Current Reads - 2020

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Current Reads - 2020

Jan 10, 2020, 4:16pm

Guess I'll get a 2020 thread started.

I finished It's All In the Frijoles: 100 Famous Latinos Share Real-Life Stories, Time-Tested Dichos, Favorite Folktales, and Inspiring Words of Wisdom by Yolanda Nava. Nava is, as per this book's back cover, "an Emmy Award-winning television journalist, newspaper columnist, educator, consultant and community leader," and the daughter of Mexican immigrants. In this book, she has put together an entertaining selection of short oral histories from Latin American artists and community leaders, plus folk tales, poems and dichos (proverbs). These entries are arranged in chapters by the various graces, Respect, Loyalty, Charity, etc., all meant to illustrate the ways in which these qualities are an integral part Latin American culture as a whole.

Some of the chapters work better and/or are more interesting than others. Among the most interesting entries are examples of pre-Columbian Mexican and South American folk tales. I wouldn't want to have to sit down and read this book straight through, but reading it a chapter at a time over a year or so as I did helped my enjoyment factor. As an introduction (or further education about) Latin American culture, this book has solid charms. And as a teaching tool for educators wanting to enlighten Latin American children about their own backgrounds, I think it would work very well.

Jan 21, 2020, 6:47pm

I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing and thoroughly enjoyed it. The people who suggested that I read it said it was a murder mystery, but to me it was more of a book about social structure, society, and the psychology of isolation. As a science-lover, I appreciated the main character being a scientist, even though she had no formal training, because I felt like it speaks to a truth that one does not have to be "smart" in school to be good at science or inquisitive and intelligent about nature and the world. Also, I particularly loved how Owens intertwines art and science because I feel like they are becoming increasingly separated in our culture, but they really go hand in hand.

Jan 23, 2020, 8:59am

I finished Antonia White's Frost in May Quartet - as a mostly autobiographical work, I hadn't known what a difficult life she led.

Still working on Pilgrimage - up to the second novel in Pilgrimage 4.

Edited: Jan 25, 2020, 2:05pm

I finished The Dragon Scroll by I.J. Parker. This is the first book in Parker's "Sugawara Akitada" series of mysteries set in 11th century Japan. Our man Akitada is a low-level nobleman trying to rise in the bureaucracy of Imperial Japan. In this first story (the LT series listing says this is the first book chronologically though the third book published), Akitada is sent out to a distant province to try to solve the mystery of the disappearances of three straight convoys carrying tax payments to the capital. Murder and mayhem ensue. The plot is engaging, and the story is mostly enjoyable, though there is precious little real character development. The writing is OK, although about halfway through the book I started noticing that people's "eyes lit up" and that their "jaws dropped" with mildly irritating frequency. Once my cliche alarm goes off, it's hard for me not to trip over each instance. Nevertheless, this was a nice, breezy reading experience. On a whim I bought the first four books of this series (there are 14 books in all!) a while back. I will read through those first four gradually, though I doubt that I'll bother to go much further.

Feb 4, 2020, 3:44pm

I finished Creek Walk and Other Stories by Molly Giles. This relatively slim volume contains 14 acutely drawn stories about women, almost all of whom are marginalized and cut adrift. Divorced, widowed or in unhappy marriages, with and without lovers, but mostly with kids to care for, these women fight to attain the feeling that their lives are relevant to those around them, or even to themselves. Much of what I found powerful in these stories was transmitted through Giles' ease with details, and the ways in which she always pulls back before her characters can descend in maudlin excess or self-pity.

One or two of the stories have a touch of magical realism to them, as well. This collection was published in 1996, and I wondered if they would turn out to be timepieces in some ways. But I didn't get the feeling that the issues these stories deal with, or the way Giles presents them, were dated at all.

One point of full disclosure. Molly Giles was on the faculty of San Francisco State University when I was working on my MA Degree in Creative Writing there. I never took a seminar with her, but she did substitute for one of my seminars when the teacher had to step away for a few weeks for health issues. Everybody in the program liked her, and she liked the one story of mine she had to read for that seminar.

Feb 27, 2020, 11:20am

I finished Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson discusses and illustrates the problems inherent in aging in America, and particularly the many critical drawbacks within the American medical establishment in treating and caring for elders. A very good writer, Aronson covers these sometimes depressing topics ably and in enlightening fashion. She weaves throughout the narrative details of her own experiences as a gerontologist, scientific and historic research, and many specific examples of the trials and triumphs of many of her own patients. This is a well worthwhile book, if perhaps it could have used a touch of editing. It's not always an easy read, but it is a valuable one.

Mar 1, 2020, 3:24pm

I read Old baggage by Lissa Evans, set in London 1928-1933 in the suffragette milieu, as the political skies are darkening. It has a winning central character in the invincible Mattie Simpkin, 58 but still fighting--and with some important life lessons to learn.

Also read The unicorn by Iris Murdoch, grabbed from the commute reads pile. This is the fourth or fifth Murdoch novel I've read and I always wonder a little why I bother, I don't get much from them at all. And yet they've been, so far, so very readable... therefore entertaining.

This one started, confoundingly, like a romance novel--a determined young woman at a life's crossroads takes a break by going off to governess in some remote romantic place, is met by an enigmatic, intriguing man who quietly dictates the rules of the strange household clinging to a crumbling castle. Marion's charge turns out to be not children but a thirtyish beautiful woman around whom revolve the lives and thoughts of everyone in her vicinity. Marion herself falls into the trap of wanting to save the beautiful prisoner, whose seven years of isolated existence with her minions and gaolers are about to come to an end.

Like Proust is blandly and misguidedly reflected diminished in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time cycle, so Murdoch greyly reflects Dostoevsky, I think--all bent and broken up out of shape in a circus mirror. Above all other differences are the differences in character. The Russian characters never stop telling you a story--ALL their stories. The English ones never stop running AWAY from the danger of telling a story. The Russians can't shut up--the English can't unfreeze their tongues. Even speaking, with the latter, is an elaborate exercise in saying as little as possible, conveying and revealing nothing.

As conduits of psychological and philosophical questions, which are Murdoch's main concerns even as a novelist, there simply don't exist less grateful, less appropriate characters than these.

Everyone is so. bloody. stuck. up. Doing their little deeds furtively like mice in the dark off stage off page and only thanks to an occasional infodump does one hear a rumour about someone... and if someone gets drunk or falls into mortal peril they may open up a little but all the while struggling to clam up again. Jesus.

Mar 8, 2020, 2:23pm

Have started the latest book by Elena Ferrante, La vita bugiarda degli adulti (the lying life of adults). Immediately engrossing as all of hers, with a larger-than-life female character at the centre of it (so far), the narrator's aunt.

No idea where it's headed... there's stuff I need to be doing but I suspect I'll still finish it today. How does she do that.

Mar 20, 2020, 6:45pm

I delayed writing more about Ferrante's latest because, sadly, it wasn't a hit with me. It's not the only title of hers I didn't particularly like, but those are in a minority (I'd need to check which ones I even mean, as it's been a long time...)

The narrator, Giovanna, is a young teenage girl about thirteen-fourteen at the beginning of the story, ending with her sixteenth birthday. She's a child of intellectual, leftist middle class parents in 1970s-'80s Naples, both teachers, but while the mother supplements her income editing lowbrow romances, the father aspires to a distinguished academic career.

Giovanna's childhood is very happy until she overhears her father saying that she resembles his estranged sister Vittoria who, to the best of Giovanna's nebulous understanding, is some kind of a monster morally and physically. This shatters her confidence and she becomes obsessed with meeting her unknown aunt to the point of depression, scholastic failure etc.

Her parents eventually reluctantly agree to let her go meet her aunt, in the poor working class neighbourhood Giovanna's father abandoned for social success. It's an explosive encounter that at first appears to have been positive for Giovanna (for example, Vittoria seems beautiful to her) but it also introduces a wedge between Giovanna and her parents, whom she begins to see in a different light.

In fact, Giovanna's whole life starts to crack from this moment--not unlike a chick breaking out of its egg.

Giovanna is growing up, forced along with blows and revelations dropped on her by her aunt, her parents, their friends.

At first I thought the focus would be on Giovanna and Vittoria's relationship but soon the cast of characters expanded and Vittoria was eventually pushed deep into the background, more an ominous presence than a character.

I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be the first book in a series, so perhaps it's premature to declare comprehensively on the plot.

In tone, in the quick succession of events and surprises, in the conflict between the middle and the lower class, even in the type of incidents occurring (male infidelity, sexual assault, brutality etc.) it's very reminiscent of My brilliant friend.

But to my mind it lacks most of the quality of that work. It doesn't have its depth. Again, if more books are to come, maybe that will change. For now, two major things don't work for me--Giovanna's narration, and the repetitive reference to the central concept of "adults lie".

I didn't feel the shock of the latter in Giovanna's life as perhaps I was meant to, as a reader. Something about the execution seems wanting, in handling of the characters and the notion of lies.

Apr 3, 2020, 5:27pm

I finished Maravilla by Laura del Fuego. This is a coming of age novel about a young Chicana living her teen years in the Maraville housing development in East LA during the early and mid-60s. The book was published in 1989 by a small publishing house called Floricanto Press from Encino, CA. I bought the book pretty much on a whim, and because it was by a woman writer and a small independent publisher, a few months back in a lovely bookstore in Santa Cruz, CA.

The story is told in first person through the eyes of Consuelo Contreres, known as Cece. We see her home life, with caring but imperfect parents and siblings both older and younger. All and all, it seems like a normal family, happily (for the reader) not over-dramatized, but on the other hand trouble enough for a teenager to handle. But mostly what we see of Cece's is her social life. First, as a young teenager, it's the other girls she hangs out with. Then as she moves into her later teens, her friendships solidify and boys enter the picture. What we get for a while is a seemingly endless parade of cruising, parties, drinking binges and worries about who was dancing, or out cruising in their car, with whom. High school exists on the peripheries. Thoughts of the future are mostly absent. At first I took this for a weakness, but as time, and the narrative, went on, I began to think this was meant to represent the issues of the societal constraints that the culture inflicts on this relatively poor community of color. Things get more serious as Cece's story moves along, she grows into her sexuality, and the people around her start dabbling in, and sometimes succumbing to, harder drugs. The police become more of a presence. Watts explodes. And Cece begins struggling to break away from the continuing patterns of futility.

There is some good writing in this book, both of Cece's thoughts and, occasionally, of the outside, natural world. For example:

A light, balmy breeze swayed the palm trees, scattering dead leaves along the road as we rove into the cemetery in a solemn procession of Chevies and Fords, past the mausoleum with Middle Eastern design attesting to grander days, and the hundreds of gravesites on the circular road. I had always enjoyed going to Calvary. I loved the bright flowers scattered over rolling, green manicured hils and the od fashioned tombstones standing dramatically upright and defiant. Even the park wasn't as beautiful. There were never flowers growing in the park. But in the cemetery, any day of the week, you'd drive by and see a whole spectrum of color splashed across the landscape--red, white and pink carnations, purple and yellow daisies, golden marigolds, white calla lilies, sweet peas, geraniums, poppies. In contrast, the rest of the city seemed decayed and dirty.

The most recent information about Del Fuego I could find online came from a 2008 post from the San Francisco Writers' Union:

"Laura del Fuego, a California Arts Council Fellowship recipient for Literature and past featured poet in the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, has won several awards for fiction, and is the author of Carmen Garcia Was Here C/S (which describes growing up Chicana) and Maravilla, (a story of coming of age in East L.A.). Del Fuego's poetry, essays and stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies. She is also a screenwriter and an editor for Sonoma County Women's Voices."

She has two books listed on LibraryThing.

Though parts of the novel dragged, overall I think it was well worth reading.

Edited: Jun 3, 2020, 1:14pm

I finished Fever Dream by Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin. This short novel ushers us into a hallucinatory world where a dying woman in a hospital ward is conversing with a mysterious, possibly imaginary, possibly ghostly young boy who speaks as an adult. As the woman, Amanda, replays the past few days of her life, we are brought to understand the ways in which even the privileged will eventually share in the miseries currently being visited on the poor and indigenous people of the world by the environmental degradation going on around us. The narrative is powerful, but because of the story's brevity, I think we are in and out of the reality it creates too swiftly for full effect. Schweblin's short story collections have won numerous awards. I will be on the lookout for English translations.

Book note: I bought my copy of this slim volume at an impossibly beautiful bookstore in Buenos Aires, El Ateneo Grand Splendid.

Edited: Jun 4, 2020, 6:12am

>11 rocketjk: Fever dream is on my TBR pile. I must read it soon. I have read Schweblin's short stories in Mouthful of birds and was very impressed. Toward happy civilisation was my favourite; I have a weakness for strange stories with trains!

Jun 4, 2020, 11:40am

>12 Sakerfalcon: It's a very thought provoking story, told well. It is short enough and flows quickly enough so that you can read it in one afternoon and evening. Sometimes a quick hit like that is just the ticket, depending on what else is going on in one's life.

Jun 13, 2020, 12:31pm

I recently read Bad Guy by Rosalyn Drexler. This sly dark comedy, Drexler's seventh novel, was first published in 1982. It takes place, and pokes sticks at, the New York City intellectual scene of the 1970s, pop psychology in particular, as well as all-pervasive American media/TV culture. Jesus Allendez is a young, very confused man from a broken home who has committed, and confessed to, a brutal rape and murder of an older woman, a neighbor who had interrupted Allendez's robbery of her apartment. (So, yes, echoes of Raskalnikov.) Dr. Mathilda Brody is an adolescent psychologist with professionally controversially theories of treatment who, takes on Allendez as a patient. In the novel's first reality-bending development, she is allowed to take Allendez out of jail and put him up in her own high rise apartment for round-the-clock treatment. Soon, she is also treating the grieving adult daughter of the murder victim.

The novel is presented through Dr. Brody's perspective, and we are pretty sure from the beginning that we are in the hands of a somewhat less than reliable narrator. Despite that factor, Drexler is able to skillfully tread the line between dark comedy and caricature, and the characters are shown to us as complex and more or less relatable humans, even our murderer. The novel, I guess, is an artifact of late 70s-early 80s satire, but certainly, for me at least, enjoyable and worth reading. It's also a quick read, which doesn't hurt.

I had never heard of Drexler, which I'm now pretty much ashamed to say. My edition of this novel was published in 2018, and the back cover text tells us, "Bad Guy is the first selection in a new series from Pushcart under the editing of celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem." I don't know whether that series got carried on or not, but I mention it because Lethem, in his brief introduction, provides this fascinating info about Drexler:

"Drexler is a multiple-Obie-winning playwright, one of the pillars of New York's off-Broadway movement in the '60's and '70's and '80's; an Emmy-award winning comedy writer who helped create Lily Tomlin's television special, Lily; a prolific and distinctive cult-literary novelist, her work effusively praised by Donald Barthelme, Norman Mailer, Annie Dillard, and others; under-the-radar pulp novelist and self-appointed hack, whose move and TV tie-in books include the widely read novelizations of Rocky and Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway; and, perhaps the most unrepeatable act in U.S. arts history (though, I suppose Andy Kaufman came close), Drexler's stint as a "lady wrestler", touring the country as Rosalita, The Mexican Spitfire . . . . Whew. All this leaves out what many would claim as Drexler's central and most imperishable accomplishment: as the nearly-erased female member of the first and central group of innovators of Pop Art--a generation of artists coming on the heels of Abstract Expressionism that included Warhol, Lichtenstein, Samaras, Grooms, Oldenberg, et al. These are the artists in whose company, in the early '60's and ongoingly, Drexler showed, mingled daily lives, shared mutual influence, and among whose work her sculptures and paintings stand tall, looking better and better with each passing year, even if her name is somehow nearly always left out of the annals (hmmm, wonder why?)."

So, wow! Shame on me! But, anyway, now I know.

Jun 18, 2020, 11:00am

>14 rocketjk:

Thanks for the intro to Rosalyn Drexler, sounds like a very interesting person.

I forgot to mention that I'm logging some reads by Arab/Muslim women in another group, just a link here (I have still a good 15-20 books to read for this):

And, just so I don't forget about it completely, a few words about the excellent Blow your house down by Pat Barker. This was her second novel and the first one by her I read. We follow a group of working class women most of whom are at least occasional prostitutes somewhere in the north of England in the mid-eighties. Barker does a great job in showing the various circumstances that led these women into prostitution, with each woman a different character, and yet it combines into a picture of economic destitution and social collapse.

To add to their woe, there is a serial killer preying on them. He's a far cry from the glamourised diabolical masterminds of television, just a more bestial version of the average asshole husbands and boyfriends in these women's lives.

But the book is not just bleak and brutal. I was deeply touched by the picture of friendship among these women, and not just the prostitutes, but also the women in the chicken factory (the no less dismal but worse-paying alternative to whoring).

Highly recommended.

Edited: Jun 18, 2020, 12:06pm

>15 LolaWalser: Thanks for the link. I bought a copy of Women of Algiers in Their Apartment at a local thrift shop not too long ago and I look forward to reading it soon.

I read Barker's Life Class relatively recently and thought it was good.

Jun 24, 2020, 5:17pm

Yesterday, I finished Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein. This is a well researched and extremely readable book about life in Janesville, Wisconsin, from 2008 through 2013, in the years following the closure of what had been the longest-running GM plant in the country. Literally generations of Janesville residents had made their livings from the plant and the many manufacturing companies that existed to supply parts to the cars built there. Interestingly, Janesville is also the hometown of Paul Ryan, Republican champion of governmental austerity and former Speaker of the House, a somewhat ironic fact given how solidly Democratic and pro-union the town has always been.

In the wake of the plant closing, the town's economy and lifestyle were devastated. Amy Goldstein skillfully and compassionately details the rising and pervasive unemployment, the lowering of standards of living of previously solidly middle-class families, to near the poverty line. School systems begin struggling, with students often going hungry and short on basic supplies, parents working two jobs just to try to get half of the income their union jobs had paid or driving four hours each way--generally staying away from home from Monday through Friday--to take jobs in still running plants. Goldstein also chronicles the efforts of local agencies to provide help in the form of job training and pro-active economic boosterism that tried to bring new corporations to town. In the midst of this came the election of Scott Walker-an avowed enemy of unions and government subsidies alike--as the state's governor. Soon the teachers' union was under attack from above, as well.

Goldstein's reporting method was, in addition to providing a comprehensive overview of events, to tell the town's story through the eyes of several families, people she clearly got to know well. In so doing, Goldstein was able to paint detailed portraits of the day to day lives and struggles of the people of Janesville during these extremely difficult years. She also chronicles, although not in great detail, the ways in which these events gradually created "two Janesvilles," as the interests of the still thriving upper class and the increasingly desperate middle and lower classes began to diverge more and more dramatically.

Janesville is an extremely valuable resource for understanding the economic and cultural issues besetting so much of American society today.

Edited: Jul 2, 2020, 4:05pm

I finished Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make the Media Look More like America by Dorothy Butler Gilliam. I was about to say that the headline across the top of this important book's front cover says it all: "A memoir by the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post. But, really, that bit of copy, while accurate, only tells part of the story. For while Gilliams was, indeed, when hired in 1961, the first black woman reporter at the Post, the role she has played and the work she has done to advance the cause of black representation both in American's newsrooms and on the pages of those publications, goes far beyond the role that the words "first black woman reporter" convey.

Gilliam's career spans the Civil Rights era of the late 50s and 60s through the Black Power movement and all the way through to the present day. She began her career as a typist for the black weekly, the Louisville Defender in the mid-50s but was soon editing and writing stories. In 1957 she was working for the Tri-State Defender when, at the age of 21, she went to Little Rock to cover the tumultuous, violent, hate-filled proceedings of the attempts to integrate the public schools there. She went to work for the The Washington Post, as mentioned, in 1961, and as a Post reporter went to Oxford, Mississippi, to cover the equally violent and ugly events around James Meredith's attempts to become the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi. She spent several years as a beat reporter in Washington, retired for several years to raise her three daughters and support her husband's growing art career, and then returned to the Post as the editor of the newly expanded and influential Style section that covered a wide range of artistic and cultural issues in the city. And that's the short list of her accomplishments.

There are points at which I thought Gilliam's writing needed more detail and a bit better organization, particularly in the book's first third. But overall, I'll just say that Gilliam is an extremely admirable person, a tough fighter, who is reporting a crucial story.

This is the short version of this review! Check out my threads on Club Read or the 50-Book Challenge groups for the full-length treatment. :)

Jul 8, 2020, 5:44pm

I finished, and greatly enjoyed, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This is a terrific novel full of great writing at a sentence and paragraph level, live, realistic and sympathetic characters and a story that is, as the best ones all are, both specific to its time and place and universal in its treatment of the human condition. Jones sets her story of love, commitment, betrayal and family within modern day Atlanta and rural Louisiana. This is a novel, also, about being black in America. The pivotal, horrific incident toward the beginning of the book around which the rest of the story revolves makes this clear (an incident that could happen to a person of any race, but that happens to black Americans with particularly vicious frequency), to the daily lives, experiences and reactions of every character. Issues of family, and particularly family ties and lineage, are strong currents within the stories of all three main characters. How long can love last given the absence of the loved. How strong a power is loyalty, and when does it remain the defining essence two people's ties to one another? Where does forgiveness come from? These could, of course, be the elements of a cheesy, cliche-ridden "family drama." But not with Jones in control. Because the characters in this novel were so real to me, and the plot developments both fresh and believable, I was quickly able to put myself fully in Jones' hands and trust that she would take the story on a path that was both subtly complex and true. I never felt manipulated and I often felt moved. The ending, I thought, was perfect.

Edited: Jul 20, 2020, 12:56pm

>19 rocketjk:

*makes a note*

With my coffee this morning, Dingle by one Marie Marchand. It's a deeply endearing, funny (and in places harrowing) story of her taking over a tame young chough from her son's friend because the growing bird was becoming ever more unsuited to life in an urban flat. Marchand lived in a village and had more space, including a garden with trees, but it was still populated--next door to her was a woman with five cats, and the village children included at least two little bastards who once caught Dingle and beat him to apparent death. This episode was painful to read about but you go on because this delightful bird MUST recover and live--which he does, which Marchand reckons was nigh miraculous.

I was won over instantly by Marchand's helpless, unconditional love for the bird despite all the trouble, expense and pain it caused her. One problem after another, her love for Dingle only grows. He craps over everything in the house, destroys cigarettes, paper ("the only thing he did for me is rip up my bills, for which I thank him"), demolishes books, crashes paintings to the floor, skillfully torments her two Pekinese and pecks at her first thing in the morning with his steely grub-fishing beak, risks his life taunting the cats, and runs away every so often, with panicked Marchand's "have you seen my bird?" becoming a slogan to the villagers.

She is not a wealthy woman and the cost of keeping Dingle at least somewhat content outside his natural habitat is alarming, as she decides she must build him an aviary. But then there's winter approaching so she also buys a shed--an expensive one, with a floor, and she has to spend still more to winter-proof it--and then she also commissions a special "house" for him that can be placed in her home, keeping his destructive effects in check. However, when Dingle hates this cage at first experience, Marchand of course capitulates immediately and let's him have the run of her house as before.

Then she gets an offer from Gerald Durrell, to whom she wrote asking for aviary advice, to let him take Dingle to his zoo where he could have every attention and care needed--perhaps even get a girlfriend. Choughs are super-rare in England so this was beyond anything Marchand hoped for and she gives Dingle to Durrell, who also wrote the intro. (There may exist a television episode with Dingle, need to look for it.)

It was a joy (though an agony too) to watch him fly off and wheel round high in the sky. He joined the jackdaws on the thatched roof opposite once, and they chased him round and round the roof-top, till, squawking indignantly, he rejoined us in the safety of the garden. ... For the rest of the day he busied himself in and out of the house and garden -- happily pecking for insects, exploring everywhere and chatting to himself. His voice was similar to a jackdaw's, yet distinctive, a deep throaty squawk with many variations. It was a delight to watch him sunbathing -- he lay on the grass as if dead -- with his neck stretched out and his head lying on one side with the eyes closed, and one wing raised up away from his body and outstretched like a fan. When every part of him was thoroughly cooked on that side, he'd roll over and get himself in the same position on the other side. He'd spreadeagle himself so scientifically that the sun missed no particle of him.

Jul 20, 2020, 1:19pm

>20 LolaWalser: I was won over instantly by Marchand's helpless, unconditional love for the bird despite all the trouble, expense and pain it caused her.

a long time ago in the foggy distance past, I read a little children's story about a woman whose long time companion cat had died, and how she became lonelier and sadder as time passed. Friends and neighbors were very worried and kept trying to convince her to get another pet, but she could never bring herself to. Then somebody left a little dog on her doorstep. And not just a little dog, but a rambunctious, troublesome, always-getting-into-trouble little dog who scratched the furniture, got up on the beds, dug holes in the garden, got muddy, chewed on shoes, you name it. The woman has such a time with the creature she forgets that she is sad, and her life perks up. She's basically bullied into living again.

I wish I could remember the title of the story because it came back to me after I adopted Lucy, an abused pit bull who was completely unsocialized, hyper, and prone to react with fear to all sorts of things. Getting her to feel more secure and calm down took up a couple of years of my life but it was its own kind of reward.

Jul 20, 2020, 1:31pm

>20 LolaWalser: That sounds really wonderful and not the sort of book I would have picked up on my own, so thanks.

Edited: Jul 20, 2020, 8:11pm

>22 rocketjk:

It's not the sort of thing I'd go out of my way to seek either, I tend to find animal stories terribly sad. I think I got it in a sale with another "bird" book, and both mainly for the pictures.

>21 southernbooklady:

I wouldn't have the courage for something like that, and with a pit bull. Good for you and her.

I haven't had a pet of my own since uni days but my parents had several remarkable cats (one at a time). Even more remarkable was how attached my father grew to two of them (let's just say that he was not even a "people person"). I'm not in the least surprised by the depth of emotion that can be involved in human-animal relationships.

Jul 20, 2020, 9:06pm

>23 LolaWalser: "Even more remarkable was how attached my father grew to two of them (let's just say that he was not even a "people person")."

From my experience, it's not that unusual for non-people persons to take to animals. Or, as the bumper sticker says, "The more I learn about people, the better I like my dog." :)

"I'm not in the least surprised by the depth of emotion that can be involved in human-animal relationships."

When our yellow lab died last October I cried so hard I thought my ribs were going to break. My heart was ripped in half. My wife and I have just reached retirement age, however, and are both healthy, so the plan was to hold off on a new dog until we had gotten a bunch of traveling in, maybe a couple of year's worth. Hello, covid. Goodbye, travel. So, OK, hello, Rosie, our 3-year-old shelter rescue German Shepherd. If we have to stay home, we might as well have company, and get a good-hearted creature out of a kennel.

Oct 20, 2020, 6:21pm

I finished The Norton Book of Women's Lives, edited by Phyllis Rose. This is a wonderful anthology of excerpts from memoirs written by women from a wide range of eras and nationalities. There are 61 entries in all, from around 8 to 20 pages in length. A few are excerpts from books I'd already read, such as Beryl Markhan's West with the Night and Anne Frank's diary. Others were from memoirs I feel like I should have already read, like Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi. Others were memoirs by women I'd never heard of and who lived lives sometimes privileged, sometimes horrifying and depressing, but always fascinating. Cultural Revolution China, both Revolutionary Era and Soviet Era Russia, India and Pakistan are just a few examples. Kate Millet, Vita Sackville-West and Zora Neale Hurston and M.F.K. Fisher are just three of the famous women who are represented. The collection is a very fertile resource for further reading and is just downright enjoyable in the extreme.

It took me three years to gradually read through this anthology, and I am considering simply starting at the beginning and reading through it again.

Edited: Nov 15, 2020, 4:29pm

I finished Foreign Shores by Marie-Hélène Laforest, who is Haitian-American. This is a slim collection of wonderful, haunting short stories deal with life in Haiti, the perils, joys and regrets of those who immigrated to America, and the lives of those who had either stayed behind or returned to Haiti. Many, though not all, of the stories deal with poverty and longing. The tales that take place in the U.S. usually add strong themes of displacement. Parents in the U.S. try desperately to save enough money to bring their children out of Haiti, or grown children to bring their elderly parents. Meanwhile, back in Haiti, life becomes more dangerous, political murders more frequent, in the stories dealing with the DuValier regime. The stories are grouped into four sections: Island Life, Some Drifted, Many Stayed, A Few Returned.

Says George Lamming in his Foreward to the collection, the stories speak of "the more somber theme of involuntary migration and slave labor on arrival at the metropolitan ports that promise rescue from the grim legacy of the Duvalier regimes. The name, Duvalier, defines an epidemic which extends its blight on the expectations of those who have never surredndered to despair."

Here, from the story "Language of the Gods" (from Part II: Some Drifted) is a longish excerpt to give an idea of Laforest's use of language and imagery to get at the dislocation many of her characters feel. Marinette's husband Charles has just died of a heart attack. She walks through their New York City apartment afterward, waiting for her two children, May and Roger, to return home from grocery shopping:

She walked to Roger's room. A picture of his football team hung up alongside the triangular banners that read Chess Club, Book Club, Softball Club. Charles insisted that they place a desk in the room for the large dictionary paid in installments. She needed both hands to lift it when she dusted. A room in black and white Roger had asked for. Too funereal for her. But what did her children know about funerals and mourning until two days ago? About wearing black for a year, then white and black or gray for another six months? Mourning then half-mourning, that's what they said back home. She ran a hand down the front of her black dress to smooth out a crease that was not there. Death in a family, black dresses ready overnight. A sewing machine stitching black cambric white cotton . . . long ago . . . for a ceremony to the wrong gods, those that come from Guinea, the mecreants their followers, white head ties, white dresses in swirls around a pole, spinning, whirling. Goatskin drums, the deep sound of hollow bamboos resounding in the countryside, beating in her head now. In the dark night flashes of red kerchiefs in the shadows of vast trees. Invoke the spirits. The Iwa comes. White forms thrash to the ground. The other gods, which her family renounced.

Mariette brought her hands to her temples. That disorder in her head, those strands of memory, they had come so unexpectedly, so wrongly. "Mourning," she said aloud to hear her voice, "then half-mourning," she added for the sound of her voice to stop that reeling out of a skein in the mind, to wind up all those threads somehow, to pin them somewhere.

I will think of this collection often, and may even read it again soon. It seems that Laforest has spent much more of her career in research and academia than in fiction writing, which is sad for us. I couldn't find reference to any other fiction other than these stories, in fact.

Book notes: Foreign Shores was published in Quebec in 2002. I bought the collection in a wonderful bookstore in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami during a trip there a couple of years back. At this moment I am the only LT member with the book listed in his/her library.

Dec 7, 2020, 2:06pm

>26 rocketjk:

That sounds excellent.

I see I haven't mentioned reading Ali Smith's "seasonal" quartet. It would have been something to read them in a shorter span--the fourth book brings together multiple people and strands from other books. Poignant, distressing picture of a world going under, with the only positive found in some individuals. Which is not enough to improve things, yet necessary if there is even to be a fight for improvement.

Dec 26, 2020, 12:45pm

I finished Women, Race & Class by Angela Y. Davis. Davis provides a very effective history of the first half century of the Womens' Movement. Its earliest days, the movement's strongest activists often made common cause with, and in fact intersected with, the Abolitionist Movement. But after Emancipation, the movements diverged, especially when Reconstruction collapsed and Blacks became disenfranchised. Many leaders of the Women's Movement were not in favor of the 15th Amendment, for example, which assured Blacks the legal right to vote. These leaders felt that Blacks as a group should not receive the vote before women did. Soon, strains of racist ideology were creeping into the rhetoric of important Women's Suffrage leaders.

Davis also describes the early Women's Voting Rights movement as essentially middle- and upper-class. Not only did they shy away from supporting Black rights, they also made relatively little common cause with immigrant and other working class women crowded into tenements and sweatshops, much less with poor Black women toiling in Southern cotton fields and sugar plantations. Davis also examines the rise and pervasiveness of lynching and rape in the Jim Crow South, and the ways in which anti-lynching laws became a core goal of Black Women's groups in the North. Most white organizers, on the other hand, kept such issues at arms' length.

Davis' writing is clear and well-organized. I learned a lot, and I do recommend the book.