Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Homegoing and Vinegar Girl

These two books don't have much in common except that they are part of a set.  Homegoing was one of the Tournament of Books selections this year, and Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which modern popular authors tackle retelling some of Shakespeare's plays.

I knew I wanted to read Homegoing from the moment I heard about it and saw its wonderful, vibrant, promising cover. I've made a conscious effort to read more slave stories as a way of trying to balance the >50 years in which I read none, but apart from that I loved the premise.  Basically, two half sisters in 18th century Africa who have never met are the genesis for two narratives--one girl remains in Africa as do her descendants, while the other is sold into slavery and her descendants are part of the American experience.

This was a fascinating way to travel both lines through history, and I really enjoyed hearing about both sets of stories and people equally.  The writing was excellent--powerful, straightforward, and flexible, meaning that I was impressed that the author, Yaa Gyasi, was able to give each character a unique voice that made him/her memorable as an individual.

Homegoing rates as one of the best books I've read so far this year.  Interestingly, in the Tournament of Books, Underground Railroad was named the champion, and Homegoing came in second.  It's all opinion, but while both are 5-star books, I preferred Homegoing.  Maybe it's the span of time, the richness and variety of characters and stories, some that intersect and some that don't.  I found Homegoing the more satisfying novel, though both were equally thought-provoking and powerful.

Compared to Homegoing, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler was pretty fluffy.  Here's what I wrote for my GoodReads review:

Wish that I could give this weird book another half star [I gave it 3]. It's a weird book because the basic storyline is pretty hard to work with as anyone who has seen Taming of the Shrew will tell you. Tyler does an okay job with modernizing the premise of a "Vinegar Girl" (i.e., a sharp-tongued, no nonsense woman) needing to get married, which is not an easy task--really, no one "needs" to get married these days, but Tyler came up with a reasonable reason. My main problem with the book is that Tyler's setting is contemporary Baltimore but the total feel of the setting is "Leave it to Beaver" land. The setting is so anachronistic that it's unsettling.

For example, there are no 2017 parents who would send their children to the preschool where Kate works as Tyler describes it--the parents sound modern, but the teachers and aides are completely unrealistic. Makes me wonder if Tyler has been in a 21st century preschool. And the notion that "everyone" started treating Kate differently when she announced her engagement because she was no longer doomed to be a single woman is preposterous.

But, and here's what saves the book for me, Tyler dealt in a wonderful way with that awful speech that Kate and her husband make at the end of Taming of the was so fitting and fun to read that I forgave Tyler for the weirdness of her anachronistic world.

Since I compared Homegoing to Underground Railroad, it's only fair that I compare Vinegar Girl with the other Shakespeare Project book that I've read so far, Hag-Seed.  They are light years apart. Hag-Seed was an interpretation of The Tempest and it made me look at the original, its themes and characters and plot, in a new way.  Vinegar Girl was a modernization with nothing really interesting or new to say about Taming of the Shrew. It was a fun read but not really memorable.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A Flurry of Wonderful Books

Life has been busy these days and I haven't done a good job of blogging about books finished, so here's a catchup post.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald - when I first heard about this non-fiction memoir, I thought I wanted to read it, but then I read mixed reviews, but ended up loving the audio version, as read by the author.  For me, it was a perfect mix of bird info (and I love hawks in particular, though not the fanatic that Helen is), personal memoir (Helen trains a goshawk as a means of dealing with her grief over her father's sudden death), and literary bio (Helen discusses the life and hawking experiences of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King as a context for understanding and explaining her relationship to Mabel, the goshawk she acquires and trains).  I thought the premise and structure and writing were all excellent.  I listened to this book while driving 200 miles a day for a week to be with my 93-year old mother while she was hospitalized for some serious complications to the whole aging process and I found that this book helped calm me down, took me out of my own worry, and helped me focus on making good decisions during that very hard week.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier - I read this with the GoodReads Tuesday Book Talk group and though it was reread, I had read it so long ago that I couldn't remember most of the details beyond the broad outline of the story.  DMM is not only a master of the psychological thriller, she is also a master of reader manipulation.  I find it interesting that both of DMM's masterpieces, this novel and Rebecca, are essentially designed to make the reader forgive a murderer for his deed.  There's a new movie version that is about to be released and I'm on the fence about whether I want to see it.  It is an oppressive, frustrating story, and I'm not sure I'm in the mood for that right now.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead - an excellent novel, innovative, compelling, and well-written.  That said, I'm still struggling with how I feel about the construct of the Underground Railroad itself.  In this novel, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad--with tracks in tunnels, physical stations, and physical locomotives and cars.  In a way, pushing the story into a fantasyland instead of keeping it in a historical context almost seemed to eclipse the accomplishments of the people who implemented the historical Underground Railroad.  I need to think about this book some more, but reading it was an incredible experience.

After Flodden, by Rosemary Goring - part of my Reading Northumberland reading project, this time I read about the aftermath of the Battle of Flodden in 1513 in which the English annihilated the Scots. I found it very readable with a wonderful cast of characters (it is a novel) who illuminated this period of English/Scottish border history for me.  I've got the sequel to this book, Dacre's War, on order and hope to read it later this month.

Castle, by David Macaulay - a children's book but one that explains the basic structure and function of the the various parts of a typical medieval castle.  I loved the illustrations and the clear, interesting text about the building of a castle and its walled town in Wales.

Happy May and happy reading!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly NOT Want To Read A Book

Today's Top Ten Tuesday theme, sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish, is sure to bring out the curmudgeon in least it did in me.

While I won't not read a book that I want to read because of any of the following gripes, if I am casually browsing, looking for a book to read on an airplane or while away time in the dentist office, these are not the way to sell me on a book's virtues.

  1. Anything described as "instant classic" - honestly, there's no such thing and the hype makes me gag.  It's not a classic if it's under 50 years old, so let's let the test of time weed out the duds.
  2. Books described as "xx meets xx" - as in "Jane Eyre meets Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - this doesn't tell me anything about whether I will like it, just that the publicist is trying to appeal to every demographic there is.
  3. Movie tie-in books - for the most part, I want to read the book first and not because there's a movie along with it, and I tend to like my covers to not have photos with the leading characters from the movie version splashed across them. 
  4. Back covers and inside front covers that have quote after breathless quote endorsing the book without a single line describing what the book is about.
  5. Bookclub seals - ala the Oprah Book Club.  That's not to say that Oprah doesn't usually pick good books, but I don't want her seal on my book, just like I tend to not wear clothes that have Izod alligators, Polo ponies, or Nike swooshes.
  6. Hardbound only - I tend to prefer my books paperback.  Easier to read, less to fuss with (i.e., dust jackets).  
  7. Footnotes on most pages.  Really a big turnoff for fiction, but almost as annoying in non-fiction.  I like notes at the end of chapters or clustered at the end of the book.  They get in the way of the narrative otherwise and make me feel guilty for not reading them.
  8. Hard to read type - it can't be too small or too ornate or too archaic (using a typeface to generate a mood is a bad idea, imo).
  9. Too many non-English phrases - I will suffer through occasional French, Spanish, German or whatever phrases, and even look up translations, but pages of non-English text will send me back to the stacks. Ditto pages of long poems or song lyrics.  I skip these for the most part.
  10. Black and white photos - I like non-fiction illustrations to be in living color.
Do any of these resonate with you?  Any that I missed?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Steel Bonnets

Steel Bonnets by Flashman author, George MacDonald Fraser, is a non-fiction account of the English/Scottish border troubles that plagued the area from Elizabethan to Georgian times.

I confess that I didn't finish the book as it got too ponderous for me, but the first half was quite interesting.  The border lands during this time period make the American Wild West look positively tame.  Cattle raids, family feuds, lynchings, lawlessness, pillage, revenge, spite, and sheer dastardliness were the norm.  It was absolutely crazy, and neither the English nor the Scottish governments were at all effective in curtailing the violence.

The opening of the pages of the book was absolutely priceless -- go to Amazon and "Look Inside" and read pages 1 and 2. Basically, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Billy Graham are archetypical Border Reivers.  My imagination has been having fun putting Richard Nixon in a steel bonnet.

And the rest of the introduction, including the bit about Hadrian's Wall and Roman Britain, were terrific and definitely germane to my current interest in Reading Northumberland, but after awhile I felt I just didn't need to read any more anecdotes about the uniformly rotten people who made life hell for those who were simply trying to stay alive and keep their families fed and safe.

As I walk the Hadrian's Wall Path this July, I will be on the lookout for Peel towers as well as traces of Roman Britain, thanks to Steel Bonnets.

From Wikipedia: Arnside Tower, a late-medieval Pele tower in Cumbria

Now, that I have a better understanding of the history of the area and the social and political dynamics, I may revisit Dorothy Dunnett's Game of Kings, which I abandoned a few weeks ago.

I'm glad I read as much of Steel Bonnets as I did, but also glad I didn't feel compelled to soldier on.

Monday, April 03, 2017


Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood's retelling of Shakepeare's The Tempest, came to my attention because it was on the long list of the Tournament of Books for 2017, and I wanted to read a few of the contenders early in the year.  It turns out that Hag-Seed is also part of the Hogarth Press's Shakespeare Project in which popular modern authors revisit some of Shakespeare popular plays and do a modern rendition.

Here's what the Hogarth Press has to say about this project:
For more than four hundred years, Shakespeare’s works have been performed, read, and loved throughout the world. They have been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations. The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917 with a mission to publish the best new writing of the age. In 2012, Hogarth was launched in London and New York to continue the tradition. The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. The series launched in October 2015 and to date will be published in twenty countries.
Honestly, I don't often care for the results of projects like this, but since I really do like The Tempest I gave Hag-Seed a try, despite not much caring for the only other book I 've read by Atwood, The Blind Assassin.

Thankfully, it was worth the plunge.  I enjoyed everything about Hag-Seed.  I thought it imaginative, relevant, well-written with convincing characters and dialogue, and thoughtful.

The basic idea is that the Prospero character, Felix, is unfairly stripped of his director job at a Canadian theatre company, and goes into exile with the ghost of his dead daughter until circumstances provide him with the opportunity to teach his enemies a lesson and right the wrongs done to him.  The circumstances happen to be his staging of a production of The Tempest at a prison where he has been working as a literacy teacher, bringing Shakespeare to the inmates. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the staging of the play is incredible.

There's a lot going on in Hag-Seed, and I'm not sure it would be nearly as enjoyable if I hadn't known The Tempest fairly well. I've read it multiple times and seen it on the stage three or four times, and seen several movie versions.  I hope they make a movie of this book, because I would absolutely love to see this production.

In addition to Felix and his set of inmates who play the rest of the characters--and his casting notes are priceless--I loved how Felix explained The Tempest, in the context of his own life.  What makes Shakespeare timeless is that reader after reader, generation after generation, can see their own situation in his words, and this book illuminates that beautifully.  Felix, teaching The Tempest in a prison because he is exiled from theatre company, has made imprisonment and revenge the major themes of his production. Half the time, reading Hag-Seed was like reading first rate lit crit, which I love to do.

Final note--I read part of the novel as an e-book and then checked out the audio version, and listened to part of it.  The reader's voice reminded me of Kevin Kline, who I think would be perfect in the role of Felix...should they ever make a movie of this marvelous book.

Has anybody else read any of the titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project? Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler's take on The Taming of the Shrew, has some appeal as does Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

News of the World

I love Westerns.  I always have but it doesn't seem to be a popular genre these days.  So, when I heard about News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, I knew that I had to read it.  It did not disappoint.

Set in Texas shortly after the Civil War, News of the World chronicles the adventures of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a seventy-something veteran of three wars, as he journeys across the state in order to return Johanna to her relatives.  Johanna, now ten years old, was captured by the Kiowa Indians when she was six.  Her parents and sister were killed in the attack, and she was adopted by the tribe and raised as a Kiowa.  Needless to say, she is not a willing participant in the journey at the outset, wanting to stay with the only family she now remembers.

I absolutely loved how their relationship evolved from wary distrust to love and loyalty and understanding.  They became comrades in arms.  They became a girl and her beloved grandfather, and Captain Kidd demonstrates some of the best parenting practices ever.

I also loved Captain Kidd's job--a former printer, he now reads the news of the world to residents of remote Texas towns.  His readings are paid-for performances, where locals pay a dime to hear about polar expeditions, scientific discoveries, the doings of royalty, and sundry other articles of interest.  I know that people like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens traveled around, doing readings of their work, but I never thought about how reading a newspaper from New York or London would provide an evening's entertainment.  It makes sense, though.  A precursor to CNN.

As the pair travels from Wichita Falls to San Antonio in the springtime, they encounter a variety of people, some of whom help them along the way and others who fight them to the death. They also encounter beautiful countryside and starry nights.  I haven't spent much time in Texas, but reading about spring in the hill country made me want to pack up the SUV and head south for a few weeks, to see the flowers and watch the birds.

Finally, there is a gun battle that the Captain and Johanna are involved in that is probably the single best Western frontier battle scene I've ever read.  The ingenuity of Johanna is simply delightful, and that is high praise considering gun battle scenes are not exactly my cup of tea.  Cliches aside, it is wonderful!

Monday, March 20, 2017


Medicus, by Ruth Downie, was a thorough treat.  Part of my Reading Northumberland project, Medicus is the first in a mystery series featuring Roman army doctor Gaius Petrius Ruso, serving in Britannia in the mid-second century.  It takes place in Deva (aka modern Chester) shortly after Trajan's death and just before Hadrian's visit, during which he orders the building of his wall.

I did start to read this novel a few years ago and stopped reading only a quarter of the way into it when I got interested in another topic.  I'm so glad that I revisited the book as I prep for my Hadrian's Wall Path hike this July, as it was so much fun to read.

I enjoyed the central character, Ruso, who is well-meaning but plagued with problems as his good intentions get in the way of career advancement, familial obligations, and medical integrity.  I enjoyed reading about his life on the Roman frontier, his roommate and medical colleague, the charming Valens, and his adjustment to his move from his last posting in Africa to the very different town in Britain.  Downie provided a good bit about the remnants of the Druid religion, and I liked visiting the villages of the Britons.  She did a good job of showing both sides of the story--the Roman occupiers and the Britons, some who resist and some who assimilate.

The mystery was interesting too--involving slaves, prostitution, graft, murder, and love.  What more do you need for a thumping good mystery? Oh, yes, good writing and great dialogue--Downie provided both.

I definitely plan to read more in the series for fun and knowledge as I prep for my trek.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Tournament of Books - personal update

I decided late to jump on the Tournament of Books bandwagon and so only read a couple of the contenders.

I started with We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and also read My Name is Lucy Barton.  I'm currently reading Hag-Seed (modern retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, by Margaret Atwood, which was on the long list but didn't make the cut for the short list brackets), and am still planning on reading The Underground Railroad, Homegoing, and possibly The Mothers and Grief is a Thing with Feathers.

So looking at a head-to-head competition between the two I've finished, I definitely preferred Elizabeth Strout's Lucy Barton over Kaitlyn Greenidge's Charlie Freeman.

Charlie Freeman is a debut novel and it shows--Greenidge has a powerful story with difficult themes and challenging characters, and it seems that she is never quite able to manage all of those elements cohesively.  After I finished the book, I read a couple of reviews that talked about the book being messy, and I agree with that.  There were significant parts that I just didn't get--in particular, the characters of the mother and the younger sister baffled me. I could never make sense of either one.  Likewise, the institution where the family went to live was something I never believed in.  I liked the premise of the story, and I liked the complexity of the characters, but the story-telling was clumsy.

Not so with Lucy Barton.  I loved the structure of the novel--the way Lucy tells the story of her life through her conversations with her mother.  I found the mother borderline believable, primarily because I cannot imagine any mother acting the way she did towards her child, but that could be my own narrow view of the world.  But the writing was great, the dialogue realistic, and the story-telling superb.  It was all flashback with little action, and yet the story was taut with tension.

On to Hag-Seed--in a word, it is great.  I usually don't care for modern retellings, though I have done this myself with some Austen works, but this is spot on, thoughtful, with superb characters and dialogue and it reflects a profound and sensitive reading of The Tempest.  I'm half-way done, so I can't say for sure how I'll feel, but for sheer reading enjoyment, I pick The Hag-Seed.  After reading Atwood's The Blind Assassin and disliking it, I jumped to the conclusion that I didn't like Atwood. Now, I considering reading some of her other works.

It'll be interesting how I rate all the books in this year's Tournament.  I'll keep you posted!  Anyone else reading along these lines?

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland

I read The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart as part of my Reading Northumberland project.

For the most part, I really enjoyed it.  Stewart, a UK politician who was an MP during the writing of the book, details two long-distance walks. The first is an East-to-West trek along the Hadrian's Wall Path while his 93-year-old father meets him at various points along the path for a meal or chat.  The second is a much longer trek from his cottage in the Lake District to his father's house in Scotland. The third section of the book involves his father's death and funeral.

In the course of all three sections, Stewart talks about his and his father's careers, in the UK and abroad, politically and militarily, in the case of his father.  He also delves into the history of the region, and discusses the socio-political forces at work over time, from the point of view of his own Conservative political stance.

I enjoyed the middle section the most.  I was a bit annoyed during the Hadrian's Wall section because I wanted to hear more about the Wall and the walk and the environment, but he kept on veering off into his time in Afghanistan or his father's time in Malaysia and other foreign posts or his childhood or his education.  Not that that wasn't interesting, but it wasn't why I was reading the book.

The middle section, however, was a more cohesive narrative that included the history, geography, ecology, and philosophical musings about the nature of borders and boundaries, natural and political. I learned a lot and appreciated Stewart's descriptions of the landscape and villages and farms and cities as well as the farmers, laborers, and others he encountered.

I think the single most interesting thing I learned was about the Highland Boundary Line, the geological demarcation between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland.
Just beyond my father's fences, and the suburbs of Crieff, lay the starkest geological division in Britain. Four hundred million years ago, two continents--once 4,500 miles apart--had collided. A little later, two further plates had struck, slipped, and sheared, driving tight ripples diagonally across Scotland. The older schists and slates of rock to the north-west rose to form the Grampian Mountains. This chain--200 million years older than anything in southern Scotland or England--was the beginning of the Highlands. At its foot to the south was the rift valley of red sandstone, once an ocean, in which our fields stood--a separate geology that stretched a hundred miles long and fifty miles south, forming a separate culture.
Here's a map that shows the location of the Highland Boundary Fault.

I found the last section heavy going, and ended up skimming the very end.

I really enjoy travel books and trekking stories, and those parts of The Marches were quite good. However, the entire book read like a politician's position paper that would vault him onto the next stage of his career.  Not to mention that politically I'm not very sympathetic to the Conservative cause as a general rule.

So, a mixed reaction.  I read the book wanting to get something different from what the author wanted to give.  Sometimes that happens.

Next up in non-fiction is The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers, by George MacDonald Fraser. I'm also reading Medicus, another Roman Britain fiction, and have a few both fiction books on deck.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Dinner

I really enjoy the TuesdayBookTalk Group at GoodReads--it's a small group but I learn about and read books with this group that I wouldn't normally either know about or prioritize, and I've really found some gems this way.

Our February genre was thriller and the book we read was The Dinner, by Herman Koch, translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Two couples, consisting of two brothers and their wives, get together over dinner at an Amsterdam restaurant, to discuss how to handle the serious trouble that their teenage sons are in. In the course of the meal, the narrator, Paul, provides the backstory, not only to the crime that the sons have committed, but to his own mental health, as well as the relationships between himself, his wife and son, and his politician brother and his family.

Doesn't sound much like a thriller?  Think again.  I found my heart racing every bit as much as when I read Girl on the Train as the horror beneath this "happy family" slowly but inexorably surfaced.

In the end, I found this story to be more about the nature of evil and the exploitation of the mentally ill than I about anything else.  Yes, the story touches on parenting and protecting those we love as well as superficiality, pretension, and ambition, but all that seemed trivial when all was revealed at the end of the story.  Truly chilling...and well-written, well-crafted, and very tight.  A good book.