison must have been awful?  Why does it so often sound, in Piper’s words, like an extended girls’ camp with particularly obnoxious camp counselors?  She may give the clue herself.  Many of the women refuse visitors because they don’t want anyone to see them as inmates, to realize what their lives are really like.  Piper’s portrayal of the social networks, the movie nights and prison recipes, mani/pedis and salon moments keep us from seeing her as an inmate and instead help us imagine an extension of her college experience, but with fewer choices on the salad bar and greater diversity in the dorm.    So why write the memoir?  To draw attention to the problems of the system?  If so, why is this not a greater focus?  I came to believe that Piper wrote the memoir to show that her life was not that bad, that her friends and family should not look at her and imagine prison rapes by guards and “dykish” (her word) inmates.  Although a lesbian when she committed her crime, she wants to be clear that she was not “gay for the stay,” that she did not return to her former lifestyle, and that she did not let anyone inside know about her former sexual identity.

From what I understand, the series diverges quite wildly from the book, so I will give it a chance.  I will try to overcome my irritation with pampered Piper and to focus on my appreciate for her courage and her positive attitude in the face of events that would have soured most of us, and by us I mean privileged white girls.  Who have the voice and the means to tell our stories and an audience with the means to consume them.

Finished 5/14

Love in the Time of Cholera-Gabriel Garcia Màrquez

This book has been a favorite title of mine for a long time. It rolls off the tongue and is suggestive without telling the whole tale.   I had not, however, actually read it.  When the audiobook popped up in my Audible feed, I was excited to remedy this omission and step into the world of this great writer as I drove.  When Garcia Màrquez died, the time was ripe to finally give this classic a listen.

Listening to this book was perfect.  Garcia Màrquez’ translated prose most often sounds like poetry (much like that of Maya Angelou, whom I’m listening to currently).  Although the books was many hours long, no matter how long the gap between listening sessions, I was able to dive right back into the world of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, who fall in love through letters when Fermina is just a sheltered school girl.  Forced apart by Fermina’s father, the two go separate ways and when they reunite, Fermina does not know what she saw in the unusual young man.  Florentino never loses his passion for Fermina, however, and keeps her in his sight as well as in his heart.  He pursues numerous love affairs, but keeps them so private that the town rumors believe him a homosexual.  He pursues his career with the intent to become worthy of the higher class Fermina Daza and rises through the ranks and quietly accumulates wealth.  Fermina marries for position and to meet her family’s expectations, increasing her own social position in the process, to the patrician Dr. Juvenal Urbino.  The two fall in love on their European honeymoon, but lose track of that young love on their return home.  Their marriage follows the path of many marriages–children, love, less love, more love, banality, and an affair, retribution, widening distance, reconciliation, then Urbino’s accidental death while trying to retrieve Fermina’s bird from a tree.

The novel follows first Fermina, then Urbino, then Florentino.  Following Urbino’s death, after an initial misstep, Florentino renews his slow, steady courtship of the now aged Fermina.  What follows is beautiful.  Fermina resists his attentions as she deals with her grief.  Garcia Màrquez’ description of her stages of grief is beautiful and painful and became my favorite passages in the book.

Love takes many forms through different stages of our lives, as this novel captures. It ennobles, it devastates, it disappoints.  Here love is not only for the young and is, in fact, at its most perfect in those our culture often denies the right to love and desire.

Finished 5/14

The Ocean at the End of the World–Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  He came into my life through the movie, Coraline, which my daughter watched dozens of times, which meant I watched it dozens of times.  Coraline was one of the few movies she has watched this way that I found myself drawn more deeply into each time we watched.  We went from Coraline to the audiobook of The Graveyard Book and I was hooked. 

When Gaiman’s new book, The Ocean at the End of the World, came out, I ordered it hard copy and audiobook.  I love hearing him read his books and I highly recommend his audiobooks to everyone.  For this book, I read the hard copy first, then listened to the audio and the audio brought out the poetry of certain lines that I had missed in my rush to read the plot of the hard copy.

Gaiman’s plots are objects of beauty.  They get you from point a to point b, but they take some time to meander a bit in the middle to interesting places, like a child’s path from point a to b.  Adults go directly; children meander and explore the interesting.  The Ocean at the End of the World begins with an adult on his way from a funeral to the gathering after, a gathering he does not look forward to attending.  Gaiman never says whose funeral it is, but a parent seems likely as the hero ends up driving past the site of his demolished childhood home and down the lane to the Hempstock farm.  The first lines of the first chapters say much about this character.

“Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.”  “I was not a happy child, although from time to time I was content.” 

The hero has a rush of memories return to him as he sits at the edge of a pond that his friend Lettie called ‘the ocean,’ and he is again seven years old, a bookish child bullied at school, conscious of not satisfying his father, pestered by his younger sister, and aware of his mother’s distraction due to increasing money problems.  These money problems push the family to rent out the hero’s room and he then shares with his pesty sister.  The first lodger we meet is a South African opal miner and here the plot picks up as his taxi runs over the hero’s kitten and then the world spins out of sorts after he commits suicide in the family’s Mini and draws down something dark from somewhere else that begins to cause mischief in the neighborhood.  The Mini was driven onto the neighbor’s farm at the end of the lane and it is here that the hero meets Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother.  Lettie is eleven, but seems much older.  When mischief begins after the suicide, Lettie knows what has happened and she takes the hero with her to “bind” the being that has been called into their world by the opal miner.  The Hempstocks are not ordinary women, their farm not an ordinary farm, and Lettie’s pond truly an ocean.  Just what they are is unclear, but they have been around since before the creation of the moon and have lived on other worlds. There are Hempstock men, but they have left long ago to wander the world and at one point Ginny Hempstock, Lettie’s mother, tells the hero that one only needs men in order to breed other men and that Lettie has no father.  I am probably missing a mythological reference with the Hempstock’s but I was okay with that.  I knew there was an allusion, but it played at the edges of my reading rather than consuming me like a puzzle.

The spirit finds its way back into the hero’s world in the form of a nanny/housekeeper/lodger, Ursula Monkton, and she is all sorts of children’s fears wrapped into one.  A nanny who acts sweet in front of one’s mother and tortures you as soon as she leaves.  A nanny who tortures you and bribes your sister into turning a blind eye.  A nanny who seduces your father and turns him against you.  A nanny who wants to kill you or maybe just torture you until you wish you were dead.  A nanny who steals your family and pushes you out.

As is the case in most Gaiman books, many scenes seem overdetermined–there are layers and layers of meaning going on.  At some points I thought this was a story about sexual abuse, particularly with these lines from Ursula Monkton to our hero:

“I’ve been inside you,’ she said.  ‘So a word to the wise.  If you tell anybody anything, they won’t believe you.  And, because I’ve been inside you, I’ll know.  And I can make it so you never say anything I don’t want you to say to anybody, not ever again.”

At other points I thought it was a story about emotional abuse.  In describing his father, the hero says,

“He never hit me.  He did not believe in hitting.  He would tell us how his father had hit him, how his mother had chased him with a broom, how he was better than that.  When he got angry enough to shout at me he would occasionally remind me that he did not hit me, as if to make me grateful.  In the school stories I read, misbehavior often resulted in a caning, or the slipper, and then was forgiven and done, and I would sometimes envy those fictional children the cleanness of their lives.”

In a horrifying scene, the hero’s father, now under Ursula Monkton’s spell, pushes his son under in a tub of cold water in a scene that for this American brought out group guilt about waterboarding.  Thanks to quick thinking from the hero, he does not die, but Gaiman leaves us wondering if the father would have gone that far. 

And more emotional abuse from Ursula:

“We don’t talk to him,’ she told my sister.  ‘We won’t talk to him again until he’s allowed to rejoin the family.”

At other times I thought the story was just about bullying.

“‘Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of anything.’  ‘Oh, monsters are scared, said Lettie.  ‘That’s why they’re monsters.  And as for grown-ups…’ She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, ‘I’m going to tell you something important.  Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole world.”

And then it is a story about sacrifice (which is beautiful became the hero loves the Narnia books).  And home.  And becoming an adult and living a life worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for us. 

Read it.  Listen to it.  Then do it again.

Finished 5/9/14

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry–Rachel Joyce (Read by Jim Broadbent)

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I picked this book from audible on a whim.  The premise, an older man walking across England to save an old acquaintance dying of cancer, had potential.  A bonus was my love for Jim Broadbent.  

What I found was a book that currently tops my list of all-time favorite novels.  Rachel Joyce’s writing is brilliant and  Jim Broadbent is perfect as Harold.

This story is haunted, but by whom and why is unclear.  Part of Joyce’s brilliance is telling a simple story and holding what she tells and what she holds back in perfect balance.

Harold is recently retired, married to bitter Maureen, in a life that is going nowhere.  Over breakfast a letter is delivered from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague, who is dying of cancer.  Harold is immediately awash in emotion, ashamed that she wrote to him after he had neglected to even try to find her all of these years.  He writes her a note and walks out to post it, but he keeps on walking past all of the mailboxes, and then out of town.  A chance encounter with a young woman in a garage convenience store leads him to decide to walk to Queenie in order to save her from the cancer.  

Maureen is embarrassed and far from supportive.  She lies to their neighbor, unable to admit Harold has taken off to save another woman.  She mocks Harold when he calls, reminding him the farthest he has walked has been to the car in the driveway.  Saddened, but undeterred, Harold continues on his mission.

Adrenaline drives him through the initial push, but reality sets in and only the social pressure of having told companions his plans keeps him going.  Harold sheds pounds off his body and off his psyche as he walks.  Almost immediately he begins remembering and we see that, not only is his relationship with his wife troubled, but he also experienced a troubled childhood.  Joyce peels back the layers of Harold’s painful relationships, letting us in only as Harold is able to face each memory.  Harold’s connection to nature plays a huge role in his psychic restoration.  At the start of his walk he stays in guest houses, but hates the feeling of being within the walls.  After an epiphany about the nature of pilgrimage, he sheds nearly all of his goods and begins sleeping outdoors or in barns.  A discussion with a man in a bar at lunch leads to newspaper coverage of his story and a flock of pilgrims joining him on his journey, which soon becomes their journeys and power struggles ensue, all of which Harold tries to stay above.  When the pilgrims finally leave him behind and continue to Queenie without him because he has insisted on taking a detour in order to keep a promise made early in his journey, Harold is first relieved, then lost in despair, which only worsens as he loses his way and find his detour was for nought.  This was the hardest section of the novel to endure and hearkened to Jesus’ days of temptation in the desert.  

Throughout the novel, the reader knows there is a big secret at the heart of the story–maybe more than one.  Why is his relationship with Maureen so wrong?  Does Queenie have something to do with it?  Why is his relationship with his son so wrong?  Does Queenie have something to do with it?  When the answers come, they come crashing down, leaving me holding my breath to see if Harold would survive their revelation.  

There are books from which I have drawn quotes that I want to remember forever, but this book was chock full of them.  Harold’s insights are simple, beautiful, and true.  His Unlikely Pilgrimage is a must read, and re-read, and re-read.

Finished 10/1/13