Both of the following books were written by Italian authors and both are short books, printed in a small format – 162 pages / 203 pages.
Naturally, I assumed I would be reading each one quite quickly, especially as we’ve been on lockdown.
I was mistaken.
“Invisible Cities” by Calvino is a book that I had to read very slowly. In fact, I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time. The book isn’t really a “book” in the usual sense, there’s no real story line – but rather a “procession” of very rich descriptions of more than 50 “invisible cities”. All these cities are considered to be the many faces of Venice.
After reading a description I had to stop and think – what did I just read? What was Calvino trying to say here?
Sometimes I was moved, and felt that a description was powerful, or lyrical. So many people live /work in a place and don’t really look at it – so much is being missed!
Sometimes I didn’t get the point of the description at all.
Sometimes I got annoyed that some descriptions were a bit repetitve.
I know it’s a strange thing to say, but I truly found the book to be too long. I wished it had been a series of blog posts which would send me a description of one “invisible city” a week to ponder. More than 50 such descriptions in short succession had me losing the ability to focus properly on them all.
It is interesting to note that in Hebrew this book is called “Shoelaces”. I have no idea what the original title in Italian means but “ties” is a more of a “give- away” of a clever metaphor that the shoelaces represent in the book.
This is a book you don’t want to know too much about in advance as it has some surprising parts. It’s a story about a family in a crises, over years, and is told in different ways in the books several parts. I had the book pegged one way and then it became a little different.
One one hand, it held my interest and I read it (yes, much quicker than the previous one) all the way through gladly. On the other hand, I didn’t find the characters completely “convincing” and some of the story line didn’t make sense, or rather “ring true”.
Everything seems so vivid in my mind (a week after completing the book!), the characters, the sights, sounds, and smells, that I feel as if I had seen a movie!
True, neither books nor movies convey smells, but it seems that the end of the 19th century (actually, 1893, I believe) in the Wild West, particularly the Arizona Territory, wasn’t a place that smelled washed and clean. Lack of water and drought certainly served as a powerful excuse, though that was certainly not the only source of smells in this book.
But clarifying THAT statement would be a big spoiler.
I am well aware that I don’t tend to write too much detail about the plot of a book in my posts and that some of you go off to read summaries of the book elsewhere. I strongly urge you not to read to much about it in advance. The book starts slowly, but as the plot unfolds in surprising twists and turns the pace becomes quicker and quicker until the final, unexpected “showdown”.
You don’t want to ruin the experience.
A person needs to know that it is a Western, but not a traditional Western. There are strong, interesting female characters featuring prominently in the book, along with male characters you would expect to find in a Western and those you wouldn’t.
The book relates to actual, historically documented events that occurred, and feels well researched, down to the details, including the dialect and phrases of the period. However, at the same time, not everything in the book is grounded in reality…
I have some good excuses for the current backlog. The books here are only part of it – another post coming shortly!
In August I was either (happily) doing things away from my computer or madly trying to create a great deal of teaching material that would help me deal with going back to school “COVID Style”.
But let’s step away from all that now and talk “BOOKS”!
Pastoralia by George Saunders
Pastoralia is the name of the book and of the first short story in this short story collection.
It is the best one. It is engrossing, surprising, and gave me the same “punch” as reading another George, George Orwell. The tale is set in a weird theme park where modern people are supposed to live/act like cavemen for extended periods of time, in a desperate attempt to make a living. As the relationships and actions of the characters involved (the “cavemen”, the park directors, their family members) unfold and become dramatic, we find ourselves staring at a picture of aspects of American modern society, absurd yet very real and familiar.
It’s not that the other stories aren’t good. I would have enjoyed them more if I had read each one month apart. The stories are different from each other, especially “Sea Oak” (full of surprises!) although “The End of Firpo in the World” also deserves a proper mention. That one could be used for discussions in training educators, and in parenting sessions (Yeah, I’m a teacher. Where were you, school, with this kid?!).
The trouble with reading George Saunder’s stories one after another is that while the events from one story to the next are totally different, the main characters have a lot in common. I’ve also read (several years ago) Saunder’s “10th of December” which is a good collection, but I had the same problem.
I don’t think I read the last story in either collection…
Nonetheless, let me make it clear – I do recommend reading this book!
Origin by Dan Brown
Once you have read a book by Dan Brown you know what you are getting into when you choose to read another one, the structure is the same. It was an enjoyable audiobook to have for an August spent more at home than usual, though too long (over 19 hours!). I enjoyed the first part more, especially the detailed descriptions of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum. At some point, Brown slows down the plot too much with his lengthy explanations. In addition, as someone who has taught Asimov’s story “True Love” many times, I was not surprised one bit by the ending.
Sometimes, a Dan Brown is what you need for your mood and you get what you expect to get. That’s a good thing.
The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen
Sweet is an understatement. AN UNDERSTATEMENT.
I read it because I was in the mood for “sweet and comforting “(before going back to school) and it was a free Kindle book from Amazon.
Many thanks to Vicky Loras for recommending this book!
Let me begin this post by making one point crystal clear:
I really really enjoyed reading this book.
I’m still thinking about it.
I’m glad it isn’t a library book (I purchased it on sale on one of the Kindle deals) because it’s a book I can see myself wanting to read again.
That’s something I don’t often say about a work of fiction. However, this book is about more than the barebones of its plot.
Plot? Since I’ve mentioned the plot, I’d like to emphasize that I’m going to share very little of the plot in this post. I was in the blessed situation of not remembering a thing about the book beyond the fact that Vicky Loras recommended it (I’ve enjoyed the various books from different genres she recommended in the past so that was meaningful) and so every detail was new to me.
This book is an epistolary novel. That’s a word I would probably not use in a conversation as I don’t like a term describing something I enjoy, reading books in the form of letters, that sounds like the word pistol. I’m very interested in non-fiction collections of letters as well. I find that people who invest in letter writing, see writing as a way to work out their thoughts and feelings. Writing can help define but also face things. I believe writing also encourages mindfulness as the desire to make another person understand often leads to noticing little details.
This is the situation in the book. Two people (old enough to be grandparents) who seem to have absolutely nothing in common, strike up a correspondence. He is an introverted, conservative Danish archeologist at a museum and she is an energetic British woman playing a significant part in running the family farm. A woman with very little free time. As you can imagine, the correspondence becomes very meaningful to them both.
When I read the first letter I was concerned that the book would descend into “cuteness” (Kitch” or “Shmaltz”) but I didn’t find it to be that way at all. Perhaps I found the age of the characters to be something I could relate to, as they thought about their adult children.
In short, it was a great read for me at a time when I’m on vacation, stressed about the pandemic situation and find reflecting, noticing the little details of life, to be something I’m pleased to think about.
I’ve read so many books in the last month or so and each one actually deserves their own post, but that has become too large a task to handle. I actually even considered not writing about the books at all but I can’t do that – this blog is my memory aid! I’m the kind of person who remembers all kinds of details about a book but cannot remember the title of the book. Since my blog dates to Dec. 2010 I’ve often used the search function to check something about a book (like the answer to the question – which of Orhan Pamuk’s books with a name of a color in the title have I read?).
So here are super short comments about many books, in no particular order:
The Island of the Sea Women by Lisa See
I just finished the book last night. I read most of it in just a few days – it’s very hard to put down. I second what many of my friends have said – a fascinating book about strong women in an unusual social situation (men are unaccustomed to physical labor – women do EVERYTHING yet their status is still lower than men) living through turbulent times on an Island in Korea. The women traditionally made a living by deep-sea diving without oxygen tanks or protective gear. Frankly, I’m the kind of nerd who would have been fascinated by the story just with these aspects, and think the book would have been just as good with the two main characters remaining friends throughout the years and we learned of the change the new generations brought about – but I know that’s just me.
A GOOD BOOK!
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
For me this was a “companion book” to The Handmaid’s Tale, filling in missing gaps, but thankfully not delivering the same “punch to the gut” that the previous book did, as the vital information is already known. It explains things in more detail.
Atwood’s writing is, as always, a pleasure and I’m so glad the LIBBY library service had the audiobook! There are several different readers and Margaret Atwood herself reading little bits of it too! Having several readers adds to the experience.
A GOOD BOOK! Only to be read after The Handmaid’s Tale.
Peony by Pearl Buck
I haven’t read a book by Pearl Buck since I was a teenager! Back then I read both The Good Earth and Letter From Peking. The pace is slow, unrushed, but I was interested in the details. The book is told from the point of view of Peony, a beautiful and intelligent Chinese bond-maid who belonged to a Jewish family in Kaifeng, China, in 1850. The impossible love story between Peony and David, (the family’s son) is told on a backdrop of the family’s conflicted reactions to the gradual disappearance of the small Jewish community and its assimilation into the welcoming Chinese society.
The kIndle edition comes with a FASCINATING afterword written by a researcher who shows how cleverly Buck used the known facts about the community that was once there to bring the story to life. The researcher then adds information that was not available to Buck and presents surprising information about the descendants and research regarding the community from 1850 till the present day.
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
The truly unusual writing style and the skill in which the story is told kept me engrossed even though I found reading the book deeply upsetting. It’s all so visually clear and the punch is strong – the things that have happened to immigrant children traveling alone across the Mexican American Border is as tragic as I understood it to be from the media. The way in which the crises is related, the approach to it, is from such an expected angle and from unexpected points of view that reading the book is truly an experience, but a heart wrenching one.
I was glad I had read it but glad when I finished it too.
Stockholm by Noa Yedlin
I’m sure this book will be translated into English soon – the television adaption of the book has been very successful.
While at times the book can be too slow, it is mostly an enjoyable comic/drama with truly clever twists and great portrayals of people and their complex relationships. The reader is introduced to five 70-year-old people who have been friends at least since their 20s. When one of them suddenly passes away quietly at home, the others try to hide the fact for almost a week, since the newly deceased character was “shortlisted ” for a Nobel Prize in Economics. A person has to be alive when the prize is announced in order to get it (though not necessarily for the ceremony itself). As you can imagine (with a whole lot you might not be able to imagine on your own) hiding a dead body leads to unexpected complications… These situations naturally cause the characters to examine their relationship with the others in the group and look at themselves.
I know I have read a book worth reading when I’m still thinking about parts of it, several weeks and three books later.
Yes, I am way behind on my book postings again.
This is an excellent choice for an audiobook (courtesy of the WONDERFUL ) Libby library service. A good reader and appropriate accents add a layer to the pleasure!
First of all, it’s a good story, well told with a plucky heroine.
The book takes place during The Depression Era, in isolated spots in Kentucky but in many ways, this book could easily serve as a discussion for current affairs in the U.S.A.
The main character, an admirable young woman named Mary, is known as “Blue” because of a rare condition which causes her skin to be literally blue. This is true also of her parents and her “kin”, though precious few have remained alive in this impoverished place where life is harsh and racism is rampant. Being different can be a life-threatening condition.
Mary works as a “Packhorse Librarian”, traveling long distances every day to bring reading material to people who live in extremely remote places. Not only remote, but some also live entirely off-the-grid. She actually traveled with a mule, not a horse, which is better suited to the difficult terrain. The parts I liked best were Mary’s (called Bookwoman by her patrons) conversations with people who were deeply suspicious of “book learning” – how she coaxed them to try and see for themselves how the information contained in them just might enrich their lives, perhaps even improve it. Sadly, it seems that the importance of a good education today needs defending among some people today.
The roving librarian job was just one of the jobs created as part of the government “New Deal” plans to help put food on people’s plates. Starvation was no figure of speech in that area – there were families counting the number of their children who died due to starvation (not to mention the stillborn children). Nonetheless, some preferred to accept their offspring’s deaths rather than cooperate with an interfering government who was offering a salary…
The author did leave me wondering what was the fate of the planned miner’s strikes. At the beginning of the book, there was much talk about the danger of attending a union meeting and the terrible working conditions (and short lives ) of the miners. But after the miner character passes away, we don’t follow that storyline anymore.
While I can be a bit “ornery” (to use a phrase from the book) and am perfectly able to criticize some things about the book, I am certainly glad I read it and recommend it too!
I believe that this book is very popular and is (or will soon be ) a mini-series available for online streaming.
However, this book goes into my personal “you lose some” bin.
I truly agree that a great deal of credit should be given to Ng for well-rounded characters and a clever storyline that builds up – I have no criticism of any of that.
It’s just that I totally do not want to read about a wealthy family who appears to be a perfect one, a family who has it all, and then all the hidden dark sides come out. I’m not interested in the “let me see the pleasures the rich have and show me how those pleasures don’t make them happy” type of tale. They all boil down to the same thing, as far as I’m concerned.
I also do not enjoy reading about women fighting to uncover other women’s hidden secrets and harm them, or rich kids taking advantage of others without a second thought. While reading I began feeling that all that was missing was mud for the battle…
After reading more than a third of the book I wanted nothing more to do with any of the characters in the book and quit. I didn’t even read the end of the book or a synopsis online to see how it turned out, I don’t want to know.
Not my cup of tea.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
I began to suspect I had been mistaken in my choice of the audiobook by the end of the first chapter. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up on it for quite a few hours more (out of the more than 15 hours of narration) before returning it to the library.
I stopped reading this book not only because of the aspects of the book I really disliked but also because of the parts I actually did like.
I know that is a very odd statement to make but bear with me for a minute.
The book begins by portraying a young, rich, American woman arriving in London two years after World War Two. While the author states and restates that she is different from her family because she loves mathematics and doesn’t behave like a fashionable young lady (according to her ever so fashionable mother), the amount of detail devoted to the clothes worn, not worn, previously worn (or should have been worn) was driving me up the wall. Clothes lead to detailed discussions of other “womanly” subjects that our poor clever girl was unhappy with. I will spare you the details as I was also unhappy with them.
The plot moves between two-time frames, moving between the past and the “present”. The parts relating to a network of female spies in Occupied France during World War Two is interesting and is what kept me from returning the book to the library much earlier. How such spies were recruited and trained, what they were expected to do – certainly women to be respected! However, I don’t need to tell you that horrible things happened during that war. There is no lack of foreshadowing to indicate that harrowing experiences await the brave spies.
I realized that the combination of “aggravating” and “harrowing”, narrated in such a vivid way, word-by-word, did not make me look forward to listening/reading the rest of the book.
So I didn’t read the rest of the book.
But for this one, I did read a synopsis. I was curious, I admit. Some of my guesses were spot on. A synopsis was all the detail I needed in this case.
Just for the record – I’ll be posting about two books I enjoyed soon. I am enjoying my current reads as well!
Note: The book I began reading on the very first day of “Sheltering in Place”, The Time of Our Singing by Powers has its own post (click on the title to view it). It took me time to read all 642 pages of it! Since then my pace of reading has picked up (even though I am physically back at school!) because I’ve begun listening to audiobooks when I do the housework in addition to reading books (printed or on Kindle) when I’m resting. All audiobooks thanks to the LIBBY Program at the library.
Since I’m already in the middle of TWO more books, I gave up on the idea of having a separate post for each book.
So here goes!
The Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron
Thubron is a great travel writer! Not only does he know how to draw a reader in with his vivid descriptions, he includes DIALOGUES. Thubron, who was in his early sixties during his rough backpacking journey, speaks Russian and has a basic command of Mandarin. He presents us with conversations with people living (or barely making a living, sadly) in every single spot he visits, thus combining history with the present day. Well, more or less the present day. The travels took place at the beginning of the 21st century, and things have changed since then in some respects. Double time travel – 20 years ago and centuries ago!
I enjoyed it!
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
This is a fun book, particularly if you listen to it as an audiobook, read by Neil Gaiman himself. He’s a wonderful reader who brings to life the wide range of characters he created for adult readers, both in the traditional English countryside and beyond THE WALL in FAIRY. FAIRY is a land in which witches, unicorns, ships that sail the skies, dangerous trees, wicked spells and so much more all exist alongside the human world we know.
A fun book, a change of pace from usual reading material, but part of the time what I enjoyed more than the plot was listening to Gaiman’s delightful use of language.
Life Plays with Me by David Grossman
I read this book in Hebrew but I’m positive that it will soon be translated into English. Grossman has won much international acclaim and his books have been translated into many languages.
To be more precise, I listened to it as an audiobook. The reader was WONDERFUL! The combination of the writing that had me completely riveted along with the amazing reader left me feeling as if I were perched on Gili’s shoulder, with the ability to hear her thoughts. Gili is the character who tells the story of her family, as she knows it, as she felt it and as she learns more about it. The events that took place in the post-WWII years in the Serbia /Croatian region had a profound effect on the characters and their descendants.
I found the book and the main character, the 90-year-old Vera, very moving.
I really recommend this book!!!
An Egyptian Novel by Orly Castel Blum
I was somewhat disappointed by this book though am not sorry that I read it.
The topic is an interesting one but the book feels uneven, with parts that held my interest along with parts that felt unnecessarily long and not particularly connected.
The parts I enjoyed reading were about the different hopes and dreams of Jews immigrating from Egypt to Israel and what happened to those dreams afterward. Most of what I had known of the Jewish community in Egypt came from Egyptian writers.
However, the parts relating to the character (who is only referred to as “the eldest daughter”, to emphasize her identity crises) and her inability to “find her way” felt interminable. It was unclear why she suddenly became the main character of so many chapters of the book – in previous chapters the point of view shifted between various characters and was more engaging.
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett
As may recall, Patchett is one of my favorite authors. This is a good book, all her books are good, but on my personal ranking of books written by Patchett, this one is close to the bottom.
As always I enjoyed the way her she gives you personal drama while staying away from “soap opera” tear-jerkers or predictable endings and there were certainly some twists that I did not see coming. But at the center of the story is a house, While I agree that it is a very unusual looking house with unusual things inside and it certainly has an important role in the story, I grew tired of hearing about it. Perhaps I don’t watch enough period dramas…
By the way, I used the word “hearing” and not “reading” because I listened to this as an audiobook, read by Tom Hanks. Hanks is a fine reader but this isn’t one of those books that listening to it adds an extra element of enjoyment (such as listening to Trevor Noah narrate his own book “Born a Crime”!)
It is also a very unusual review post as some of the same things that I liked about the book were also things I didn’t like about the book.
I know, that’s a very strange thing to say. I can’t recall ever writing such a sentence before.
The writing style intrigued me and drew me in right away, and kept me reading through all 642 pages of it, despite despairing at times this book would ever end. The book progresses in cleverly introduced cycles and flashbacks. This makes the reading more interesting yet at times there is too much repetition. I kept wanting to tell the author – “Yes, yes, I got it already, I knew that already, move on!”
The book introduces us to Delia Daley, her husband David Strom, and their three children. Delia is an African American woman whose musical career as a classical singer was thwarted early on (the late 1930s) despite her extensive talent, due to the color of her skin. David is a Jewish physicist and professor, who left Nazi Germany just in time. His entire origin family remained and perished in the Holocaust. He’s new to the country, his English is poor. David is sure that the fact that he’s a Jew who has dealt with a generous share of discrimination overrides his being white, but American society does not see their mixed marriage that way. Each of their children has a different shade of skin color and the book examines aspects of racism in the United States thoroughly, in great detail.
What binds the family together is music. Or rather MUSIC. That is their life, their day, their conversations, their EVERYTHING. All three children are very talented but the eldest, Noah, has an amazingly pure tenor voice. How this voice affects the course of the family’s life is central to the book along with the examination of the discrimination at every step of the way.
Pages upon pages upon pages are devoted to rich, beautiful, and exhausting details about music. I did not find the details related to music so overwhelming when I read Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” as I did in this book. Perhaps another reader with a greater knowledge of classical music will find symbolism and hints that eluded me . It was the same with physics – the physicist father researches the duality of time and the author plays with this theme while cycling the plot between different time periods. Clever but sometimes I simply lost the thread of the point.
However, to return to the point I opened with – at no point did I want to stop reading the book.
I’m glad I read it but was also relieved when I reached the end.
That’s not much of a recommendation either way, so here’ a practical tip – take the book from the library, if possible. Don’t buy it. If you enjoyed it, wonderful! If you don’t like it, simply return it. That’s what I did.
This was the last book I took from the library before we shifted into “Corona Mode” and the library locked its doors.
It is another good example of the kind of book I never would have known about without the help of a librarian!
This is a book about people who don’t belong, particularly women who don’t belong (though not only women). It is told from the perspective of a woman from a strictly conservative Bedouin family who lived in a small town in Egypt, in the Eastern Nile Delta. Not only are women relegated to specific, limited roles, but the Bedouins are considered outsiders in the village. Then there is the Coptic woman who is honored but is even more of an outsider.
The book moves between flashbacks of childhood in Egypt to life in modern-day Brooklyn Heights, where we meet more outsiders, Muslim immigrants from different parts of the world who dreamed of a new life in the USA, but their dreams were never realized.
Tahawy writes beautifully and I enjoyed the vivid depictions of the life of the main character, Hend, in Egypt. However, I was disappointed with the parts relating to her life in Brooklyn. Nothing seems to happen, nothing goes progresses or regresses or anything. It seemed as if the author had only caused Hend to immigrate to present more “outsiders” while abandoning Hend’s tale. It’s rather depressing, depressing without it being part of a way to move forward. Or backward – frankly, I was quite concerned that Hend would commit suicide.
Nonetheless, I do recommend reading this book -there are many fascinating parts.
Teaching English as a FOREIGN language to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students