Friday, October 22, 2010

church mice

I have also been reading a slew of children's books! I came across a recommendation for Graham Oakley's Church Mice series and ordered some online. They are from the 1970s and they are funny, with beautiful detailed drawings that give a twist on the text. The stories are sort of James Bond adventures starring two mice and a cat who has heard so many sermons he is nonviolent. Very adorable and charming and witty.

I also have "Evening" by Susan Minot to read and "Raising Demons" by Shirley Jackson, the sequel to "Life Among the Savages." I have a big stack of library books, including MFK Fisher's "The Art of Eating" and "Coming into the Country" by John McPhee - the classic book about Alaska. "Red Families v. Blue Families" by Cahn and Carbone should be interesting, based on an article I read in The New Yorker. "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett is supposed to be good. "The Last Supper" is also by Rachel Cusk. I also have "Red Hook Road" by Ayelet Waldman, which got good reviews but I have to get into the right mood to read about a bride and groom killed.

at home in japan

Not sure how I came across "At Home in Japan" by Rebecca Otowa but it was an interesting peek at a different culture. I am obviously interested in reading about Americans in Europe and this was a different setting. It's not very involved or detailed about her relationship with her husband and how she adjusted to Japan - she is close lipped about her intimate life. But she talks about the house she lives in and how it has been in her husband's family for over 300 years. She talks about the bath culture and how women are expected to cook meals with many courses with dazzling presentation. She doesn't talk about how hard it must be to sacrifice your sense as an individual over and over - that make me miserable. Rural Japan is not necessarily a place I'm drawn to but it was interesting. ("If You Follow Me" was also set in rural Japan and I loved that book!)

"The Lost Girls" by Amanda Pressner, Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett needed an editor with a chainsaw. I was aghast when I saw this 300-page tome! This is not War and Peace, people. I enjoy their blog and peppy attitude about traveling. They seem down to earth and friendly. But this book made the mistake of thinking they were the interesting part of the story and not their experiences traveling. Perhaps I sound mean, but none of these women are Elizabeth Gilbert when it comes to writing ability. The blog felt a lot more immediate and interesting than the book.

"Peppermints in the Parlor" by Barbara Brooks Wallace was really enjoyable! I wish I had read it as a preteen. It has shades of "A Little Princess" in that a young girl is orphaned, declared penniless and must work as a servant in a mansion run by an evil woman. She strives to brighten the dour lives of the old folks by sneaking in a kitten and befriends a young boy named Kipper and uses lots of Cockney slang. The plot is nothing new but there are some unforgettable images - a tea bag passed down a long table and everyone uses it until there's no flavor at all. People sitting around the parlor tempted but deathly terrified of taking a peppermint. A trapdoor leading to an underground labrynth. Too much fun for a young reader!

"Five Little Peppers and How They Grew" by Margaret Sidney is a classic, I know, but it doesn't have much appeal to adults. Too sickeningly sweet, plot similar to "Little Women" but with less complex characters. The family is poor but loving - they charm a indolent boy with a rich grandfather who becomes their benefactor, etc. If I wanted a children's book about the beginning of the 20th century, I'd go for "All of a Kind Family" anyway! Those books are wonderfully warm and fun to read.

russian winter

I knew I'd like "Russian Winter" by Daphne Kalotay because the premise was so intriguing - ballerina who defected from communist Russia auctions off her jewelry, which raise questions from the past. And I did love it. It captures what life was like under Stalin - the atmosphere of wondering if you are being watched, the distrust, the people disappearing. A professor suspects the ballerina is his mother, based on his investigation of jewelry, and tries to connect with her but she refuses. The mystery propels you to the end, where everything is exposed in a shocking way. Great read - perfect for cold weather. I read "A Reliable Wife" around this time last year and loved the spooky atmosphere of my book connecting to the weather.

I read "I Was Told There'd Be Cake" by Sloane Crosley and thought the essays were fun - but I was really grossed out by the story about her bathroom. I was perplexed why she always gets rave reviews and accolades like "the next David Sedaris!" - and then I discovered she is a book publicist. So every writer is going to promote her book, so she'll like them. Duh. Anyway, I read "How Did You Get This Number" by Sloane Crosley and liked it. She writes about an Alaska wedding trip gone wrong, the junior high board game called "Girl Talk", and buying stolen merchandise from a furniture salesman while going through a breakup. The essays were witty and well-crafted but nothing earth-shaking.

I got Maira Kalman's book the day it came out! "And the Pursuit of Happiness" is another of her hybrid art/essays works with musing on democracy and celebrations of our history paired with whimsical drawings and photos. I love her!

"Mitten Strings for God" by Katrina Kenison is an extremely powerful book about motherhood that captures the mood I strive for. I loved her other book "The Gift of an Ordinary Day" and sought out this book. She writes about creating a peaceful home of creativity and appreciation. She encourages living by your own standards and not racing around doing things just because everyone else is. She advocates a lot of the principles of Waldorf schools - no TV, lots of nature, emphasizing self-reliance. Her reflections really touched me, esp her comments on the challenge raising kids to value living a good life, not just having good things. I want to read parts of this book to my husband - and try to convince him we shouldn't get a TV! Stop the frenzy and savor simplicity.

at home

I have been whipping though lots of great books... Let's get going.

Today I devoured Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" and found it fantastically entertaining and informative and wondrous. He takes his own house, a Victorian building used by the church's pastor as a point of reference and then takes off into the history of architecture (Palladio), construction materials (brick, stone, wood), city planning and the cholera epidemic, life of servants and slaves, hygiene, etc. It's great for people who love to learn because he covers so many different areas in such a humorous and provoking way. I love his writing, I have read nearly all his books, and this was a perfect choice as a new homeowner.

"Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights" by Sophia Dahl is a cookbook by a model. I came across this in Vogue and actually enjoyed the book quite a lot. It's well-designed with lovely pictures and line drawings and arranged by meals and seasons (Winter breakfast, winter lunch, etc). Many of the recipes look tasty - they are healthy, English, and wholesome. Baked eggs, parsnip soup, baked apples...

"Fly Away Home" by Jennifer Weiner is my new favorite book of hers. It's about a senator's wife who deals with the aftermath of a scandalous affair and her two daughters - a rigid doctor who is having an affair herself and a recovering addict with low self-esteem. They all go through various upheavals and then retreat to a family cottage by the sea. Is that the perfect set up or what? Female bonding by the crashing waves - the blankets pulled up to the neck as secrets are revealed on the porch by the salty sea air - it's the quintessential Lifetime movie.

Weiner relies on certain tropes - the loudmouth best friend, the unplanned pregnancy which ends up being the best thing ever, the use of conditional tense to describe time passing ex: "She'd get out of bed... She'd throw on a long-sleeved shirt..." She also uses indulging in food as a symbol of personal pride. I was waiting for sad-sack Gary to be redeemed - but no, he really was a one-dimensional loser character. Anyway, these are minor issues as on the whole I enjoyed all three main characters and felt the ending was believable.

I read "A Life's Work" by Rachel Cusk - a memoir about her initial response to mothering an infant. I had two reactions - moments of gratitude for describing something perfectly - and annoyance that she was just complaining needlessly. There are many difficult, painful, lonely and depressing parts of having a baby. I know this is true and I know it's important to let other mothers know they are not alone in feeling less than elated 24/7.

But at the same time ... these are the facts. Babies cry all the time, they are needy beyond anything you imagined, they devour your freedom and sense of identity, they change your body, cause you pain, ruin your sleep for years, and demand more. But this is just the way it is. No one in the sky is going to revamp babies and design next year's model to cry less. So what do we do? We focus on the good things (Cusk said, "What good things?" when a friend gave her this advice) and toughen up. Think of women throughout history who were pregnant nonstop - and didn't have disposable diapers. Think of women who yearn to have a baby and can't. Think of women struggling to find food for her babies. In a few months, the baby will learn to sleep and you'll feel better.

I also read "Tide, Feather, Snow" by Miranda Weiss about her experience moving to Alaska and living in Homer. She writes beautifully about nature and all the unique activities of the state, like dipnetting for salmon in a river and kayaking and cross country skiing.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

home in alaska

So since my last post, I drove to Alaska, lived in a rental unit, bought a house, moved, unpacked and am now finally somewhat at home. And I got my library card!

The first book I dug out of my boxes of books was "The Gastronomy of Marriage" by Michelle Maistro. It is such a cozy read. It is not a book to set the world on fire, but it's like hanging out in a warm kitchen with a friend, feeling free to talk about things like what's for dinner without feeling that your intelligence is being insulted. It's lovely and always puts me in the mood for Chinese food.

Library books -

Speaking of China.... I read "Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of The Cultural Revolution" by Ji Li Jiang. I knew nothing about Chinese history and was totally engrossed in her life story - as a young teenager facing terrible persecution and abuse under Chairman Mao. She shows how everyone was brainwashed into thinking Mao was like a god and yet they were suffering so much. They had no human rights - they were detained, forced to work in fields, searched, humiliated, made to turn in family members. What a tragic time - unbelievable that people were persecuting people just like them. Humans can find something to fight over, no matter what.

I also read "Toast" by Roger Rosenblatt - his memoir about the time he moved in with his son in law and grandkids after his daughter died suddenly. It's sort of like a journal, with a sense of notes being jotted down. He writes about how the family copes and what it's like to be thrust back in the role of active parent of young kids.

"To Dance: A Balleria's Graphic Novel" by Siena Cherson Siegel is about a young girl in Puerto Rico who studies dance in NYC. It's very sweet - her husband Mark Siegel did the illustrations.

"Pride of Baghdad" by Brian K. Vaughan and art by Niko Henrichon is based on the lions from the Baghdad Zoo who escaped after the bombing began. It didn't really speak to me - it's very stereotyptical with violent art and portentous statements. It is for the teenage boy demographic. I thought, because it was based on a true story, it might rise to the next level but it wasn't for me.

"Christmas Tapestry" by Patricia Polacco is a picture book with the happiest ending possible that brought tears to my eyes.