Nickelini and her 2019 Category Challenge

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Nickelini and her 2019 Category Challenge

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Edited: Jan 26, 2019, 12:45am

Here I am yet again . . . another year of Category Challenge & Colin Firth film reviews. BTW, I believe in bonus points if my books fit in more than one category. I think it shows excellent planning skills.

For comments on every book I read this year, please visit me at my main thread:

Edited: Nov 1, 2019, 9:52pm

My Swiss & Italian holiday

Lake Como, Italy

My husband and I are celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in 2019* and are celebrating with what started out as a trip to the Italian Lakes. Trip creep .... he also wanted to stay in the Cinque Terre, and I want to do the Italian area of Switzerland (Ticino), and then our daughter moved to Switzerland, so we will visit her too . . . so I'll continue to read everything Swiss and Northern Italian related (and Italy in general) again in 2019.

(*it's the anniversary of a very expensive party -- my idea of our anniversary is a completely different date)

1. Switzerland: Culture Smart!, Kendall Maycock
2. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy
3. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland, Padraig Rooney
4. The Naked Swiss: the Nation Behind 10 Myths, Clare O'Dea
5. The Ring,
6. Margherita Dolce Vita, Stefano Benni
7. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
8. the Finishing School, Joanna Goodman
9. Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, Ashley Curtis
10. Innocence: a novel, Penelope Fitzgerald
11. Portofino, Frank Schaeffer
12. Amazing Disgrace, James Hamilton-Paterson
13. Italian Neighbours, Tim Parks
14. When the Night, Cristina Comencini
15. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf

Edited: Nov 1, 2019, 9:54pm


Non-fiction: because novels aren't actually real. You think you're holding them, but it's a figment of your imagination

1. Switzerland: Culture Smart!, Kendall Maycock
2. Educated, Tara Westover
3. How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan
4. English Country Houses, Vita Sackville-West
5. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland, Padraig Rooney
6. Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
7. The Naked Swiss: the Nation Behind 10 Myths, Clare O'Dea
8. Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, Ashley Curtis
9. Evil: the Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, Julia Shaw
10. I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
11. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari

Edited: Nov 1, 2019, 9:54pm

Fairy Tales, Myths, & Ancient Lore

I continue to be fascinated by old stories and retellings of old stories.

1. The Surface Breaks, Louise O'Neill (retelling of A Little Mermaid)
2. The Bulgari Connection, Fay Weldon (maybe a bit of stretch for what I intended for this category, but it's definitely related to The Picture of Dorian Gray, which itself, although not very old, has a much older feel to it. I'm counting it. Call the Category Challenge police if you disagree.)
3. Medea (Hackett Classics), Euripides
4. The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf

Edited: Nov 1, 2019, 9:56pm

The Grand Tour

In the 18th & 19th century, British aristocrats would take a gap year or three (or forever) between Oxbridge and their life of indolence, and tour the European continent. Apparently, the route was England to Belgium or Le Havre, then on to Paris, then the Swiss Alps, Italy, maybe Greece, up to Austria and Germany and then home. I'm including any other sojourn throughout the European continent. I'd love nothing more than an all expenses tour of indolence through Europe ....

1. Switzerland: Culture Smart!, Kendall Maycock
2. The Royal Physician's Visit, Per Olov Enquist
3. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy
4. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland, Padraig Rooney
5. Adele, Leilia Slimani
6. The Naked Swiss: the Nation Behind 10 Myths, Clare O'Dea
7. Margherita Dolce Vita, Stefano Benni
8. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
9. The Finishing School, Joanna Goodman
10. Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, Ashley Curtis
11. Innocence, Penelope Fitzgerald
12. Portofino, Frank Schaeffer
13. 300 Days of Sun, Deborah Lawrenson
14. When the Night, Cristina Comenichi

Edited: Nov 1, 2019, 9:57pm

Books in Translation

I picked this for a category in 2018, although I don't remember why. I don't usually aim to read books in translation, but in 2018 I read quite a few, for me (as a percentage of the total number read). Maybe I'll continue with this in 2019 . . .

1. the Royal Physician's Visit, Per Olov Enquist (Swedish)
2. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy (Italian)
3. Adele, Leila Slimani (French)
4. The Ring, Elisabeth Horem (French)
5. Margherita Dolce Vita, Stefano Benni (Italian)
6. Heidi, Johanna Spyri (German)
7. Medea (Hackett Classics), Euripides (Ancient Greek)
8. When the Night, Cristina Comencini
9. Black Spider, Jermias Gotthelf

Edited: Oct 8, 2019, 1:16am

Shiny New Things

Books bought in 2019, library books, and books about my latest obsession.

1. Educated, Tara Westover
2. How to Change Your Mind, Micheal Pollan
3. Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
4. Evil: the Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, Julia Shaw
5. Adele, Leila Slimani
6. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Edited: Jan 11, 2019, 10:04pm

This message has been deleted by its author.

Dec 2, 2018, 1:21pm

I came by but can see you are still in the process of constructing your thread. I will be back!

Dec 2, 2018, 2:15pm

>9 DeltaQueen50:
I'll be a while -- I have no idea what I want to do yet.

Dec 31, 2018, 11:45am

Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2018, 1:14pm

Dec 31, 2018, 3:07pm

Jan 6, 2019, 11:21pm

1. The Surface Breaks: a Reimagining of "The Little Mermaid", Louise O'Neill, 2018

cover comments: I've heard from many people that they love this cover, some saying that they bought the book for the cover alone. Hmmm. It's fine, I guess. I think as mermaid books go, it's fairly typical and not particularly original or arty. Underneath the dust jacket, however, the book itself is the perfect shade of navy blue, and it has silver scales printed across it. The end papers inside the covers are luxurious paper in Bermuda blue. Delightful.

Why I Read This Now: This was a Christmas gift from my 18-yr old daughter. When I opened this she said "It might not be very good, but it looks sort of interesting, and it's about mermaids in Ireland" (she went to Ireland on a school trip so has a soft spot there). I read the cover and saw that it was a retelling of a fairytale, and I like those (which she knows). Seemed like the perfect book to start off the new year.

Comments: Woot woot! Look at me, Ms Hardly-Reads Anymore has started and finished a book already this year (and no, I wasn't off on holidays--just working like the worker-bee I am).

The Surface Breaks is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid," set in current times off the coast of Ireland. The novel started out with some fairly 'meh' YA writing and storytelling, but happily picked up right at the Pearl Rule point. Whew! I enjoyed this for the most part and was always sad when I had to put it down.

Fifteen-year old Gaia is the youngest of the six mermaid daughters of the Sea King who live in a intensely patriarchal Mer-society. She has no memories of her mother, who she is told, had an obsession with the surface and the human world, and was killed by humans when Gaia was a year old. Now Gaia too is fascinated by the surface. On her first trip she in enamoured by a handsome young man and the story follows the original tale quite closely (not the Disney rewrite), in a modern setting. With her tongue cut out and feet spurting blood whenever she took a step, and with discovering that the handsome man she'd sacrificed everything for was actually quite a bastard, I kept reading to find out how the author would conclude this conundrum. And she did wrap it up. I'm not entirely pleased with this conclusion, but I think the structure of the original tale writes an author into a corner with few options.

One outstanding character was the Sea Wtch ("that's not my name!" she tells us), who deserves a novel of her own.

On the cover flap, it says: " fairy tale is reimagined through a searing feminist lens by one of our most talented writers. ... This is a book with the darkest of undercurrents, full of rage and rallyng cries: storytelling at its most spellbinding." Oh my, prepared to be bludgeoned by feminist tropes, I thought. And some reader-reviewers felt that. I didn't, although I get why they do. I was slightly bothered that all the male characters were one-dimensional and BAD; but then I remembered that this is a fairytale, and fairytales work with archetypes so, okay. (If I wrote it, I would have rounded out some of the males a bit more and included a guy that wasn't a jerk).

I had fun reading this. Yeah, there's things I could pick apart (eg: a naked young woman washes up ashore at your estate and can't walk due to intense pain and can't speak. She opens her mouth to show that her tongue has been cut out. You take her in and give her a room and a maid. Hey, how about call an ambulance? Medical attention? Police, maybe? But it's a fairytale, so you just have to roll with it). Others have criticized that all the feminist bits come at the end, but I think they miss that feminists aren't always born -- sometimes they're made, and we have to live life for a while before we realize what's going on.

Recommended for: Readers who like retellings, mermaid fans.

My cover has a sticker on the back that says "contains adult themes and may be unsuitable for younger readers." Not a good choice if you're looking for a nice little story about mermaids for a 10 year old. There's a question on GoodReads if this is okay for a 13 year old, to which most replies were "heaven mercy no! Give me my smelling salts at the thought!" I was reading adult books at 13, so I say "sure, but depending on the reader." When I read it I figured the objection would have been to the sexual longing expressed by Gaia and her discovering the area between her new legs -- but based on comments on GoodReads, it's more to do with the scenes where males make unwanted sexual advances on Gaia. Not sure why 13 year olds can't read about that--it's certainly a fact of life they will probably deal with soon if they haven't already.

Jan 8, 2019, 3:33pm

>14 Nickelini: Excellent review and I have added The Surface Breaks to my wishlist as I, too, have a soft spot for fairytale retellings.

Jan 12, 2019, 5:15pm

The Bulgari Connection, Fay Weldon, 2000

Cover comments: I'm not much of a fan of this style of art; that doesn't mean this is bad though. I guess it's just not for me? It does work with the novel.

Comments: Look at me! Only January 11th and I've finished two books this year. For years that would have been a huge yawn, but my last two years of reading have been tough, so this feels like my old self again. Anyway,

I bought this when my favourite used book store (call out for Russel Books in Victoria, BC!) didn't have Fay Weldon's Booker-nominated Praxis, but this caught my eye. It opens with:

Doris Dubois is twenty-three years younger than I am. She is slimmer than I am, and more clever. She has a degree in economics, and hosts a TV arts programme. She lives in a big house with a swimming pool at the end of a country lane. It used to be mine...I tried to kill her once, but failed.

And from there we're off on a satirical, fast-paced romp through wealthy London circa 2000. Grace has survived having her world yanked out from under her feet and a stint in prison, but maybe now the winds will blow her way. In her mid-fifties (and poorer than she expected to be at this age) she's not about to get riled by her ex-husband's new wife, "Britain's sweetheart," who is gunning for her. A younger man is smitten with Grace, and their relationship gives him the mature gravitas he craves, and Grace shocks everyone with her increasing youthfulness. In the meantime, despite all their efforts, things aren't going so well for the Ex- and his new Mrs.

This story is undoubtedly slanted in Grace's favour, but the author makes interesting shifts in points of view, and sometimes in unexpected places. Sort of like when you're watching a movie and the camera quickly catches a secondary-character's reaction to something that the main character might not see. It was odd, but it worked.

The other thing that was odd was the names: Doris Dubois (she pulled this surname out of her butt*, it's actually something Eastern European) and the young lover-artist Walter Wells -- these two are around 30, which means they are slightly younger than me (in 2000), and "Doris" and "Walter" read much older. It turns out there was a literary reason for Doris, and I guess the Walter character just really wanted to be older. It took some adjusting from me though. And then there was a secondary character in the same age range named "Ethel." All very odd. The weirdest name, by far, was the ex-husband. Barley Salt. I first read it as "Bailey," but then realized, no, it's Barley. Okay, never heard that given name. And the surname Salt is not exactly common**. Now put them together. They are both things we eat. Oats Pepper. Rice Nutmeg. Like I said, odd.

*sorry, I know the idiom is "pulled it out of her ass" and I'm not a prude--I just don't like the word ass when it's used for the buttocks area. Just a quirk of mine. I'm not shy with vulgar language.

**Maybe the only time I've heard this surname is Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Is Barley her son?

Rating: A fun read without being vacuous. 4.5 stars.

Why I Read This Now: I've been wanting to read this author for years even though I don't know much about her. She's been a judge for the Booker prize, so I figured I'd take a gamble.

Recommended for: People who like social satire. Readers who don't like to read about rich people will hate this.

Jan 13, 2019, 3:46am

>16 Nickelini: You're batting 1,000 with me, Joyce, as Fay Weldon sounds like an author that I would enjoy and hey, I love Russel Books in Victoria as well!

Jan 13, 2019, 6:23am

>16 Nickelini: Enjoyed reading your review, and I think I would like this one. On a side note - I had not heard of the last name Salt until the movie Salt came out, with the lead character Evelyn Salt.

Jan 13, 2019, 12:06pm

>17 DeltaQueen50: & >18 LisaMorr:

I feel I have to warn you that when I looked at reader reviews on GoodReads, no one liked this book.

Judy -- Russel Books always has lots of Weldon -- just not the one I'm looking for

Lisa -- I'm not sure I've heard of that movie

Jan 13, 2019, 12:41pm

>19 Nickelini: I've gotten good recommendations from you before, I'll take a chance with you!

Salt is an espionage thriller with Angelina Jolie.

Jan 14, 2019, 12:49am

>16 Nickelini: The only writing of Weldon that I'm familiar with is the screenplay she wrote to the 1980 BBC Pride and Prejuduce TV mini-series, starring Elizabeth Garvie. I thought the script was well-done.

Not sure if the Bulgari book is for me, but I'll be on the lookout for other works.

Jan 17, 2019, 9:57pm

Switzerland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture, by Kendall Hunter (2016)

cover comments: Red + a clock = Switzerland. Okay.

Comments: This is a small guide book -- 168 pages long, but can fit in the palm of your hand. Part of the extensive Culture Smart! series, Switzerland - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture tells you everything you need to know if you're considering a move to Switzerland or planning to spend a lot of time there. Along with Canada, the Nordic countries and Australia, Switzerland is one of those countries that regularly tops the lists of best places to live and high quality of life. But, as I'm learning, it's very different from all of those, and different from the countries around it.

Kendal Hunter, a Canadian who has lived in Zurich for 10 years, goes over the basics of Swiss life, geared for a UK or US business traveller or new resident. Being heavily fact-based, with minimal personal commentary, it wasn't exactly a scintillating read. More useful than fun.

Why I Read This Now: My daughter recently moved there and I'm trying to get a better picture of what she's dealing with so we aren't completely in the dark about some of the unusual things she says. Also, after our trip there last winter, I'm pretty fascinated by the country.

Rating: 4 stars

Recommended for: read this if you're new to Switzerland and are going to spend a chunk of time there.

Edited: Jan 28, 2019, 8:29pm

Colin Firth movies that nobody has seen

Spoilers below.

This 2018 film is based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst who set out to win the 1968 Golden Globe Race, which goes from England, down around the bottom of South Africa and across the southern oceans, and then up past the tip of South America back to England, all without getting off the boat anywhere.

Firth plays Crowhurst, who was an entrepreneur, a weekend sailor, and a dreamer. To put it nicely. I think he was completely unrealistic and just wanted the glory. He had never even sailed in blue water, let alone gone on any long-term sailing excursions. Rachel Weisz plays his long suffering wife who had to put up with his crap and pick up the pieces after it all goes wrong. Did I mention he borrowed against his business and his home?

I enjoyed this, it was interesting, and of course Firth does his usual amazing acting with his face and body that requires no dialogue. However, after it was over, I quickly forgot it for the most part.

Edited: Jan 28, 2019, 9:49pm

Books in Translation & The Grand Tour

The Royal Physician's Visit, Per Olov Enquist, translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally 2001

cover comments: detail of the Rokeby Venus by Diego Rodriguez, 1648, which you can see at the National Gallery (London). Used on the cover, it works with this story.

Comments: In 2003 I inherited my copy of this book in a box of books that I mostly passed along to a charity. This one sat on my "one day" shelf but it took 16 years for that day to come. And then I thought "why didn't I read this sooner?"

Going in, I knew nothing about Danish royalty of the late 1700s. Teenage King Christian VII has become the monarch after the death of his 40-something alcoholic father, and the Danish court is known as "a madhouse." This isn't helped by Christian, who had some serious mental health problems (historians think he may have been schizophrenic, but to me his behaviour sounds like he was high on the autism scale). He was just one of several mentally-ill royals in this novel but the others all have minor roles--I mention this because I'm a bit fascinated with in-breeding genealogy that has been blamed for some of the royal madness. I think in Christian VII's case, whatever was going on with him organically wasn't helped by his messed up guidance and being treated as a divine ruler.

Christian is married off to 15 yr old Caroline Mathilde, who is the youngest sister of England's George III. Along the way, King Christian is attended to by a German physician, Friedrich Struensee, who becomes his closest advisor. And then becomes Queen Caroline's lover. Struensee is a follower of the Enlightenment philosophers, including Voltaire and Rousseau, and slips enlightenment ideas into the laws of Denmark.

This is not a spoiler, as it's mentioned in the first sentence of the novel, and it's history: his radical changes don't go over well with the Danish nobility, and he is executed. The period where he was active is called the Danish Revolution, and the nobility never clawed back their complete control.

Rating: Hmmmm, so close to 4.5 stars . . . I was really intrigued by the first 3/4, but then the end dragged a bit because I knew what was coming thanks to the first sentence.

Also, on the meta-data page the disclaimer "This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the suthor's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." Typical boiler-plate, but I'm not sure I've noticed this in historical fiction before. It made me do some Googling on these people and events and "entirely coincidental" is actually a bold-faced lie. Anyway, the ending could have wrapped up a bit quicker.

I love to learn when I read, and The Royal Physician's Visit had a lot of new trivia to fill my brain. For example, I didn't know that the non-noble Danish people in 1770 were serfs --basically slaves to the nobility. Also, Queen Caroline's second (and youngest) child is widely believed to be Struensee's. This daughter married into some other royal family, and she--and the commoner Struensee--now have descendants in all the royal families of Europe (the genealogy geek coming out again and I'm thinking in particular that they should be grateful for his fresh bloodlines).

Recommended for: historical fiction fans. It also won some Swedish literary awards, and I was impressed by the writing. Not all readers were -- Enquist has this odd style of repeating simple phrases, but I'm one of the readers who liked that.

Why I Read This Now: Being deep winter, I was in the mood for a book set in the north.

Feb 1, 2019, 5:18am

>23 Nickelini: You are right! I have not seen this one. One of my favourite Colin Firth movies (other than all of them, of couse!) is Arthur Newman. And I adored him in Nanny McPhee.

Feb 1, 2019, 11:00am

>25 JayneCM:

A few years ago I reviewed a whole pile of obscure Colin Firth movies. You can find them here if you're interested:

I don't think I've reviewed Arthur Newman yet -- maybe I'll have to rewatch it and do that one too. Tell me what you liked about it. I remember thinking it was one of his worst movies, so maybe I missed something.

Feb 2, 2019, 7:20pm

>26 Nickelini: Hmmm, I haven't watched it in a while - now I am wondering if I was thinking of something else! A few years ago, I borrowed every Colin Firth DVD in our library system, so maybe I watched too many, too close together.

When my girls were teenagers, they watched What A Girl Wants to death and Colin Firth made it bearable for me to have to watch it so many times. He plays the sweet, slightly awkward, English man so well!

There are quite a few movies that I would be ambivalent about except for the presence of Colin Firth. He can carry just about any movie for me!

My favourite would be The King's Speech as all the actors were fabulous. He didn't have to do it alone!

Edited: Feb 2, 2019, 7:49pm

>27 JayneCM:

I did the same thing with Colin Firth movies a few years ago -- I found a bunch on YouTube, others at my library, some on Netflix, and then I bought a few off Amazon if they were under $10. I agree that he carries many a poor film -- he's sometimes the ONLY good thing about it.

Maybe Arthur Newman wasn't as bad as I thought--now you've got me looking to rewatch it. I do dislike his version of an American accent though.

I had particular fun slamming What A Girl Wants:

And now just because we deserve it, here is one of my favourite pics of Mr Lovely:

Feb 3, 2019, 6:52pm

I'll just keep that picture up on my screen all day! Thanks!

Definitely, he should stick to British as the American accent wasn't great. And he is so much better British!

Feb 4, 2019, 10:22pm

Non-fiction (Memoir)

Educated, Tara Westover, 2018

cover comments: it's okay, the obvious symbolism is clearly obvious. But the mountain is a photo of the actual Bucks Peak where Westover grew up.

Rating: 4.5 stars -- the most engaging book I've read since I can't remember when (at least a year). Why not 5 stars? Read on....

Comments: This was the hot read of late 2018 (it was on Obama and Bill Gate's recommended lists), so I'm not going to get too far into a description of the book. Educated is the enthralling and chilling memoir of Tara Westover's life growing up in a large survivalist family in backwoods Idaho through her escape to education and achieving a PhD from Cambridge.

As long as Westover could remember, her father was preparing the family for the imminent day when the government would storm their land, guns a'blazin'. Westover was born sometime in September 1986 (her anti-government parents didn't register her home birth, nor did they write down the day), and the Ruby Ridge siege happened in 1992, so it was inevitable that they were next. Tara was the youngest of 7, and by the time she came around, her parents had decided that there was no point in homeschooling, other than learning to read. At least she had that. After a day of physical chores, sometimes she read the old textbooks left over from the feeble attempt to school her older siblings.

Westover's education was helping her mother prepare tinctures for herbal medicine (the family strictly forbade all forms of scientific or evidence-based medicine, and actual doctors, as gov't control and from the devil) and helping her dad and older brothers haul and sort scrap.

Horrible event after horrible event occurs, every single one of them preventable with normal safety precautions. The book includes two horrific car accidents, worsened by her father cutting the seat belts out of the car (socialism, or something). And then there are many scrapyard accidents that easily could have resulted in death. All injuries were treated with a mixture of denial, herbs, and suck it up. Several members of this family were severely concussed. In a previous job where I settled insurance claims for people with concussions, two things I learned that relate to this book were that 1) concussions can cause people to become irrationally angry, and withdrawn, and often both and 2) subsequent concussions after healing are often worse than the original -- they build (hence the problem with boxers and football players). She didn't address this here and I think it had a part to play but anyway....

On top of all that, she lived through some intensely toxic masculinity, dysfunctional family situations, parental mental illness, child abuse, religious fundamentalism, and extreme bullying from an older brother.

In her late teens, encouraged by an older brother, she jumps some hoops and is admitted to Brigham Young University. Yada yada yada, PhD from Cambridge. I say "yada yada yada" because I felt she glossed over this too much. She includes some of the gaps in her knowledge (not knowing what the Holocaust was is the most cited example). I would have liked a lot more of this, and less of her "and then I went home for Christmas." The cycle of her returning to her family was incredibly frustrating, but like a battered woman, she kept thinking that it would be all right and somehow she could meld the crazy stuff she's been raised to believe with the rational that she was finally learning. This frustration has caused some readers to rate this book 3 stars, but I can't fault a book because the author's real life situation doesn't match my desire for her to tell her family to F-off in no uncertain terms.

Interesting note: Her family has become very successful with their herbal-woo business, and their lawyer issued a disclaimer statement about this book. Evidently, this lawyer knows nothing about effective PR.

Interesting note #2: this family is easy to find on Facebook. They haven't made their accounts or friends list private. I looked only because I want to see what the father looks like, especially since he had 3rd degree burns to his face. Haven't found him yet, but I only had 5 min to look. I'll come back and update this if I look again and find him. Also, the nice brother Tyler still looks a bit .... oddly fundamentalist. He seemed so normal in the book.

Why I Read This Now: Book club. I'm really looking forward to the discussion later this month, although I imagine there won't be much disagreement. I wasn't at our meeting when we picked the books for the year, and when I saw this one I thought it looked like the best of the lot. I can't imagine we will do better.

Recommended for: I think everyone should read this. However, the abuse in Educated is extreme, so if you're not in a place to read about that, put this one on the shelf for now. I'd love to hear some physicians weigh in on some of the injuries. No one believes the herbs saved any lives.

One other thing I need to add: Over the last 15 years, I've spent hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours reading websites and blogs, and listening to podcasts and documentaries of (mostly) women who have escaped fundamentalist religious upbringings*. My initial thought when I learned about Educated was "right up my alley" and then I immediately thought, "but I'm heard everything by now." I was wrong because Westover had actually worked through this more --what I'm used to reading and hearing is briefer --this was the same abuse and toxic family and toxic beliefs, but MORE. And then because of her education, and writing a book rather than a blog post, Westover was able to take it to a higher level of cognitive processing.

* why would I spend so much time on this? Because I escaped fundamentalism too, and although my experience is very different from what I've read and heard, there are enough similarities to make my blood run cold and to think "that could have been me." And then some of it is just so whacked as to be fascinating. Educated is way over in the extreme side of whacked and far out of my past experience, and for that I'm incredibly grateful.

Feb 4, 2019, 11:31pm

>30 Nickelini: That is on my ereader; can't wait to read it! I was also raised in a fundamentalist home, but I don't think like either the author's or yours; I didn't have to escape. I was raised as a Quaker.

Edited: Feb 5, 2019, 12:29am

>31 Tess_W:

Ah, Quaker! About 15-20 years ago I took an internet test on "what religion should you be?" and I came out with #1 Quaker. I read up on it and thought it seemed reasonable and interesting. I looked up Quakers in the greater-Vancouver area and I think there are six aways away from me. So that was the end of that. I didn't become a Quaker or anything else other than agnostic atheist.

I would love to sit and chat with you about your fundamentalist upbringing! Too bad we don't live in the same city.

Feb 5, 2019, 7:57am

>32 Nickelini: In a nutshell; I had a wonderful upbringing in a small community of about 200. 50% were farmers and 50% drove 25-30 miles to the next big town to work in a factory. We were at church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evenings. We tithed, read the Bible daily and prayed at home. I actually loved church; it was the biggest "social" event of my small town. My mother taught me to read at age 4-5 from the Bible. I credit her for instilling into me the love of reading. I don't think that we were too "different" from most other small towns in the 1950's-1960's. I fit right in at school. I no longer attend the Quaker Church since they started including people of all faiths because to be honest, I don't want to hear what Mohammed told Mr. ABC during the week! I attend a rather conservative holiness church and again, I'm very "normal" for Ohio!

Edited: Feb 7, 2019, 11:37pm

>33 Tess_W:
I'm sorry I haven't responded sooner -- work and life caught me up. I'd so love to talk to you in person

I had a wonderful upbringing in a small community of about 200. 50% were farmers and 50% drove 25-30 miles to the next big town to work in a factory. We were at church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evenings. We tithed, read the Bible daily and prayed at home.

In some ways my upbringing was similar (same church schedule), but mostly not . . . I grew up in a small port city and our neighbours were English and German ... and Hungarian, and Irish, and Barbadian, and Chinese, and Italian, and Sikh, Japanese, and Hindu, so we all went to school together and said we believed in god, and thought we all meant the same thing ...

... and that's pretty normal for Vancouver.

Feb 10, 2019, 1:55pm

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciusness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan, 2018

cover comments: for a book on psychedelics, this cover is uninspired and ho-hum; however, it does fit the scientific rather than "woo woo" approach that this book follows.

Why I Read This Now: a few weeks ago I found out Michael Pollan, an author I adore, is coming to Vancouver. I thought it would be best if I read his latest book before the event. Yay, me, I finished it today and see him tomorrow night.

Comments: When I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma years ago, it changed my life. This book could be life changing for many people too. It is a detailed look at using guided psychedelic therapy to treat a wide-range of mental health issues, including but not limited to the fears of the terminally ill, addiction, and treatment-resistant depression. Clearly the mental health field needs to find some different solutions, because what we have now isn't working.

How to Change Your Mind is a highly readable and interesting account of the history, present use, and future possibilities of LSD, psilocybin (a word I never remember how to say or spell) and a few other more obscure drugs.

Like me, Michael Pollan eschews pseudo-science and new age flakiness, and thus he takes an evidence-based, factual approach to this topic.

I look forward to a future when I can visit a guided psychedelic therapy spa, although I'm not holding my breath. Maybe in Europe . . .

Recommended for: Everyone. The people who should read it most--those who think psychedelics are horrible, dangerous substances, won't be open to it though. Otherwise, anyone interested in mental healthy, philosophy, psychology, alternative ways of looking at the world . . .

Rating: Because this isn't a topic that is particularly pertinent to my life at this time, and because I didn't need over 400 pages on this topic . . . 4 stars.

Edited: Feb 11, 2019, 4:00pm

English Country Houses, Vita Sackville-West, 1941

cover comments: delightful and perfect for this little book. Love the greyed-periwinkle colour.

Comments: The front flap of my edition says "Written during the Blitz by one of England's most celebrated writers, this text was undoubtedly a morale booster for a British people laid siege to during a time of war . . . " Undoubtedly, or maybe not. She never mentions the war, but does say several times that there really have never been any wars on English soil -- the English like to go elsewhere to fight. Far away places like France, Scotland, and Ireland. And she reiterates that the English people like peace and quiet. Hmmm, okay ....

Anyway! This 92 page book is mostly about the grand English country houses that I love to read about, watch in films, and visit if possible. It reminded me of a similar book that I read years ago and thought was a riot -- Some Country Houses and Their Owners by James Lees-Milne. That one was perhaps more fun because it talked about the eccentric home owners. With English Country Houses, Sackville-West sticks mainly to the buildings themselves for the most part.

At times, the author can be quite amusing. For example: "The English are a rural-minded people on the whole, which perhaps explains why our rural domestic architecture is so much better than our urban. Our cities, generally speaking, are deplorable. There is a lack of design which must make the French smile. When the French hint delicately at this we are apt to murmur 'Bath' and then come to a full stop."

However, far too much of the time she throws out one historical or architectural detail, and then give a long list of the houses that exemplify it. At one point she says, "....and, again restricting myself to the tantalising system of giving a mere list . . . " Yeah, no, not such a tantalizing system, more tiresome.

I wonder who the target audience was who she had in mind --I'm doubting it was the average Brit who was getting targeted by the falling bombs. Did her reader have a familiarity of the places she listed and described? Because I didn't, and would have been completely lost if I didn't google almost every property she mentioned. And I was happy to do that, because that's the sort of thing I call "fun." But it does make the reader work. This book deserves to have colour photos and maps to make it a really great reading experience. There were a handful of line drawings, and they were very nice, but this needs more.

Looking up these places on the internet was interesting to see what's changed with some of them since WWII. A few had links to British tabloids, with articles of people or events that would fall into the category of "misbehaviour of the rich and famous." Others had become museums or hotels, but most seemed to be high-end venues to rent for your dream wedding.

And now I've written a review almost as long as the book. Just one more thing:

Fun fact I learned: Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire, has been lived in by the same family for almost 900 years. It seems this family has always been good at having sons that live until at least they can begot more sons. New addition to my future travel list.

Why I Read This Now: it looked like a quick interesting read

Rating: 4 stars

Edited: Feb 18, 2019, 11:06am

I really enjoyed catching up on your thread and have picked up book bullets for The Royal Physician's Visit and Educated.

Feb 20, 2019, 9:24pm

>36 Nickelini: A Vita Sackville-West title that I haven't heard of until now! On my list it goes! Even if she wrote a shopping list I would read it.

Feb 20, 2019, 11:55pm

>38 VivienneR: A Vita Sackville-West title that I haven't heard of until now! On my list it goes! Even if she wrote a shopping list I would read it.

That would be interesting, actually. Although she probably just had a housekeeper who sensed what she wanted.

Feb 21, 2019, 12:28am

I need one of those housekeepers.

Feb 21, 2019, 1:05am

No kidding!

Feb 25, 2019, 1:36am

Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy, 1989, translated from Italian by Tim Parks 1991

cover comments: oddly, fits the book rather well

Comments: This 101 page novel is made up of the reflections of a woman looking back on growing up in Swiss boarding schools after WWII. The main focus is when she was 14 at a school in the northeast of Switzerland, where she became infatuated with the reserved and perfect Frederique, and then later, the cheerful Micheline, and had great disdain for all the other girls, including her little German roommate. There's a lot going on here, and a lot unspoken, but it's dark, dark, dark.

I'm not sure what to think of this. There was a strong theme of death woven through the book, but also loneliness, passion and self-control, and madness. With it's short length, it's likely that I'll reread it, because there was something intriguing here -- I'm just not sure what.

Rating: Not sure. 4 stars? Reader reviews of this tend to be very high -- lots of 5 star reviews, few that are much lower. I'm not sure there was enough here for me to give it that level of praise, but I'm happy to reread sometime and reevaluate.

Recommended for: readers who like dark stories set at boarding schools (apparently that's an actual thing). It's a book that can be (probably should be) read in one sitting. People who need action and a linear plot won't like this one.

Why I Read This Now: Still looking for Swiss literature, and everything I can find is written by old white men years ago, which is not what I'm interested in at all. This was more current, although not exactly 21st century, and at least it wasn't androcentric, so it checked off some of the boxes.

Mar 17, 2019, 3:51am

The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland, Padraig Rooney, 2015

Cover comments: I'm a fan of the vintage travel poster, so this is nothing but great in my books. Apparently this is a reproduction of the poster for the Grand Hotel Belvedere in Davos, 1905, by Hans Eggimann

Comments: Padraig Rooney, an Irish guy (in case you didn't notice his name), fell in love with Switzerland while hitchhiking through it during his gap year in 1973. He's now lived there for a long time, teaching at a private school (of which he occasionally makes the requisite self-deprecating remarks). The Gilded Chalet is his personal tour through the literature that has come out of, and been inspired by, Switzerland. Well, certainly not all of it, but a big chunk of it. It's interesting how writers from elsewhere are drawn to Switzerland (often at the end of their successful careers--like successful film and music stars. Switzerland seems like a great escape for rich people who want to drop out of sight but still be close enough to jump back into the limelight). And conversely, the Swiss authors mentioned in this book tended to leave Switzerland. I have to say I was a bit disappointed that he didn't discuss Swiss writers more, but then it's a country with a small population, and he was looking only at writing translated into English. I was surprised at how many writers he discussed that I didn't know had a connection to Switzerland -- James Joyce, Nabokov, & Patricia Highsmith especially. Others, I knew I would meet (looking at you, Mary Shelley).

One thing I appreciated about this that he did a decent job of spreading himself geographically around the country, and linguistically he covered all the official languages, and 3 of the 4 national languages (not sure why he didn't read the acclaimed Arno Camenisch so he could tick the Romansch box).

If you go to > The Gilded Chalet, you'll find a map of Switzerland, with all the pertinent places tagged with a literary explanation. I just discovered this, but it looks like a time-sink for tomorrow afternoon.

Why I Read This Now: if you read my threads, you'll know I'm focusing my reading on anything Switzerland ever since my daughter did her university semester abroad there in 2017 (and is now back living there). I'm having a bit of a struggle finding Swiss literature that isn't written by old white men, so when I saw that this book existed, I ordered it right away in hopes that it will open reading horizons.

Recommended for: I think this is written for a very specific audience, and I can only recommend it to someone who loves books and is really interested in Switzerland. Reader reviews on it though are really high, so if this is an area of interest, you'll probably love it. It went off on tangents, and I find that a lot of fun.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Mar 17, 2019, 11:20am

Good to see you here again, with interesting books and Colin Firth movies/pictures. :) I too a BB for The Royal Physician's Visit, as I'm a sucker for everything Danish / about Denmark.

Mar 17, 2019, 1:58pm

Although I will not be reading it, I love the cover of The Gilded Chalet - and yes, I am also a sucker for old-time travel posters.

Mar 17, 2019, 2:45pm

>44 Chrischi_HH: If you like all things Danish, then for sure you need to read The Physician's Visit.


>45 DeltaQueen50: For some reason, the vintage travel poster is the current style for these sorts of travel+random subject+Switzerland books. There certainly are worse trends in book design out there. I also own this one that I read last year:

And I will probably buy these two sooner or later:

Mar 18, 2019, 12:29pm

46 I particularly like the first cover, "The Alps" it has the look of art nouveau.

Mar 30, 2019, 1:54am

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah, 2016

cover comments: I love this cover -- the painting on the wall captures the character in the book, but instead of just having a great portrait, there's the layer of it being painted on a wall, and then the woman in South Africa strolling past. Absolutely fabulous.

Rating: it's been years, 2016 I think, since I rated a book 5 stars. This earned a full, shiny 5 twinkling stars. I've now sent my copy off to my daughter living in Europe, but I feel like I should buy a stack of these just to hand out to friends and family.

Recommended for: everyone! As long as they are mature enough to read about some tough subjects. So maybe not your clever 10 yr old. But absolutely for everyone else this is a must-read. You don't need to like Trevor Noah, or even know who is he, to enjoy this book.

Comments: Born a Crime is the memoir of Trevor Noah's childhood, about being born into apartheid in South Africa, and growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. His mother was Xhosa and his father was Swiss German, and that made him illegal, hence the title "Born a Crime". His mom's black family looked at him as white, and his parents couldn't be seen in public together with him. By appearances, he was "coloured," but had little in common with the coloured community in Johannesburg. Through all this, he learned to speak English, Xhosa, Zulu, and a little Afrikaans, which along with his obvious high intelligence, helped him negotiate his very difficult place in his world.

Although this is the story of Noah's first 20-odd years, in many ways, it's a love letter to his mother, who was key to making him the success he is today. And interestingly, at the end of the book, I had learned nothing more about how Noah went from his early years in a Soweto slum to landing on Time magazine's "2018 - 100 Most Influential People in the World" list. This truly is about a naughty, full-of-life, intelligent boy growing up in a complicated and sometimes dangerous world.

For a book written by a comedian, I didn't find it all that funny, although there were definite laugh out loud moments. And there weren't a lot of quotations to copy into my reading journal -- so more than great bits, this was just a great story, told well. Compared to other beloved books where I was amazed with phrases and sentences, in Born a Crime I was amazed at the storytelling. (And also, amazed at the crap he lived through.)

But the best thing about Born a Crime was the strong heart running throughout.

Why I Read This Now: I needed a book to read on my break at work, so looked to the small rack at the drugstore on our ground floor of our building. I had found a mystery or something that I figured would be decent, and then Born a Crime jumped out at me and I remember that I had been meaning to read this someday.

Note: The audiobook is read by the author, and I hear it's even better. I imagined his voice while I read, but actually hearing it would be even better.

Mar 30, 2019, 6:08am

>48 Nickelini: On my wish list it goes!

Mar 30, 2019, 3:08pm

>48 Nickelini: I listened to the audio version of this book and the author's reading really did enhance this excellent book. I had heard rumors of a movie adaptation which will focus on the mother as the main character. Lupita Nyong'o is supposed to play her, but with her busy career who knows when this one will be made.

Mar 30, 2019, 3:25pm

>50 DeltaQueen50:

I heard about the movie too, but it looks like it's in the earliest stages.

Edited: Mar 30, 2019, 3:26pm

LT glitch

Edited: Apr 1, 2019, 1:25am

Adele, Leila Slimani, 2014, translated from French by Sam Taylor, 2019

Cover comments: yawn

Rating: 4 stars

Comments: I enjoyed this novel, but I'm not sure why. Adele is a troubled, ill woman who does terrible things and is not likeable. Her esteemed husband is boring, and controlling, and not likeable either. Both of them, however, are believable. The writing wasn't amazing, but there's something about it that I found mesmerizing and almost soothing, even though the events the author is describing are the opposite.

Adele is a 30-someting Parisian woman, married to a successful surgeon, with a young son and beautiful apartment, and works as a journalist. Sometimes. She also is also consumed by self-abuse -- anorexic, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, drugs, and most prominently--sex with random men, which she thinks: the nastier, the better. (I guess writing that out, I see how that sounds like an interesting character to me).

While I understood some of her, she really is a monster, and that's part of what I'm confused about what this novel is saying*. At one point, Adele says she wants to be "a doll in a ogre's garden," and the original title in French is Dans le jardin de l'Ogre, and throughout her driving motivation seems to be needing men to mistreat her (note here that Slimani is known as an outspoken feminist in France--obviously this novel is more complex than what I'm trying to capture in my quick comments).

Dans le jardin de l'Ogre is a much stronger title than Adele, although at first glance it's a bit strange, and maybe wouldn't grab the right readers. But Adele says "this is a book about Adele," while the original is intriguing. When I finished the book, I asked: who is the ogre? As the character says, is Adele the victim of the ogre? Or is she the ogre? Or, after the twist, is the ogre her husband? It's up to the reader. But "Adele" -- that's just wilted in comparison. Funny, I had an opposite reaction to Slimani's only other novel -- in North America it was published as The Perfect Nanny, while in the UK and in Europe, the title was some version of Lullaby. "The Perfect Nanny" jumped off the shelf at me (obviously not perfect, what did the nanny do?). I wouldn't have looked twice at "Lullaby."

Recommended for: honestly, with my real life book loving friends, I don't know who I'd recommend this to, so I was surprised at the high ratings here and at GoodReads. I think if you liked The Perfect Nanny, you might like this too (although they're rather different in story, the author and translator are the same). It also reminded me of Hausfrau.

Why I Read This Now: Not exactly sure why NOW. I'm into novels from the European continent that are current and written by women, and after I read The Perfect Nanny last year, it stuck with me. So when I sawAdele, I thought it needed me to read it.

* Yes, I know the author comments on a political sex scandal in France and flipping it. However, this English Literature major completely rejects that much-quoted interpretation.

Apr 12, 2019, 11:49pm

The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths: 2nd Edition, Clare O'Dea (2018)

cover comments: sure, this works -- very contemporary Swiss styling

Comments: My 2nd edition of The Naked Swiss had a bonus 11th myth. Here's the list:

1. The Swiss Are Swiss
2. The Swiss Are Rich
3. The Swiss Are Xenophobic
4. The Swiss Are Brilliant
5. The Swiss Are Sexist
6. The Swiss Are Neutral
7. The Swiss Helped the Nazis
8. The Swiss Are Boring
9. The Swiss Are Crooked Bankers
10. The Swiss Have the World's Best Democracy
11. The Swiss Are European

Clare O'Dea is an Irish woman who has lived in Switzerland for over a decade, and has a Swiss husband and Irish-Swiss kids. She was a journalist for, the international service of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. With each of the points she explores, there is the truth behind the myth, and also examples of the exact opposite of what the myth purports.

When I was young and learning about the countries of the world in children's books, Switzerland was one of famous countries of Europe, symbolized by its snow-capped mountains. It belonged to that select club with France and the Eiffel Tower, Holland (not the Netherlands) with wooden shoes and windmills, England with Big Ben and a red double-decker bus, and if the book was exotic, Italy with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. That was all of Europe. But as I got older, Switzerland faded into the background of my mind, in part because it had a reputation for being an expensive place to visit (true). But now that my daughter is living and working there, and I'm getting ready for my 2nd trip in 16 months, it's back to top of mind. And, as The Naked Swiss shows, Switzerland is unlike any other country in the world. Not only is it unique, the things that make it unique are very interesting and cool. And really, all countries could improve by taking some lessons from the Swiss.

Recommended for: Anyone who has a interest in Switzerland beyond what a tourist needs to know for a week in the Alps.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Why I Read This Now: Switzerland in 19 days!

Apr 14, 2019, 10:27am

>54 Nickelini: Enjoy Switzerland!

Apr 15, 2019, 8:47pm

>55 Tess_W:

Thanks! I'm pretty excited. We're also doing 3 weeks in northern Italy after Switzerland.

Apr 15, 2019, 8:47pm

Ring, Elisabeth Horem, 1994, translated from French by Jane Kuntz, 2013

cover comments: This sparse cover suits this book perfectly; also, the white & red spare aesthetic is tres Swiss

Comments: On the first page of the Ring, Quentin's girlfriend announces that she's moving to America with his brother. In a classic "you can't break up with me because I'm breaking up with you" move, Quentin blurts out that that's fine, because he's moving to Tahis anyway. He had no such plan, of course, but had just that morning read an interesting job ad for a position in Tahis. With no prospects in his un-named town in Europe, he applies for and is accepted for the job in Tahis. So off he goes, three time zones east of Western Europe, in a foreign desert country. (From what I can tell, the author invented the city of Tahis. Please tell me if I'm wrong).

In Tahis, he quickly changes jobs and begins work for a consulate issuing visas. All the ex-pats live on the Ring, in the centre of town. Outside of the Ring sprawls the slums of everyone else. Ensconced in the stifling world of the Ring, Quentin is drawn to life outside of it. In short blurb on the back cover, L'Hebdo mentions the "desolation" in this book, which is fitting.

Later in this short novel, and in a bookend to his break up with his girlfriend, Quentin stomps into work with plans to quit, but before he can, he's told he's fired. You can't quit, we're firing you.

Rating: a solid 4 stars

Recommended for: Not sure. This was short, very readable, very odd.

Why I Read This Now: I'm on a hunt for Swiss literature. This was published as part of the Dalkey Archive Swiss Literature Series. I thought it sounded interesting. The Dalkey Archive doesn't make this clear to me why they included this though -- in the author blurb I learn that Elisabeth Horem was born in Bourges, France and lived in the Middle East with her husband, a Swiss diplomat. My Swiss score: 2 out of 3. -- 1) Woman writer: check. 2) New literature: Written in 1994, translated in 2013: sure, check. 3) Set in Switzerland: nope.

Apr 25, 2019, 3:44pm

Book bullets taken for Born a Crime, Adele and The Naked Swiss - enjoy your trip!

Apr 25, 2019, 11:09pm

>58 LisaMorr:
Thanks! And I hope you enjoy those books.

Apr 25, 2019, 11:43pm

Margherita Dolce Vita, Stefano Benni, 2005, translated by Antony Shugar, 2006

cover comments: Europa Editions have notoriously ugly covers, so in that light, this isn't too bad. It's maybe even quite nice.

Comments: Margherita is a teenager who lives on the edge of some unnamed city in northern Italy with her off-beat family -- mother, father, two brothers, and a grandfather. Overnight, a new cube-shaped house appears in the field next to their house, and a fancy rich family moves in. A satire of consumerism and modern life follows, and then there's a super bizarre ending that has some readers upset.

There were some fabulous sentences in this book -- the author is highly talented at sharp, creative observations. But the whole thing together didn't really work for me -- the Margherita character was just too precocious. Precocious children can be great (Coraline) or beyond annoying (The Elegance of the Hedgehog). This one was sliding toward the too annoying end of the scale. And I didn't care that much about the characters or the story.

Rating: a solid okay: 3 stars

Why I Read This Now: I read a short story by the author in 2009 and was blown away and searched out anything else written by him. It's been in my TBR stacks for a few years, and I read it now before my trip to Italy.

Recommended for: reader reviews tend to be more favourable than mine. If you liked The Elegance of the Hedgehog you might like this. Both were published by Europa Editions. I hunt out Europas, but I have to say that they're really hit or miss for me. They often publish unusual slightly zany stories. An Italian book they published that was much better was Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous.

Apr 27, 2019, 11:47pm

>60 Nickelini: - Great review! It has been a while since I read the Benni book. Like you, I found the Lakhous book to be a much better read.

May 29, 2019, 11:30am

Heidi, Johanna Spyri, 1880, translated from German (translator not identified)

Cover comments: well at least it's not twee

Why I Read This Now: I first read this 50 years ago--it was one of the first novels I ever read. When I was cleaning out my daughter's bookshelf, I thought I'd reread this before moving it out of the house. It was a perfect moment since I was soon off to Switzerland.

Comments: Five year old orphaned Heidi is dumped at her gruff grandfather's hut, high in the Alps above a Swiss village. She falls in love with the mountains, and her charming disposition softens her grandfather's ornery manner. A few years later she moves to Frankfurt to be a companion to an "invalid" girl and charms more people, despite her intense homesickness for the Alps.

My two surprises with this reread were how much I remembered (mostly about the parts in the Alps) and how genuinely lovely the character of Heidi was for the most part. I was afraid that my jaded adult self would find her saccharine, but I didn't at all.

Rating: 4 stars

Recommended for: this is a classic that still deserves readers. I would put Heidi in a similar category as Anne of Green Gables.

May 31, 2019, 7:38pm

The Finishing School, Joanna Goodman, 2016

cover comments: Oh, the back of a woman's head, as she looks into the distance. Who would have thought of that?

Why I Read This Now: It seemed like a good book to read on the Swiss part of my vacation.

Comments: Kersti Kuusk is a published novelist living in current day Toronto. She receives and invitation to speak at the prestigious Swiss boarding school she attended as a scholarship student in the 1990s. Memories flood back about her best friend there, Cressida, who mysteriously fell from a balcony at the school. The novel switches back and forth between the time periods as Kersti tries to solve the mystery.

Other readers enjoyed this more than I did. Although it was readable and I loved the setting, there were just so many times I rolled my eyes or thought the author was going in weird directions. The entire infertility subplot didn't work for me, especially its resolution.

And here's a thing: back in the 70s I read a book on how to write mystery novels (may have been by Dean Koontz but I'm not sure), and it said that there is only one mystery that is valid for a mystery novel: murder. I was quite far into this book before I realized that Cressida survived the fall. Yes, she was in a vegetative state (or was she?), but she didn't actually die. If this had been written as a more literary book, a more gifted writer could have made that work. Not here in a mystery novel though.

A fun thing about this reading experience: while reading this, we visited the elite Swiss boarding school that my daughter's boyfriend attended for high school. It was a week day and we snuck in while classes were in progress. He of course ran into teachers he knew and the custodian who used to give him the key to areas he shouldn't have been in, which led to entertaining stories. So I had a really clear picture of what a Swiss boarding school looks like while reading The Finishing School.

Recommended for: readers who like mysteries set in boarding schools. Most readers liked this more than I did.

Rating: 3 stars: a solid "okay." I could have rated this lower, but it worked as a holiday read and I was otherwise having a spectacular time, so I'm being generous. I left this behind on the bookshelf at the VRBO were we stayed on Lake Como.

Jun 2, 2019, 4:57pm

Sounds like your trip is amazing, Joyce. I always have big plans for books that I take on trips but usually the actual travelling is better than the reading.

Jun 2, 2019, 9:59pm

>62 Nickelini: I have an old copy of Heidi on my shelves, that I'd read over 40 years ago. Your review has made me think that it's time for a reread!

Jun 4, 2019, 10:04am

>62 Nickelini: been about 50 years since I've read Heidi. I also directed the play at school in about 1980. I think it's time for a re-read!

Jun 4, 2019, 8:52pm

Amazing Disgrace, James Hamilton-Paterson, 2006

cover comments: I guess I'm getting numb to ugly Europa Editions covers because I don't find this terrible. Especially compared to Cooking with Fernet Branca. But still, pretty ugly.

Why I Read This Now: I was traveling to the same part of Italy where the main character, Gerald Samper, lives and since I enjoyed Cooking With Fernet Branca, I thought this sequel would be a fun vacation read.

Comments: In book 2, Gerald Samper is still living high in the hills about Viareggio, Italy, ghost writing autobiographies for sporting heroes and pop stars, cooking sketchy and questionable gourmet meals, and drinking copious amounts of prosecco (neighbour Marta is gone and so is the fernet branca).

Not much plot with this one--Gerry travels back and forth between England and Tuscany, and carries on as only Gerry can do. His opinions and views of the world are unique and specific, and occasionally absolutely brilliant. But in Amazing Disgrace, too often tedious. I read some of the really good bits out loud to my husband, and also told him the whole scene where Samper dearly wants to make a good impression as a dinner guest but then makes a critical error in the loo. My husband correctly identified that Gerald Samper is a bit of a douche. He can be highly entertaining, but this time around, not so much.

Rating: One-quarter of this book is a 5, but the rest of it is a solid 3 stars. Despite that, I will go on to book 3, Rancid Pansies, maybe next year when we go back to Italy.

Recommended for: if you loved Cooking With Fernet Branca, then definitely try this. If you haven't, read that book first.

Jun 30, 2019, 1:31pm

Medea (Hackett Classics), Euripedes, translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien

cover comments: I rather like this

Comments: Medea opens in Corinth, where Jason has recently booted his wife, Medea, and their two sons, out of his life so he could marry the princess and become part of the royal family. He tells her this is a good thing because now their sons with have royal brothers. Jason gets annoyed when Medea doesn't buy this malarkey and becomes enraged. She plots revenge and carries it out, which ends in her famously slaying both her children.

Although I usually dislike reading plays, I've wanted to read Medea ever since I studied Greek plays in university. I'm particularly interested in strong women characters who do not follow the traditional paths of motherhood and act in ways that most people find shocking. Medea is interesting because, as the introduction points out, it asks: "Do the experiences of Medea expose the oppressiveness of patriarchal Greek culture, or do they affirm every negative Greek stereotype about women?" In thinking about this, we need to remember that the Greek plays were written by men, performed by men, and for the most part viewed by men.

This translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien is highly readable. Look at the clarity and modern feel of this passage for example:

Of all the living creatures with a soul
and mind, we women are the most pathetic.
First of all, we have to buy a husband:
spend vast amounts of money, just to get
a master for our body--to add insult
to injury. And the stakes could not be higher:
will you get a decent husband, or a bad one?
If a woman leaves her husband, then she loses
her virtuous reputation. To refuse him
is just not possible. When a girl leaves home
and comes to live with new ways, different rules,
she has to be a prophet to learn somehow
the art of dealing smoothly with her bedmate.
If we do well, and if our husbands bear
the yoke without discomfort or complaint,
our lives are admired. If not, it's best to die.

It's also pretty stunning that this is still the reality for women in parts of the world and there are men actively trying to bring it back in the US.

Why I Read This Now: I needed a book to read on the train that was small

Recommended for: People who want to read the best of Greek Classics, readers interested in the treatment of women in Ancient Greece.

Jul 9, 2019, 12:22pm

>68 Nickelini: Great comments about Medea. Sounds like I need to pick this up one of these days.

Jul 9, 2019, 4:06pm

>68 Nickelini: - I saw a production of Medea a couple of years ago that was really interesting. It was in a small intimate space and they separated the women from the men in the audience before seating everyone. The women went in first and filled up the first few rows and then the men followed. The women were also handed rocks with messages on them to hold during the show. Pretty sure there was a bit of chanting as well. The performance was pretty intense too. Definitely drilled home the powerful woman message.

Jul 9, 2019, 6:52pm

>70 LittleTaiko:
Wow. That sounds like an interesting experience. Like you say, intense.

Jul 13, 2019, 1:35pm

Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?: Extraordinary Answers to 66 Improbable Questions About Switzerland, Ashley Curtis, 2018

cover comments: I'm pretty neutral on this (how's that for Swiss?)

Comments: When I arrived in Switzerland in early May, I found that I had forgotten to pack my journal, so on my first day there I went to a lovely book shop in the charming city of Zug, and bought a regular Moleskine notebook at the most astronomical price. Of course I had to glance over the English book section too, and when I saw Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex?, I had to buy it.

Now, I didn't know that the Swiss had such great sex, but it really didn't surprise me -- after all, look at their surrounding influences: the healthy body awareness of the Germans, the romance of the French, and the sexy swoon-worthiness of the Italians. But when I picked up my daughter at work and showed her, she just laughed and said the Swiss were famous for being prudes. Hmmm.

Anyway, Why Do the Swiss Have Such Great Sex? asks 66 questions about life in Switzerland and takes two to four pages to explore the answer. The answers seem well researched, usually have a twist to them, and are often somewhat humorous. The questions range from fascinating to 'who cares?' but I found something valuable or interesting in almost all of them.

Here are two examples:

Q. How Much Rubble Was Excavated Digging the World's Longest Tunnel? And Where Is It Now?
A. Enough to fill freight cars in a train stretching from Zurich to Kathmandu. The rubble went to make the bed of the tunnel, and to make the concrete to line it. The rest went to shore up water areas that had been damaged by flooding.

Q. Could a Tsunami Strike Switzerland?
A. I thought this was a dumb question, but actually it wasn't. Yes, tsunamis happen in Switzerland. In 563 a landslide at the east end of Lake Geneva caused a massive wave that went over the walls of Geneva, and earthquake set one off in Lake Geneva again in 1584, and Lucerne was hit in 1601 and 1681. In 1806 a tsunami killled 500 people on Lake Laurerz. Not such a dumb question, actually.

Overall, a fun read.

Why I Read This Now: I started reading it right away while we were in Switzerland, but then threw it in my suitcase when we got to Italy. I took it up again when I got home, and read a question or two a day.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Recommended for: trivia buffs, people who want to learn more about Switzerland

Jul 13, 2019, 1:40pm

>72 Nickelini: That does sound like a fun way to learn some facts about a country. I never thought about the influence of the surrounding countries, but yes, Switzerland should be a very sexy country!

Jul 13, 2019, 3:34pm

I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai, 2013

Cover comments: lovely and appropriate for a memoir

Why I Read This Now: I bought this soon after it was published, not because I actually planned to read it, but just to support Malala and her important cause of education. I absolutely love how the Taliban tried to silence her, but instead made her an international human rights celebrity and increased her voice by untold decibels. Buying this was my little way of giving the Taliban the middle finger. Anyway, I've been enjoying memoirs this year, so pulled it off the shelf.

Comments: Everyone knows the story of Malala, the teen-aged education-rights activist who was shot in the face by the Taliban, so I'm not going to go into it. This memoir starts with the shooting incident and then goes back to her family's history and slowly to her life in 2013. Lots of bits about Pakistani history and politics makes this a disjointed read.

Rating: 3 stars

Recommended for: people who haven't already read a lot about Pakistan and its oppressed population. This book would be an excellent addition to any middle or high school library.

Edited: Jul 22, 2019, 12:19am

Innocence: a novel, Penelope Fitzgerald, 1986

Cover comments: I love it--feels Tuscan. It's Lunetta la Magia by Giusto van Utens, and it's in the Museo di Firenze.

Comments: What even is this? What does this all mean? Why is this a book?

It's 1955 and 18 year old Chiara Ridolfi, the youngest member of a very old aristocratic family, decides she wants to marry the 30ish doctor she met only once. Salvatore Rossi is from the poor south, is a bit of a communist, and is a "just the facts" kinda guy. Actually, I thought he was a complete pill and there is no explanation for their "romance." There are a slew of secondary characters and they're all more likeable than these two twits. The story itself makes little sense.

All was not lost, however. There were entertaining scenes here and there, and some fabulous evocative descriptions of the old villa, farm and the countryside outside of Florence. The opening of the book tells the fascinating history of the family in the 1500s when they were all little people (as in midgets, not dwarfs).

Rating: saved by the evocative bits. 3 stars.

Recommended for: not sure -- if you've read Fitzgerald before and like her, give it a try. This shouldn't be your intro though. This is my 4th Penelope Fitzgerald novel, and not my favourite.

Why I Read This Now: I have 4 Fitzgeralds in my TBR pile, so it was time to read one, and it was set in Italy to the obvious choice.

Edited: Jul 31, 2019, 12:24am

27. Portofino, Frank Schaeffer, 1992

cover comments: I think in the 90s when this was published I would have liked it a lot. Now I find it a bit choppy. But the landscape of Portofino is nice, and the watermark 1960s woman is nice, so it's still nice.

Rating: 5 stars. I do have a quibble in that I found that the serious tone at the end of the book to let the wind out of the proverbial sails of fun, but overall I loved, loved, loved this one. Fabulously captured Italian beach resort plus nutty Christian fundamentalists makes this a big win for me.

Comments: This novel is set over the summers of 1962 and 1965 when Calvin Becker vacations with his family at the Italian beach town of Portofino. They are Americans, but have been living in Switzerland where his missionary parents are attempting to convert heathen Roman Catholics to their one true Christian sect. Calvin is 10 yrs old in the first section, and starting to have serious questions about big life questions, but his two older pious sisters, his fundamentalist mother, and his moody self-absorbed father are not giving him the answers he needs. So he forges new friendships with the Italian locals and Jennifer from England.

Portofino is wonderfully evocative of holiday life at a magical Italian beach resort and the sort of adventures a 10 and 14 year old boy might get himself into when he’s trying to have a fun time despite his dysfunctional family. The scenes where he attempts to distance himself from his embarrassing family, especially when he’s mortified by his mother’s attempts to evangelize, are hilarious in a cringe-worthy way.

Why I Read This Now: A few weeks ago my sister in law and I were having a lively conversation about travelling in Italy, and how we both had Portofino high on our list to visit next time. She said, “I just read a fabulous book about Portofino and it made it sound wonderful. I need to go right away.” Sounded good to me, and then she asked:

“Do you know Francis Schaeffer?” Her question seemed entirely unrelated to our conversation. “You mean the nasty and batshit crazy fundamentalist?"

“Yeah, him,” she replied, “’s written by his son.” Now I know both the crazy dad and Frank Schaffer, the son, who I have all sorts of time for. In fact, I have his memoir Crazy for God high on my TBR pile. “Frank Schaeffer writes novels?” Who knew?

So it turns out that Portofino is a work of fiction highly influenced by his real life, and it was years later that he reworked it and wrote the memoir. Really interesting to see that the “esteemed” theologian Francis Schaeffer, who I’ve long determined was a misanthropic, pseudo intellectual and fraud (and one of the creators of the US Religious Right), is indeed a horrible human.

Portofino is the first of the Calvin Becker trilogy. I think the other two are set in Switzerland, so even though I rarely read series, I’m actually going to find copies of the other two, now out of print, novels.

Fun fact: My later edition (1999) of Portofino says “Now a major motion picture” and on the inside back cover says it stars John Lithgow as the father and Diane Wiest as the mother. Excellent casting I think, although because I know Francis Schaeffer, I only imagined him in the role, but once I read this, in my mind, Diane Wiest was the troubled zealot mother. However, I couldn’t find any trace of this film on ImdB, so I Googled further and found out that the project collapsed and was never filmed. Too bad, I think it would have been great.

Recommended for: I recommend this widely but predict two groups won’t like it. Devotees of Francis and Edith Schaeffer of course don’t want to hear anything that makes their heroes appear to be anything less than perfect Christians; likewise, the super pious will be offended by the realistic humanity of this story (Oh no! The 14 year old drank champagne! The horror). On the flip side, if you’ve never been exposed to intense religiosity, you won’t understand why all the religious stuff is really funny and will just find it annoying.

Edited: Jul 29, 2019, 6:54pm

>76 Nickelini: Oh myyy! I have to get Portofino!

Aug 15, 2019, 5:25pm

Evil: the Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, Julia Shaw, 2019
Published in the UK as: Making Evil

cover comments: just fine for a psychology-criminology-sociology book. I guess making it black and red with devil horns would have been too obvious?

Comments: Before I start, I have to say that this is a difficult book to comment on in the LT format (I could easily have a conversation though). For a succinct review, I steer you to Avaland's review on the book's page. Also, before I start, understand that the author, Julia Shaw, is a senior lecturer in criminology and psychology at University College London. This is not a philosophical text. Okay then . . .

(I wrote some stuff and then deleted it). I actually can't write comments on this without going into hours and hours of typing. It was fascinating. And important. Some of this I already have come across, but I think if it's the first time you've looked from this angle it can be rather shocking.

One thing that she touches on that I'd never quite thought of before is that it's not okay to define someone by their worst moment. "Bill Smith, murderer --- oh, he's evil!" Well, no, Bill Smith did a horrible thing, but he did a lot of other stuff too and some of it very nice. This is not to excuse his terrible act, but to remember that he's human. (Now, as a fraud investigator, I can tell you that some fraudsters appear to be nice people I'd rather not nail, and some are horrible, horrible people. But fraud is fraud, so there you go. I digress)

In conclusion:

The dedication for this book: "to the insatiably curious" ( yep, that's me! )

As Avaland pointed out, Shaw's list of "Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know About Evil":

1. calling people evil is lazy
2. all brains are a bit sadistic
3. we are all capable of murder
4. our creepiness radars suck
5. technology can amplify dangerousness
6. sexual deviance is pretty common
7. all monsters are human*
8. money distracts from harm
9. culture cannot excuse cruelty
10. we MUST speak of the unspeakable

Why I Read This Now: I was raised to believe that "evil" is an actual, physical force that threatens to overtake the earth, and it flows from Satan. I also heard that we are all born evil and can only escape that by being washed by the blood of Christ, whatever that means. This is not something that was hammered in to me, just something I heard. Yada, yada, I've overcome my fundie upbringing and am now fascinated to find out where almost all these ideas of "evil," "Satan," and "hell" come from -- it's not what the church taught me and I find that fascinating. Over the years, I find that I've thrown out the word "evil" as short-hand for "really heinous" and I've caught myself and reconsidered. So when LT friend Avaland read and reviewed this book a few months ago, I thought, "I have to read that ASAP!" (Also, I'm mulling over a novel that incorporates some of these ideas, so this was research*)

* "All Monsters Are Human" may be the title for this novel. It's now the working title, anyway

Recommended for: if you've made it through this and read Avaland's review, you'll know. Really, I think everyone SHOULD read it, but then no one likes to do shoulds.

Rating: 4.5

Aug 16, 2019, 11:56am

Two in a row - another BB taken!

Aug 16, 2019, 12:00pm

>78 Nickelini: - Well, that sounds fascinating and thought provoking. I'll definitely be on the lookout for this book.

Aug 30, 2019, 1:07am

300 Days of Sun, Deborah Lawrenson, 2016

cover comments: love it -- has the vintage travel poster feel. When I bought this I had never heard of it but the cover pulled me in.

Comments: Jo, a journalist, needs a break from her life and goes to Portugal and enrols in a language class, where she meets Nathan. They get involved in a mystery involving child kidnapping and murder. This story is interspersed by a second story about neutral Portugal in WWII with spies, Nazi gold, and espionage.

I enjoyed this tremendously, although 300 Days of Sun isn't a great literary novel or anything. More of a solid and worthwhile vacation read. I loved the setting in Portugal. Both my daughters were travelling there while I was reading this, and it was fun reading evocative descriptions of where they were. It makes me want to go back to Portugal again. I also appreciated learning about WWII Portugal while being entertained.

I look forward to reading more by Deboarah Lawrenson.

Rating: 4 stars -- very good, but not amazing.

Recommended for: like I said above, this a great vacation read. Also, great for readers interested in Portugal.

Why I Read This Now: it's summer, and this seemed summery.

Aug 31, 2019, 11:55am

>81 Nickelini: I went to check this book out at Amazon and it was only $1.99 so I got myself a copy. I'll save it for when I need something light and entertaining.

Aug 31, 2019, 2:06pm

>81 Nickelini: Sounds like a great beach/vacation read. On my list it goes!

Aug 31, 2019, 3:02pm

I went and bought a Kindle copy too. Sounds like a good complement to a Netflix series, High Seas, we recently watched.

Sep 10, 2019, 2:50am

Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona, Tim Parks, 1992

cover comments: Sure! this works for this sort of book. Looks like Italy, and the white with a muted red and green evoke the Italian flag. If in sort of sullied tone . . . which is accurate.

Comments: Tim Parks is an Englishman who moved to Italy in the 80s, has translated a bunch of Italian authors ---which is where I know him from--- and had a Booker nominated novel years ago (Europa).

I liked this better than most "ex-pat in Italy/France/Whatever memoir, where the locals help the stressed out American or Brit realize that life is just better when you live in a villa watching sunsets every night while drinking prosecco. I've never lived in a villa watching sunsets and drinking prosecco, but I can tell you that I don't need to read your memoir to know it's a good thing.

Anyway, that's not Italian Neighbours. Tim Parks describes his life through the 1980s living in a village in the Veneto east of Verona, and his interactions with his neighbours. Hence, the title Italian Neighbours. He has a keen wit, and his sharp observations make this unique among the "ex-pats lives are better than we who stay behind" genre of memoir (cough - some of them need to be filed under "fantasy and science fiction". )

The vignettes in this about the bits of everyday life in Italy struck me as incredibly perspective, and when I read out loud parts to my Italian husband, he laughed in recognition.

This was published in 1992, the year I took my first trip to Europe and visited Verona, and I finished this in 2019, when I took my second trip to Verona (but 5th vacation in Italy). Verona is a lovely small city, but most of Italian Neighbours: an Englishman in Verona is set in Montecchio Maggiore, about a 30 min drive east.

Why I Read This Now I actually read almost half this book two years ago, and I was enjoying it, but then a trip came up to Switzerland, so I switched to Swiss Watching, a book about an Englishman adapting to life in a new country. Rather different approaches, but too much of the same thing. Italian Neighbours is much more intimate and personal. Anyway, back then I set it aside and recently picked it up because I always meant to finish it.

Recommended for: anyone interested in living in Italy

Rating: mostly I found this overly-long. I don't know what to cut, but 200 pages instead of >300 would have been ideal. Some readers complain about lack of thesis statement and lack of story arc. Okay. It's just sort of day-in-the-life over a year. Whatever. **** 4 stars

Edited: Oct 26, 2019, 1:33pm

When the Night, (Italian title: Quando la Notte), Cristina Comencini, 2009, English translation by Marina Harss 2012

cover comments: Sigh. Okay, I guess it's fine. But uninspired and feels like it was put together at the last moment. It does fit the book in it's bland way.

Comments: First, for a review that is much better than anything I'm going to put together here, check out LT friend JudyLou's review at Belletrista a few years ago:

After reading that, if you still want to read more, here's my very quick take on this book:

This is a look at the lives of two flawed people who probably would be together if not for all their heaps of baggage. But some of that baggage explains why they both dislike and are strongly drawn to each other.

Manfred has lived his life on a mountainside in the Italian Alps. He now guides tourists up into the mountains above his village. One of his brothers runs a lodge higher up, and this is where Manfred was raised by his father after his mother ran off to the USA with a guest. This abandonment scarred Manfred deeply. At the beginning of his novel, his wife has recently taken their children and abandoned him to live in the city.

Enter Marina, a young mother with her toddler. A few years into this, she's feeling trapped into a life she hadn't planned (stepping onto my soap box here -- yes, young people. Do have a plan. And use birth control. Mmmkay? Stepping off soap box now). A bunch of family dynamics, and the pediatrician suggests a mountain holiday would be good for the always crying, never sleeping, never eating boy who she loves deeply but hasn't bonded with. Which brings her to Manfred's rental apartment.

Okay, I just have to say that I know a real life Marina. She is even Italian. My heart goes out to her, even though I watch her create her own struggles at times. Also, maybe they're working with a crap hand of cards.

Anyway, Manfred hates women and judges Marina sharply (which she's used to from everyone at home), and Marina somehow sees through Manfred's damaged and gruff facade. Things happen, and they both burrow into each other's lives. I've probably led you down some romantic path, but that's not the style of European fiction, so no, it's much more ambiguous.

Rating: 4 stars. I read this fairly quickly and enjoyed it all the way through.

Recommended for: Everything about this is a bit different, but not in an arty experimental way. When I watch European films I often think, "hmm, that was unexpected." If you know what I mean and like that, then try it. Also, Alps.

Why I Read This Now: I'm into translated European fiction right now, and this was Italian and the book's blurb said it was set in the Dolomites. I was in the Dolomites a few months ago, so I loved the idea of reading a book set there. BUT! I don't think it was set there at all, but instead somewhere else west, across northern Italy in the Aosta Valley. The second sentence sets the scene: The clouds hang low over the Dent du Geant. This is a sharp peak on Mnt Blanc, which is on the Italian-French border. The only other mention of place is later in the novel where the characters look up at "the Gigante," which when I google, is the Italian name (Dente del Gigante) for the same mountain. Further, even though I'm reading English, it's clear that everyone is speaking Italian. But the Dolomiti region of Italy is not Italian-speaking, it's German-speaking. And the culture is Tyrolian. There was nothing of this in this book.

I feel like I'm missing something, but I know many people who work in publishing and they tell me there are mistakes in books all the time, so I'm leaning toward thinking the publisher flat out made a mistake with the front flap blurb "... his home in the Dolomites...". If I've missed something, please let me know.

Which brings me to a pet peeve of contemporary Italian literature -- the authors never set their books in an actual place. The last three Italian-authored books I've read use "the city" "the town" "the seaside" "the mountains," etc. I know, it's the story, not the setting-- but really, I love reading a rich setting. My husband recently read a translated Italian book that did the same and he was annoyed. Personally, I'd like this trend to end.

Oct 8, 2019, 1:15am

something new

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman, 2017

cover comments: rather pleasing, maybe even completely fine.

Rating: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was fine. Not amazing, not awful. Definitely fine. 4 stars.

Why I Read This Now: Although I had heard of this book and was vaguely aware that it was a good read, it really wasn't on my radar at all. But it came up as a book club selection, and I thought I'd give it a try. Not sure if I'd ever had picked it up otherwise but happy I did.

Comments: I get the impression that anyone interested in this book has read it, so here's the shortest summary I can think of:

Eleanor Oliphant is almost 30 and lives a lonely but organized life in Glasgow. She's highly intelligent but socially awkward to the extreme. Things happen and she makes a friend at work and one step leads to another, and then she comes to terms with her extremely abusive and traumatic upbringing that resulted in her being a lonely, organized, socially awkward 30 year old.

Most readers love this book, a few readers don't and have some valid criticisms ("predictable" is one, "unrealistic and cartoon characters" perhaps another). I started out liking it, but then quickly stopped -- Eleanor was too unpleasant and it just wasn't clicking, but I trusted it was going to progress and around page 70 I started enjoying myself, and found myself engrossed by page 150.

The strongest trait with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is various illustrations of how kindness can change lives. Eleanor's relationship with her friend Raymond is especially lovely (in this book, Everybody Loves Raymond, and for good reasons). I also loved the literary references -- such as Eleanor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, the many Jane Eyre references, and Eleanor being the loneliest person, after the most famous lonely person Eleanor Rigby.

Recommended for: My book club met on this tonight and everyone liked this a lot. I was the only one who had anything critical to say. If you're not in a picky mood and looking for a book to dive into over a weekend, this is a good one.

Oct 8, 2019, 3:06pm

>87 Nickelini: I liked this book more than you did, but I definitely agree about Eleanor's unpleasantness for a good portion of the novel! I also think the "Eleanor Rigby" reference was intentional -- the book is a painfully honest portrayal of loneliness.

Edited: Oct 15, 2019, 8:58pm

ETA - cover has stopped loading -- will come back and fix later

The Black Spider, Jeremias Gotthelf, 1842 - translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

cover comments: oh yes, all sorts of awesome. NYRB Classics does it again. (Image is "Allegory of Vanity" wax figure, 18th century; cover design by Katy Homans)

Why I Read This Now: Every October I go on a creepy book quest. This was one of my better results -- creepy indeed. Also, I'm currently exploring Swiss literature, and this is one of the old classics. It's written by an old, white, religious male, which is way out of my interest zone, but it's reputation as a very early horror novella got me to read it anyway.

Comments: The Black Spider opens with a baptism and feast on an idyllic May day, deep in the Emmental Valley in Switzerland. Between meals, while the men are digesting one spread and resting up for the next (and while the women clean up and start cooking again), the grandfather tells two stories about the forgotten history of the village.

The first was set 600 years earlier, when the villagers were serfs and the area was ruled by a tyrannical knight and his jerk-knight-friends. The knight demands impossible tasks from the serfs. If the serfs attempt the tasks, they are sure to fail, and the knight will kill them. Also, they won't be able to farm, and they will starve. Then they are offered a deal with the devil, and they think they can outsmart him. They also realize that God will smite them for making a deal with the devil. There was never a question of God helping them out of the impossible situation they were thrust into and powerless to change. So really, they're screwed. Anyway, the devil doesn't fool easily and seriously bad things happen involving spiders.

The second story happens 200 years later (if you do the arithmetic, that brings us to around the time of Black Death--definitely intentional). The villagers have forgotten the lessons from last time, and the evil spider force is released yet again. More super creepy spider action.

Back to the frame, with the grandfather and baptism feast. He's ruffled some feathers with his horrific stories but he says it's important people know their history and prevent such horror from happening again.

Jeremias Gotthelf was a pastor, and there is an overabundance of God's weirdness in this. If one looks at the theology a little bit, it presents Christianity in a poor light, despite the author's attempts at the opposite. As with Heidi, I just skimmed over these parts.

Rating: 4 stars. This was actually a more enjoyable read than I expected. Once I got out of the frame and into the grandfather's stories, it had a lovely fairy tale feel. As for the creep-factor, I don't creep easily, but this was one of the better ones I've read in the last decade or so.

Recommended for: fans of NYRB Classics, very early horror, Swiss literature, spiders.
Not Recommended for: arachnophobes

Oct 26, 2019, 8:40am

>89 Nickelini: Great review and on my wish list it goes!

Nov 1, 2019, 12:44am

Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, published in Hebrew 2011, published in English 2014

cover comments: yep, that's fine I guess

Comments: One educated guy's idea of the history of today's humans from 70,000 years ago to predictions into the future, all in 416 pages. Blurbs by Barak Obama and Bill Gates, amongst others. Mega best seller, so I'm not going to say much.

This started out very strong, but then faded more as it got into recorded history. I see in reader reviews that others think this too. Some of the conclusions he drew from history made me raise my eyebrows, but then he's capturing everything in fewer than 500 pages, so okay I guess. Pretty much everything he said about humanism was flat out wrong (as also noted in the review by The Guardian) but that's only a bit of the book, and he did probably get some other things perfectly right. His ideas on how humans will evolve into the future are odd but interesting, and not something I've thought a lot about.

Why I Read This Now: my husband read this a few years ago and raved about it but I've been busy with non-fiction about Switzerland where our daughter moved, and a few other more burning topics. And now I finally made time for it.

Recommended for: Parts of Sapiens reminded me of Guns, Germs and Steel, a book that I was raving about years ago. The author actually cites Guns, Germs and Steel, and the author, Jared Diamond, blurbs this. So if you liked that one, you'll love ....

Otherwise, this is an entertaining, wide-ranging overview that covers history, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. that has some interesting ideas. It's a best seller for a reason.

Rating: 4 stars

Dec 2, 2019, 11:23pm

Storia di Lucca (History of Lucca), John Jones, 2000 - printed in both Italian and English

cover comments: sure, this is fine-- nice warm red, nice artwork that shows a definitive scene of the subject

Why I Read This Now: I'm studying Italian and this probably the oldest Italian book I own and one I've been meaning to read for ages.

I think what is most notable about this book is that it's printed in Italian on the left pages and English on the right. My Italian isn't good enough yet to read the Italian side, but it's interesting to glance over now and again to see how things are worded.

Comments: Back in 2000, my husband was the president of the Tuscany society here in Vancouver. That isn't as important and fancy as it sounds, but from a few years of holding that position, he did get a free trip to New York City and one to Florence, Italy for conferences of Toscani from around the world. As part of the contingent of Lucchesi (all his family is from Lucca), he was given this book as a gift.

If you're not familiar with Lucca, it's a charming small city in the NW of Tuscany, between Florence and Pisa. I was last there at the end of my Switzerland-Northern Italy trip last May, and after going through stunning places in the north -- four of the Italian Lakes, the Dolomiti, Verona, and then the Cinque Terre, when we got to Lucca, and I rode a bike to circle the top of the Renaissance walls, I truly felt that THIS was the real Italy for me. I feel very lucky for it to be my Italian home. Anyway, back to the book . . .

For hundreds of years, Lucca was an important city-state of Italy. If you look at historical maps, the areas all over the country change ownership and allegiances, but for the most part, Lucca remains just Lucca, in it's little corner of Tuscany. For hundreds of years, Lucca was a European banking centre and silk manufacturing centre.

Storia di Lucca is roughly divided thusly: Eight pages to get from 2000 BC with the ancient Lugurians, through the Etruscans, the Roman Empire (it was an important Roman walled city, but I guess this isn't the author's area of interest), and the Goth invasion.

These eight pages are followed by 90 pages detailing the intricacies of diplomatic negotiations of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (800 years), which went sort of like this: Lucca teamed up with Genoa against Pisa, then they went to war with Florence, until that group died and then they cut a deal with Florence against Milan and Genoa, etc and so on. Mostly Pisa is the enemy (to this day--I've sent anti-Pisa graffiti in Lucca and my husband's uncle was disgusted that we went there one day).

After that there are 45 pages to get from the 16th century to World War Two. The biggest section of this was the Napoleonic era when Napoleon's sister Elisa, as the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, built her palace in Lucca (which I think I should visit next trip).

I've been to Lucca five times, and I've often wondered what happened there besides the Medieval era, the Renaissance, and the Napoleonic decade. As I thought -- not much!

A note on the author: John Jones had a varied career in England, including being mayor of Abingdon and a bunch of other stuff that led to his being awarded the Order of the British Empire. His ties to Lucca have been close since he was an officer in the Royal Artillery that liberated Lucca in 1944. There is no translator listed in this book, so I'm guessing he wrote both the English and the Italian. Kinda funny, as sometimes the English didn't make much sense and I thought IT was the translation. Maybe he had the book ghost written.

Recommended for: Italian history lovers, anyone enchanted by the city of Lucca (or more it's past politics), a language nerd who wants to read a book in Italian and English at the same time.

The biggest fault with this was that there was a huge lack detail about everyday life, as it only focused on the negotiations of the ruling class and church. What was everyone else doing?

Rating: 3.5 stars for the writing and an extra .5 for the full-colour illustrations = 4 stars

Dec 3, 2019, 12:01am

Moominvalley in November, Tove Jansson, translated from Swedish by Kingsley Hart, 1971

cover comments: pretty great -- the Moomin font title is very nice with the subtle shadow in the leaf frame. However, I think the bright orange is a bit more October than November, which should be more of a muted colour

Comments: For a better commentary on this book, read any of the reviews on the book's page. People there really get this book.

This is the final Moomin book, and there are no actual Moomins in it. There isn't much plot, but there are a diverse group of creatures at the edge of the Moomin world who all feel a need to visit Moomin Valley while the Moomins are away. Set at the end of autumn and the very beginning of winter, it's a great book to cuddle up with in front of a fire and enjoying a cup of tea. It's utterly charming, with great character sketches, and full of mood and atmosphere and awesome Moomin-ness.

Recommended for: This is one of those children's books that's for all ages. It has a melancholy about it that fits November in the Northern Hemisphere well.

Why I Read This Now: As I've aged, I come to appreciate November in all it's gloom (although this year we had an unusually sunny and not-rainy November here in Vancouver). I used to detest the month, but now that the years fly by so quickly, I find even November has its charms. Moominvalley in November captures some of that. And I was ready to read a November book.

Rating: despite the lack of much plot, I really liked it, so 4.5 stars. I haven't read a Moomin book in about 45 years, and I think I might go back and reread them all from the beginning.

Dec 3, 2019, 12:38am

>93 Nickelini: I absolutely love Moomins! I have been slowly adding the gorgeous new hardback editions to my collection (published by Sort Of Books). I have been reading them to my boys and yes, I still love them as much as I did 35 years ago.

Dec 4, 2019, 7:52pm

>94 JayneCM:

Oh no, I'll have to look for those.

Dec 24, 2019, 2:03am

The Black Cat: Swiss Myths, Ktja Alves, 2019, translated from German by David Henry Wilson

cover comments: that's a pretty Swiss cover. I like it, because I tend to like Swiss things

Why I Read This Now: So when I arrived in Switzerland last year, I was shocked to find that I hadn't packed my journal. Quel dommage! (Except we were in the German speaking area, so I guess "wie schade" (according to Google translator). Anyway, my first day there, we were in the charming small city of Zug, and there was bookstore so I went in and spent an atrocious amount of money on a Moleskine journal, and had a good browse at the English language table. This was one of the books that caught my eye and I made a note of .... it was released 5 months later in North America and I ordered it right away. Fairy Tales! + Switzerland! Yes, please!

Comments:: This is a picture book sized book of 20+ folk stories from most of the 26 cantons of Switzerland, covering all four official language groups. Each story is illustrated by a different Swiss artist. The stories themselves don't have a lot of narrative satisfaction -- they are for the most part strongly didactic. Yet all was not lost . . . there was strangely compelling and ancient feel to the tales.

Recommended for: anyone interested in old folk tales, and Swiss ex-pats looking to instill some culture in their children. Because my daughter moved to Switzerland kinda outa nowhere, I've done a deep dive and immersed myself in books about Switzerland, and it's a strange, strange place (mostly amazingly nice, some of it not so much, but all of it even more unique that I already knew it was).

Edited: Dec 24, 2019, 1:40pm

Happy Holidays!

Dec 25, 2019, 10:04am

I have both Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine and Sapiens on my tbr shelf. Glad to hear your good opinion of them.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year.

Jan 1, 2020, 3:32pm

The Rise and Fall of the the House of Medici, Christopher Hibbert, 1974 **touchstones broken -- may come back and fix later

cover comments: excellent. It's a detail from the fresco 'Adoration of the Magi' by Benozzo Gozzoli, which is at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The dude on the horse is Lorenzo the Magnificent, apparently painted before he became magnificent but perhaps foretelling the future?

Why I Read This Now: Last month I was having dinner at my mother-in-law's, where she has Italian TV on all day. They were playing season 3 of Medici, which was just released in Italy (it hasn't been released in North America in English yet). I was enthralled and went home started watching season 1 Medici: Masters of Florence and then season 2 Medici: Lorenzo the Magnificent and was obsessed. I remember I bought The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici back in 2003 when I was studying art history, and hadn't had a chance to read it. After reading the History of Lucca I didn't expect to read another history book so soon, but that's life sometimes. Anyway, the TV series is amazing and I wanted to learn more about the Medici.

Comments: This started out strong, with clear descriptions of life in 1400s Florence. It then fell into the standard history book swamp of "they fought these people, and then someone invaded and they teamed up with those guys , etc." Occasionally it would return to some vivid passages that captured the magic of why we're interested in these people, but mostly it was a list of names and conflicts.

Despite the "rise and fall" of the title, this book doesn't actually say how they rose or fell, but just that they did. The family is known before the book starts in the 1360s, when they were bankers and cloth merchants (perhaps the name comes from the family having been doctors, as that's the translation from Italian). Rather amazing that Giovanni, who historians view as the patriarch of the family (and played by Dustin Hoffman in the series -- odd casting) was the great grandfather of Pope Leo X. His great grandson (and brother to Pope Leo X), Piero, was still just a banker, but his son Lorenzo became a duke, and Piero's granddaughter became queen of France (Catherine de Medici, wife of Henry II). That's some pretty successful upward mobility!

"What's so great about the Medici," you ask? Like wealthy people everywhere at all times, they could be a nasty, brutish, self-indulgent & greedy lot. But they also were the main patrons of the Italian Renaissance, and were instrumental in the development of not just visual arts and architecture, but also philosophy, literature and science. Not all the Medici were philomaths, but enough of them were, and they changed the western world.

So why did the Medici fall? See my line above about "nasty, brutish . . . " etc. Actually, the male lineage died out by the mid-1700s. Medici descendants live on today though through the female lines. Apparently half the existing European royalty links back to the Medici, and if my understanding of genetics is right, than a lot of other people from Europe too.

Now it's time to go rewatch Medici season 1 & 2 while I wait for Netflix to release season 3.

Richard Madden stars as Cosimo de Medici in season 1

Daniel Sharman stars as Lorenzo the Magnificent in seasons 2 & 3

The Difference Between History's Account & the Series: oh, loads. Lots of poetic license taken. But if you look at the portraits we have of the Medici, they were all pretty ugly, and everyone in the series is really fabulous looking. I suspect the actors also smell a lot nicer.

Recommended for: Even though it's written in 1974, sources tell me The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici is still one of the seminal books on this subject. So, recommended for those interested in the Renaissance.

Rating: 4 stars