Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “The Patron Saint Of Liars” by Ann Patchett

Those who observe…
Naomi’s Photos

Ann Patchett is certainly one of my favorite authors.

I absolutely LOVED “State of Wonder” and “Run”.

“Bel Canto” and “Commonwealth” tie for second place.

The Magician’s Assistant was good too – I had that one as an audiobook!

“Truth and Beauty” is something else completely, not fiction,  I enjoyed it as well.

All these books were written after her debut novel,  (published in 1992), “The Patron Saint of Liars”, which I only recently got my hands on.

While I certainly enjoyed reading the book, I found it to be not as good as her later ones. This is to be expected, though perhaps my expectations that this would the case influenced my judgment. Her trademark movement of the plot forward from the point of view of different characters is a pleasure and I truly truly applaud her for her ability to deal with human drama in a moving way without turning the plot into a soap opera tear-jerker type of thing.  You think you know exactly what’s going to happen, but then events don’t unfold that way.

It’s just that the basic story itself, about Rose from California, who walked out on everything, went to a temporary home intended for Catholic unwed mothers to have their babies in Kentucky, and ended up staying there for years, isn’t that the compelling.  Though frankly, with all that is going on in the USA now related to the topic of abortions, you could say the plot is more relevant than ever.

I hesitate to say it but I think the book could have been improved by being a bit shorter, especially the part told by the man’s point of view.

BTW, the first few pages are a prologue and can be read on its own as well. The descriptions and the way she presents the events are stunning, riveting and so beautifully written! Perhaps I felt a bit of a let down afterward because of the comparison.

I certainly recommend this book, but not as your first book by Ann Patchett, if you have never read anything written by her before.

 

 

A Garland of Books – A “Catch Up Post”

Setting the stage
Naomi’s Photos

My backlog of book-posts isn’t getting smaller and something should be done before I forget what I have read!

So here’s a  brief “3 book catch-up” post for 2019!

Journey to the Dawn by Angoff

This book was recommended to me countless times by both my parents, who read it in the 1950s, shortly after it was published.  It tells the story of the extended Polonsky family,  first vividly depicting their lives in a tiny Jewish hamlet in Russia, then following their journey to a slum in Boston, in the early years of the 20th century.

I’ve read scathing criticism about the characters being too “goody-goody” to be believable and that the descriptions of the hardships were far too nostalgic and romanticized. The author based the book on his own family’s similar journey.   However, that didn’t particularly bother me, as I was interested in all sorts of minute details which I believe were faithfully rendered. For instance  the role of the “Feldsher”, who served the community in Russia instead of a doctor and the remedies he was able to administer and the fact that in Boston the immigrants were eligible for free health care and education. As a teacher, I was also very interested in the great details about Jewish education and public education available at the time.

I’m glad I read it.

One…
Naomi’s Photos
I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg

I’ve enjoyed several books by Fannie Flagg, but this one was disappointing. The story of a former, aging Miss Alabama was easy to predict, though the author did manage to throw in some unexpected details. I like the way the author always highlights characters from diverse backgrounds with warmth and respect in her books while giving you some historical background (and humor ) along the way, but in this book, it simply doesn’t come together so well.

” Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” and “Welcome to the World, Baby Girl” were so much better.

What goes on inside?
Naomi’s Photos
The Counterlife by Philip Roth

I discovered this book among the many books left in my father’s library. I was quite surprised since my father barely ever read fiction. Out of curiosity, I decided to read a few pages and found myself reading the whole book.

Every time I thought I had had enough of Nathan Zuckerman’s philosophies regarding people and Judaism, both in the U.S and in Israel), the book would surprise me completely. It’s called Counterlife for a reason – think of sliding doors allowing you to relive your life in alternate versions. The different versions do connect in clever ways which actually makes it seem quite believable.

It’s not a cheerful, feel-good read, but it’s a book that made me think. Although frankly, I’m not sure if I thought more about what he said or how he said it!

Saturday’s Book: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

A window of opportunity
Naomi’s photos

“Becoming”.

What a great title that rings so true – we aren’t one thing all our lives and that’s it. We change, we evolve, we “become”. I became a woman, a teacher, a wife, a mother, a blogger, a “dabbler” in photography, just to name a few. Who knows how many more things I will become in the future. A great point to make at the start of an autobiography!

The part that fascinated me the most in Michelle Obama’s tale of “becoming” is the part about her childhood and education. My mother had felt that section was too detailed but I was so interested in all of it. One one hand it highlighted the powerful role of parents who prioritized education for their children despite hardships and fostered curiosity and literacy skills.  On the other hand, it also highlighted the frightening aspect of  “lack of opportunity” and plain “luck”. Michelle Obama’s mother fought hard to get her daughter tested, out of classrooms where she wasn’t learning anything and into better educational programs.  And Michelle Obama worked extremely hard to excel in these programs. But what if she had been born a few years earlier? When there was no program that accepted talented inner-city children? Or was just as talented but didn’t secure one of the limited places? What if a child with her abilities had remained stuck in a classroom where no real learning was taking place?

These points are highlighted sharply in the story of an inner-city high-school Michelle Obama visited while she was The First Lady. The students couldn’t physically make it to school on some days because they were so afraid of the gang violence going on in the streets. She discussed the fact that education can be a “ticket out” but it isn’t so for everyone.

There are too many children out there who are left behind!

In short, I admired Michelle Obama even before I read the book and I found many more reasons to do so after reading.

I’ll be interested to read about what she “becomes” next – she can do and be whatever she decides to be.

Saturday’s Book: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

Metal nurse?
(Naomi’s Photos)

What an amazing book!

I was riveted! A book that was quite hard to put down!

I’m completely in awe of the way Emma Donaghue (yup, the author of “Room”) constructs the story – she manages to create what some call “a psychological thriller” while giving enough historical and cultural information to support the claim (my claim) that it feels like a historical novel

The book takes place in Ireland in the mid-1850s, not long after the great potato famine had “ended”. In a small, impoverished place, a wondrous girl seems to be existing on air – not eating but apparently thriving. It is considered by many to be divine intervention. A tough, no-nonsense English nurse, who was trained by the great Florence Nightingale herself,  is sent to investigate.

As the tension builds up and the events unfold, there are rich descriptions of the way of life there, the tragic famine, and of the early days of the newly born profession of nursing.

Believe me, if you haven’t read the book yet, this is all you need to know in advance.

Enjoy!

I certainly did!

 

It’s Saturday! TWO Movies, One Book & Half a Recipe – All Related to Korea!

Getting a different perspective…
Naomi’s Photos

I didn’t plan on having a “Korean Themed Month”.

In fact, there weren’t any theme plans at all  – it just turned out that way!

It all began with the movie “Parasites” by Korean director Bong Joon Ho.  There was a lot of favorable talk about the film after the Cannes film festival 2019  film (the movie won the Palm de Or) so we went to see it at the cinema.

I’m glad we did!

As someone who is very good at predicting events in movies, I found myself riveted to the screen (except for a few scenes which are difficult to watch. I closed my eyes), not knowing what would happen next.  It’s funny, sad, shocking and strange, leaving one with a lot to think about. There is a lot of social commentary here from different angles – is the movie just about a poor family taking advantage of a rich one (hence “parasites”) or are the rich also “parasites”? Perhaps the role of “diplomas” and what they really stand for?

Then we discovered that another movie by the same director was on Netflix – “Okja”.

This begins like an adventure/fantasy/action film that totally glued us to the screen, it was so larger-than-life, funny, and aesthetically beautiful.  After about 15 minutes into the film I was pretty sure that this movie was a Korean fantasy version of “Free Willy” except with a genetically modified supersize (truly big!) pig. A very good-natured pig, by the way.

I was WRONG.

Yes, the movie IS about saving the pig but there is so much more. Much more.

It seems to me that this is the director’s way of presenting things – starting with a funny and intriguing part, drawing you in, keeping you amused and then walloping you lots of social commentary.  No one is spared – rich and poor, animal exploiters and animal activists and more.

If you haven’t seen these movies don’t read up on them – just watch them. You really don’t want spoilers!

I am also reading the book “Pachinko”, by Min Jin Lee

I don’t usually write about books I haven’t quite finished (I’m reading it on a Kindle, so I can tell you that I have read 86% of the book) but there are exceptions to every rule.

The book is a family saga over several generations. It begins with a family of humble means in Korea, in the early years of the 20th century.  While it begins in Korea, the major part of the tale follows the family’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs over a long period of time as they live in Japan. There is a strong emphasis on cultural background (mainly Korean but Japanese as well) with vivid descriptions of food, dress, customs and more.

Till now I was quite happy with the book. There’s a lot I didn’t know. I hadn’t even looked up “Pachinko” until midway through the book because it hadn’t occurred to me that it was  a “thing”!  However, it’s a shame the book isn’t a bit shorter – this last section is getting to be far too “soap opery” for me.  There is a limit to the number of generations and family members who deal with calamities and blame most of them on the fact that the poor main character got pregnant when she was 15 to someone who would not marry her that I have the patience for.

If there is something that the book presents as a common theme to both Korean and Japanese cultures is that there are no “second chances”, the sins of the fathers will haunt the descendants forever…

Nonetheless, I recommend the book.

Finally,

I knew this was a “Korean Themed Month” when  I sat down yesterday to look for a new vegetarian recipe to try, and the first recipe that popped up was Vegan Korean Bulgogi! Not a dish I had heard of before. I can’t really report on that though since I made so many changes as I was cooking that it morphed into something else entirely.

Here’s to movies and books that take you around the globe!

 

 

 

 

Saturday’s (late) Book: “My Brilliant Friend” by Ferrante

Connected! Naomi’s Photos

This is the second book in a row with a poor choice of cover. The picture of the bride and groom striding purposefully on a beach towards a white city, with little bridesmaids in tow is misleading. It reinforced my suspicion that the book was probably “chick lit” or at least followed the familiar stereotyped patterns of books (and movies!) depicting friendship between women.

Whatever adjectives one may decide to use in regards to this book, stereotypical cannot possibly be one of them.

The writing style is unusual. It’s raw, uneven, different and (most of the time!) made the book hard to put down.

In addition, the book is not only about a powerful bond between two girls that begins in childhood and lasts as they mature into adulthood.  It is also a bare-bones, often brutal look at the cruel cycle of poverty and lack of education. The book makes it very clear how difficult it is to break out of this cycle which seems bent on repeating itself. It may be about Naples in the 1950s but the social picture depicted could fit many other times and locations.

As a teacher, I was very interested in the detailed descriptions of the girls’ education or lack of education, as the case may be. However, when the same level of detail was devoted to the wedding of one of the two girls, I found it rather tedious.

This book is the first one of a series. At first, I thought I would move straight on to book two as I was so intrigued by the book. Yet by the time I got to the end I decided that a change would be welcome and moved on to reading other things.

I DO recommend reading this book but I don’t think I will watch the series if it comes our way. The descriptions in the book are vivid enough for me!

Saturday’s Book: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 35th cat?
Naomi’s Photos

This book truly took me by surprise.

I was concerned that the book would be lurid and make me feel like I was reading the tabloids. The picture on the front cover of a woman with a knife in her hand and the quote on the back cover (“Dishes the dirt on what it’s really like being one of many wives”) did not seem encouraging.

In fact, the only reason I began the book was that it sort of fell into my lap.

I’m so glad I read it! The beginning part kept me a bit “wobbly” at first but that didn’t last long and I happily read all 606 pages!

Ebershoff not only cleverly weaves two main storylines together, but he also moves the plot forward by presenting many points of view, expressed in a wide variety of formats – personal diaries, letters, newspaper articles, court documents, research materials and more. I felt I was getting a much richer picture of the unfolding events.

One narrative is from the present day, involving a secret polygamous Latter-Day Saints sect called “The Firsts”, and a murder mystery. The other narrative follows the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s multitude of wives who left the fold and waged a crusade against polygamy. Her life story is told along with the origin story of the Mormon religion.

This is a work of fiction though not quite a historical novel. It’s important to read the end notes to understand more about which information is based on research and which parts are total fiction.  Ann Eliza was most certainly a real person!

Besides the issue of polygamy,  the depiction of a leader demanding blind commitment to every word, defining every doubt or disagreement as treason, of demanding one thing from his followers while setting himself above the rules is, unfortunately, an issue that is very much alive today. There is a powerful scene in the book in which Brigham Young uses his clever rhetorical skills to turn the tables on those who voice concerns over his unethical behavior, making them feel guilty for even having such impure thoughts. Such behavior did not die with Brigham Young…

As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover (or it’s back cover)!

Saturday’s Books by Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris

Fantasy and fantastic birds… Naomi’s Photos

It seems that while I was waiting for the weekend to write about the Neil Gaiman book I finished reading another book…

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I try to read at least one “young adult” book a year and Neil Gaiman is always a good choice. As a language teacher, I delight in his use of language!

I must admit that this one is a bit more predictable than  “The Graveyard Book” , which I thought was better, but it is still a good book.

One of Gaiman’s specialties is weaving teen-angst themes into fantasy books. Despite the fact that the main characters in this book are not teenagers (in their 20s, it seems) teenagers can easily identify with them. I won’t give you any spoilers related to the fantasy part but basically this book is about the introvert kid who never “fit in”, felt embarrassed by his father, lacked self-confidence who learns to believe in himself.

It’s good for everyone to be reminded of these issues, particularly if you happen to teach teenagers, which I do!

Behind the mask…
(Naomi’s Photos)

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris

I’ve been reading short stories by Sedaris in the New Yorker Magazine for years and have heard Sedaris read stories of his on This American Life podcast many times. However, it is the first time I have read an entire book by Sedaris, which is actually a collection of short stories.

I was a bit worried because there is a big difference between enjoying a short story by an author from time to time and reading a bunch of them in a row. I thought it would become too repetitive and that I would lose interest.

That didn’t happen.

There’s something unique about his style, I don’t know if I can explain it. The “back cover reviews” includes one that is relevant “This is a man who could capture your heart and lift your spirits while reading out the ingredients of a rice cake”. I don’t about “lift your spirits” but the rest is true. He seems to start by telling the most mundane, simple things he notices about people and places, his unusual family and his life with his partner and you wonder what IS this about. Then suddenly he connects all with thought-provoking observations about life, society, racism, relationships (in general and sexual ) and more.

I wouldn’t say I would describe many of the stories as “funny” like they say on the cover, though the story that connected “Hitchcock-like birds” and music from the sixties was “laugh out loud” funny. Though I do chuckle more when I hear him read aloud the stories.

 

Saturday’s Book: “About Grace” by Anthony Doerr

Faded glory…
Naomi’s Photos

This is a “Yes, but…” kind of book.

The “YES” part is pretty easy to describe:

  • Yes, it IS the same author that wrote “All the light we cannot see” . I enjoyed that book.
  • Yes, the style of writing is unique, the descriptions are rich and full of attention to detail. I’m sure that if someone wanted to adapt the book into a film, the visuals  would aspire  would be crystal clear.
  • The first part is great.
  • The author is skilled at ensuring you don’t jump ship mid way, even though the thought of quitting seemed quite attractive throughout the long middle section of the book.

BUT…

  • The plot that IS there REALLY requires you to suspend belief.
  • There’s very little plot and it moves slowly.  SLOWLY. The author must have wanted readers to truly have the sensation of time moving slowly…
  • It felt like the book was more about style than substance.

In short, I enjoyed the first part of the book. I did not succumb to temptation and quit because of the magnetism of the style and a desire to find out what really happened to Grace.

If this book was ever adapted into a movie I wouldn’t go to see it.

Saturday’s Book & “Reading Crisis”: “Hamilton” by Chernow

So many books… Naomi’s Photos

 

I can’t recall ever being in this kind of “bookish crisis”.

I have been interested in the book “Hamilton” since the whole Hamilton hysteria began. While I haven’t had the pleasure of attending a theatre production I certainly am familiar with the songs, the storyline and know a lot about the musical.

When the book actually landed on my table, I eyed it worriedly for several weeks. It’s a HUGE paperback edition. There are 820 pages though the actual text is only 731 pages. Believe me, the length of the book isn’t the issue, I have read longer books.  It is simply physically unwieldy. I assume this is the result of publishers wanting the print to be of a size that people over 50 would be able to read (I do appreciate that!) but try holding that in bed, or curled up on the sofa, or over lunch at a safe distance from your plate (in an upright position).

As someone who always says that a book is about the words, the story, the feeling and the message, irrelevant of t the physical form in which you enjoy it (printed, digital, audio) I felt very guilty about being dismayed at the shape of the book. I even considered buying a digital version but it did seem a waste of money considering that I actually have a printed copy on my table.

BIG… Naomi’s Photos

My bookish crises continued in the strangest manner after I began reading the book.

The book is really interesting and very well written. I loved it that the author chose to begin his book with the character of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. In fact, the author pays a lot of attention and respect to women and their role in Hamilton’s life and in the American Revolution.

I found the part about Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean (and his parents’ lives) fascinating as I really knew very little about those islands at that time, not to mention the slave trade related to the sugar commerce on those islands.  It was mind-boggling to read how quickly the brilliant Hamilton reached the epicenter of things within a fairly short time after arriving in the US.

As someone who is interested in geneology, I was also very interested in how the author presented family information with incomplete data – relying on sources from the period but clearly stating what is known for sure and what is an “educated guess”.

The American revolution was a lot messier and precarious than what I remembered from my school days in Massachusetts and I have to admit (or confess?) that there is a great deal I didn’t know or didn’t remember – the initial goal of the revolution wasn’t complete independence as a new country, the assistance of the French was extremely significant or the story of the Benedict Arnold’s wife.

It was also a revolution that spanned 8 years.

At page 151 the end of the revolution is not in sight.

I found myself interested in the book while I was reading it, but reading it less and less.

And less and less.

And then not reading Hamilton but not reading anything else because I’m reading Hamilton.

Naomi not reading any books?

AARGH!!!

So, on August 1st I officially stopped reading Hamilton and am now close to completing another book.

There.

I admitted it.

May you be more patient than me, it really is a good book.