Sunday, January 25, 2015

Servants of the Map

Now here's a breath of fresh air, and a very comfortable read.  There are a couple of authors that I just know I'm going to like based on what I've heard about them and their works.  So I pick up their books when I see them second hand, and say I'll read them some day - hence one tier of my 2015 Challenge, lol.  Andrea Barrett is one of these authors (Ann Patchett is another).  This is the first book of Barrett's - I have three - that I've read.  And my assumption was right!  

Servants of the Map is technically a short story collection.  However, the individual stories aren't particularly short and they all turn out to be related to one another in some manner, big or small.  And in turn, these stories are connected to other books by Barrett.  Which I now just HAVE to read and conveniently already own.  I love it when a plan comes together.  

I enjoy the links to scientific discovery that each story contains.  Nowhere is it overly technical, but it does remind you that the great explorers and discovers had some mix of parents, wives, siblings, and children that they had relationships with, along with the geopolitical realities of their times.

Andrea Barrett is extraordinarily economical with her prose.  She can tell you more in a page and a half than most can in thirty pages, and do it elegantly, too!  In this way, Servants stands in sharp and pleasant contrast with the long and dense The Great Glass Sea, which I recently finished.

And another thing about Barrett.  Many authors use characters who are borderline insane or evil to drive conflict forward, or plot events that are cruel or violent, to show how their characters persevere.  But pretty much everyone in Servants of the Map is within the bounds of what reasonable people would call normal.  They might be interested in unusual things, but they are decent and human.  As one review I read said, "How often do you find a story where two characters who are each likable themselves, fail to get along?"  In fact the subtitle of this book could be: Servants of the Map: Adventures in Ambivalent Siblings.  But even so, no one would say that these characters had it easy, and some had it very rough indeed. 

I don't know, I feel like I'm really failing to do the book justice here.  It hits all of my high points:  Invokes a strong sense of nostalgia?  Check.  Multiple narratives that don't progress linearly? Check.  Geographic/scientific bent? Check.  Wonderful and imaginative ways of turning a phrase?  Yep, it's all here.

Final call:

Sometimes a person and book just click and this one did for me.  Don't wait as long as I did to start reading Barrett!

Hermit Thrushes

If you are beginning birder, you mostly just have to shake your head at thrushes.  Little brown things with speckles, all looking the same.  After a while, though, most of them are pretty easy to tell apart.  Definitely so, if you get to hear them sing.  (The thrushes are hands down my favorite singers of the bird world.)

So here's the guy we saw at The Brig last weekend.  This angle makes for a good photograph, but it does a terrible job of showing you one of the most distinctive features of a hermit thrush.

Here, this photograph shows it well - the hermit thrush is the only one to have a heavy wash of rufous on its tail and flanks.  Given that, and its presence this far north in the winter, this little guy has to be a Hermit.

Hermit Thrushes, I think, have maybe the most interesting call of all the thrushes.  Veery songs start high and loop downward, Swainson's Thrush songs start low and loop upward, and Wood Thrush songs sound like a strange mix of whistles and broken springs.  But a Hermit Thrust sings repeated phrases in different registers, all very ethereal and a bit sad, and just lovely :)

The Great Glass Sea

Here's another book from an author that was one of Buzzfeed's "20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading," the same list that gave me Land of Love and Drowning.  I suppose it's coincidence, but this book, by Josh Weil, also has elements of blood relatives being far too close to each other.  In this case, it's identical twins and there's no incest.  But still.  

There are chapters here that are truly fantastic.  You just fall into them.  And the book improves the closer you get to the end.  But also worsens.  I am still trying to put my finger on exactly what bugs me so much.  I thought, initially, that the author was using the twin brothers to represent two sides of Russia.  The pragmatic Yarik and the dreamer Dima.  But the book does not seem to follow through with that vision.  The brothers at the end remain diametrically opposed.  

Another issue I have is that neither brother does much by choice, but this is especially true of Dima.  They are pushed into action by others with more forceful ideas, except Yarik, near the end.   And then there's something better expressed by a Goodreads reviewer:  "I just got so sick of Dima."  I came to agree.  The dreamer brother is a half-insane dope who blows past trying to be noble and lands successfully on being an ass.

And if the brothers really are meant to reflect sides of Russia's soul, is that the message?  That the people who wish for the return of a past time of community and leisure are nutbag dolts who would let their dependent mother starve rather than face reality?  There is no compromise in this book, and neither brother changes their mind by the end, so maybe?

And that is the last problem.  The conflict between Western-style capitalism and an old school communal agriculturalism is incredibly exaggerated.  Both sides are taken to extremes, so no wonder compromise is not possible.  At the end, the brothers just get out of each other's way.

When I first read that Yarik and Dima work 12 hour days, with no weekends and only four holidays, I assumed that they must be living in an authoritarian, militarized society.  Work like a dog or die.  But no.  This is supposed to be a lifestyle people choose.  

The author tells us they work so hard because they want to buy things.  But these people have no time to consume the consumer goods that they're killing themselves to get.  Nobody has time to read, or watch television, or enjoy a nice dinner or a fancy car.  And apparently, Dima is philosophically opposed to "working" at anything other than selling his possessions occasionally and scavenging for rotten food unless he can obtain his impossible perfect dream of owning a farm with Yarik.  I don't understand the point of the exaggeration.

It seems like much of the book is a play on Pushkin's epic fairy tale poem Ruslan and Ludmilla.  I am not familiar with it at all, and while the author provides some context, it was not enough to make me truly understand.  My favorite part of the book, really, is the dialogue between Yarik and Basarov, who is just as crazy as Dima but more interesting.   

Final call:
The alternate-Russia with space mirrors is an intriguing premise.  Weil is terrific at painting scenes, giving us the feel of the Russian night.  But in the very best of books, you catch a few themes and you can't believe how intricately they echo forward and backward throughout the text.  I missed those reverberations here, because I am not sure what the message of the book is and so cannot trace it. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Red Harvest

So, this is a fantastic book.  I'm not going to get into a lot of detail, because it is an acknowledged classic of crime fiction and I totally concur with that status.

You know the archetype hero who comes to a messed-up town and decides to clean house?  This book is the root source.  Jack Reacher and a lot of other modern-day thriller heroes owe a lot to Dashiell Hammett.  

In Red Harvest, the unnamed main character, known to fandom as the Continental Op, takes on a nasty web of corruption and makes the entire town explode.  The title refers to the rash of killings sparked by the Op's machinations.  

The pacing is wonderful.  Plenty of tight description, but no wasted space.  I found out later that the story was first published as installments in a magazine, which does explain the series of small climaxes throughout the book.  More books should be written this way!  

The best part is that, when a murder occurs late in the book while the Op is blacked out, the Op himself is only sure he didn't do it because of some technical details about the crime.  There are no wholly good guys here.

Final call:
This is great stuff, fast and satisfying.  It's written so well it can't even be called a guilty pleasure!

The Brig & Barnegat: Part 2

Barnegat Lighthouse State Park has the light house, of course, but also a looooong stone jetty that reaches out into the Barnegat Inlet.

It was a pretty quiet day at Barnegat, too.  By far the most common waterfowl near the jetty were Red-Breasted Mergansers. 

Other groups of shorebirds were present, here and there, and not in large numbers.  A group of about 15 Ruddy Turnstones were investigating the rocks. 

Harlequin Ducks are always a treat.  They never look quite real to me, with their bold markings.

The first time I visited Barnegat, we saw all three kinds of Scoters.  This time, Surf Scoter is the only kind that made an appearance.  The black bird below is a male Surf Scoter, although its plumage and bill does not match a regular adult.  It may be transitioning from juvenile plumage.  The brownish one is a female Common Eider.  There were hundreds of eiders floating just down the coast in large rafts.

Common loons were also scattered more or less all over, being solitary fishermen.

Near the end of the walk, we found a Scaup hen with a big problem.  The bird did not seem distressed, however.  I'm hoping a knock up against a rock will solve its problem!

Lastly, we found a Horned Grebe, far out in the inlet.

And, as usual, I did not get pictures of two of the most memorable parts to the day.  First, three Northern Gannets did fly-bys of  the end of the jetty.  I haven't seen Gannets since Cumberland Island in Georgia, which was probably five years ago.  And second, I was using my scope to try and spot a loon when, instead, I saw a seal's face looking back at me!  I don't know why, but I never realized New Jersey's coast had seals! 

The Brig & Barnegat: Part 1

Last weekend, we visited two great New Jersey birding spots. The Brig (Edwin B. Forsythe NWR), which we go to all the time, and Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, which I have only been to once before.

Here are photos from the Brig part of the trip.  One of the better photo opportunities came from the only thrush that typically spends the winter this far north, the Hermit Thrush.

For the most part, it was a quiet day because most of the water in the pools was frozen. But even with that, I found one Great Egret and 3-4 Great Blue Herons trying to overwinter.  There were also quite a few Bald Eagles in the vicinity.

Another prime attraction was a snowy owl that had been seen a few days prior.  Normally, to find a snowy owl, you just go around looking for the crowd of people looking at the owl.  This time, Justin was able to pick the owl out of the snowy ground all on his own.  Can you see it?

This was a time I was very happy to have my scope with me.  With bitter winds and low temps, we didn't spend a lot of time observing outside of the car, but I did manage to snag the picture below with the maximum digital zoom on my camera.

Snowy owls are coming south this winter, like they did last winter.  Not in the same large numbers, though.  From what I have read, this is normal when a huge rise in population occurs.  Some really great research has come out of the whole owl invasion process and you should google Project SnowStorm to find out more!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015 Reading Challenge: "It's about time."

On Goodreads, I set my goal for the year at 50 books, which is more or less my standard.  But I also wanted to pick out some specific books.  I took a three-tiered approach.

First, I went through my shelves and pulled out ones that I have had for a long time, or have been looking for for a long time.  I am finally going to read these, because it's about time.

Second, while I was completing my 2014 Challenge, I learned about quite a few interesting books that I was unfamiliar with, and I managed to track some of them down, too.

And third, I have the two books left over from 2014.  So if I can get to those as well, so much the better.

With that, I have quite the stack of suggested reading.  I'm not going to be overly regimented with it.  If I get to them all, that's fine; and if I don't, that's fine, too.

Here's the 'official' not-very-official list:

  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood   (from 2014)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan  (from 2014)
  • Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (this one is not in the picture because I'm reading it)
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson
  • A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes
  • Drood by Dan Simmons
  • The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht
  • Illywhacker by Peter Carey
  • The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Fleming
  • Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett
  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  • Let the Great World Spit by Colum McCann
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin
  • Confederates by Thomas Keneally
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  • The Bone People by Keri Hulme
  • Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
  • The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  • The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  • Waiting by Ha Jin
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
  • The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
  • Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett
  • Close Range by Annie Proulx
  • Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Troubles by J.G. Farrell
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
So that's 38 books.  And I have a few more coming in the mail that may distract me from this list.  Plus, I have some authors on there twice, so that I have options to choose from.  So I don't know if all 38 will happen or not, but I think it's a pretty good line up!


Aaaaaaaand I thought I had it all set up.  Then I just had to look at my ebook collection.  Here's some more options for 2015:

  • Katherine by Anya Seton
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozecki
  • The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
  • The Shadow Lines by Amitov Ghosh
  • Hounded by Kevin Hearne
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  • The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
  • The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
  • Justine by Lawrence Durrell
  • Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
  • The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  • Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
  • Harvest by Jim Crace
  • Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein
So there's 18 more for a grand total of 56.  I know I won't get to them all.  There are some heavy hitters on the list, and to get over 50 there usually has to be quite a few that I can read in a day or two.  I don't like to go in predicting failure, but I'm pretty sure that's what is going to happen :)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

On the Wind: 2014 Year in Review

Thirty-two new birds this year!  Most of those get blamed on Texas, but there were a few pick ups very close to home, too.  Here's the list from eBird.  This one gives me 34, but.  I have seen Red-Headed Woodpeckers and Gambel's Quail before, they were just somehow not entered into eBird yet.

Alphabetic TaxonomicLocationS/PDate
1White-throated SwiftRed Rock CanyonUS-NV05 Jul 2014
2Juniper TitmouseRed Rock CanyonUS-NV05 Jul 2014
3Gambel's QuailDesert NWR--Corn Creek (Field Station)US-NV05 Jul 2014
4Black-chinned HummingbirdDesert NWR--Corn Creek (Field Station)US-NV05 Jul 2014
5VerdinDesert NWR--Corn Creek (Field Station)US-NV05 Jul 2014
6Bullock's OrioleDesert NWR--Corn Creek (Field Station)US-NV05 Jul 2014
7Red-headed WoodpeckerHill FarmUS-PA29 Jun 2014
8Black-billed CuckooGem RoadUS-PA10 May 2014
9Bay-breasted WarblerHigh Island--S.E. Gast Red Bay (UTC 054)US-TX25 Apr 2014
10American Golden-PloverBolivar- Crystal BeachUS-TX25 Apr 2014
11Mississippi KiteRollover Pass (UTC 056)US-TX25 Apr 2014
12Franklin's GullRollover Pass (UTC 056)US-TX25 Apr 2014
13Black TernRollover Pass (UTC 056)US-TX25 Apr 2014
14Blackburnian WarblerHigh Island--Boy Scout Woods (UTC 055)US-TX25 Apr 2014
15Fulvous Whistling-DuckAnahuac NWR (UTC 049)US-TX24 Apr 2014
16Mottled DuckAnahuac NWR (UTC 049)US-TX24 Apr 2014
17Least BitternAnahuac NWR (UTC 049)US-TX24 Apr 2014
18SoraAnahuac NWR (UTC 049)US-TX24 Apr 2014
19Cliff SwallowAnahuac NWR (UTC 049)US-TX24 Apr 2014
20Tennessee WarblerAransas NWR (CTC 037) (Aransas Co.)US-TX20 Apr 2014
21Cerulean WarblerGoose Island SP--Campground areaUS-TX20 Apr 2014
22Long-billed DowitcherPort Aransas- Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Ctr. (CTC 057)US-TX20 Apr 2014
23Wilson's PloverPadre Isl. NS (Kleberg Co.) (CTC 063)US-TX19 Apr 2014
24Aplomado FalconPadre Isl. NS (Kleberg Co.) (CTC 063)US-TX19 Apr 2014
25Reddish EgretPadre Isl. NS (Kleberg Co.) (CTC 063)US-TX19 Apr 2014
26White-tailed HawkPadre Isl. NS (Kleberg Co.) (CTC 063)US-TX19 Apr 2014
27Snowy PloverPadre Isl. NS (Kleberg Co.) (CTC 063)US-TX19 Apr 2014
28Sandwich TernPadre Isl. NS- Malaquite Beach/Visitor Ctr. areaUS-TX18 Apr 2014
29Glaucous GullSusquehanna River--WrightsvilleUS-PA08 Feb 2014
30Red-necked GrebeSusquehanna River--WrightsvilleUS-PA04 Feb 2014
31King EiderNummy Island--Toll BridgeUS-NJ02 Feb 2014
32Snow BuntingStone Harbor PointUS-NJ02 Feb 2014
33Ross's GooseMasonic Village--Serpentine PondsUS-PA20 Jan 2014
34Common GoldeneyeSusquehanna River--WrightsvilleUS-PA09 Jan 2014

Some favorite bird memories from 2014 are:
  • Goose Island State Park in Texas.  Just sitting at the site's picnic table and watching a Cerulean Warbler and a Golden-Winged Warbler hopping around in the same tree, like it's no big deal.
  • An incredible evening in the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.  Golden light, very quiet, and the sky and marshes crawling with crazy birds.
  • A snowy owl on an very cold, very quiet day at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.  We had to walk into the refuge, and it showed us a brand new side to the place.
  • Several tremendously cold sunrises over the Susquehanna, watching winter ducks before heading into work.  A very zen way to start the day.
  • A morning walk in Corn Creek Station, north of Las Vegas.  Trying to catch all the birds before the mercury hit 100 degrees.  And the piece de resistance, the Greater Roadrunner we caught hanging out in the top of a tree!  Here's the pic again, because I like it so much.
  • And OMG, I can't believe I forgot - my scope!  This summer, I finally got a nice scope, after a few years of scheming and saving.  This has been a real game changer in my bird watching abilities!

I have 435 birds on my life list now. It's getting a little harder to pick up new species, but I still like getting out there and seeing who's hanging around :)

On the Road: 2014 Year in Review

I don't think the blog did a great job of representing this part of my life.  You didn't really get anything after mid-September.  Of course, I entered hard-core study mode right about that time, so that's probably why.

But this has been a banner year for being on the road, nonetheless.  A wonderful trip through coastal Texas and Louisiana, TWO trips to Las Vegas, and journeys to old haunts on the New Jersey coast.  And an extra-long weekend exploring a new-to-us area of my home state, Pennsylvania's Northern Tier.

And multiple trips to visit family in Dayton, Ohio, and Fulton County, Pennsylvania.

Some favorite memories?  Of course.  The best part of traveling is ending up in situations you just have to laugh at, lucking into neat activities and restaurants and moments in time, and being outside of your normal routines and worries.  Here's some that made the list for 2014.
  • Beach camping in Texas, particularly unknowingly picking an area where clothing was optional.  When the lady at the bird refuge told us that the next day, all I could say was, "Well, that certainly explains a few things."  Also the old, possibly crazy, guy on the beach asking us if we were there 1) with Audubon, or 2) to shoot porn.  lol.
  • Two "work days" at the Farm.  Having family and the communion of work was wonderful.  My Uncle did a much better job documenting these than I did.
  • Austin Dam in northern PA.  Just such a funky little place and it suited us perfectly.
  • A day in Dayton where we unexpectedly had to entertain ourselves, and came up with a mini microbrewery tour on the fly.
  • Being in Vegas for the 4th of July and Halloween, and the fireworks in particular.
  • Eating a super-fantastic muffaletta sandwich on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans.
  • The Ohio "perfect day" of going to Jungle Jim's International Market, Skyline Chili, and the Ohio Valley Antique Mall.  Which includes being stiff-armed by my mother-in-law into buying ALL the antiques :)
  • And while we weren't the ones 'on the road' it was a lot of fun to get to hang out with my cousin Chad and his wife Sandy in September!
There are other ones, too, but since they involve birds I'll hold them for that wrap-up post.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the Mind: 2014 Year in Review

Seventy-seven posts in 2014, and probably half of those about books.  I read 34 altogether, which is actually a little over half the number I had last year.  Which is fine, I took about three months off and also read a lot less fluff than I normally do.

Here's's take on my year:

No surprise, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was the longest book.  The least favorite book is also a no brainer.  Sorry, A Discovery of Witches, but you sucked.

My favorite book?  That's tougher.  Seven books earned five stars.  It might be a three-way tie between The God of Small Things, The English Patient, and The Shipping News.

My specific challenge for 2014 was to read 20 books that were short- or long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  I came close, only missing out on two, and each from an author that I read another book from this year.  And I did manage to get in The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won the 2013 prize.

A recap:

2014 Man Booker Reading Challenge
19 books (20 if I can ever find my copy of The God of Small Things!)

  • Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
  • Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
  • number9dream by David Mitchell
  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • The Night's Watch by Sarah Waters
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  • Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
  • The Book of Evidence by John Banville
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (ebook)
  • Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
  • Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

Books took me across the world this year: India, Ireland, Zimbabwe, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, England, Italy, and the ancient world.  Forward and backward through time, and through eyes I'd otherwise never get to see through.  This is why I read.

All that being said, I have something a little less specific in mind for my 2015 Challenge!

We Need New Names

This is the last of my 2014 Challenge books this year.  If I am calculating correctly, I read all but two of the ones on my list.  And what a way to end.

This is a blunt, brutal book.  This story starts during a particularly violent period in the history of Zimbabwe.  The first chapter begins with a group of children. Given their thoughts and that one is pregnant, you assume they're maybe 14, 15 years old.  Then you realize they're 9 and 10.  That realization made my blood run cold.

The scene where the group tried to help their pregnant friend is enough to break your heart.

The story moves to America later, as the protagonist, Darling, unofficially immigrates.  The trauma is no longer as blatant, but it's still there, just as pervasive.  Much of the second half of the book is about Darling's transition to America, socially and culturally, and the great loss that leaving Zimbabwe represents to her.

The observations made on Darling's feelings of dislocation and the intense, exhausting pressure to send money back home were eye opening.  The same goes for the incredible differences between main stream American culture and that of Darling's.

Final call:

This one will pull you right out of your safe world, and make you very glad that you have it to return to.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Night Watch

Sarah Waters is one of those authors who make tough things look very easy.  I have read all of her works now, except for her very newest novel, and she has pulled off wonderful tricks and effects in each book.

The Night Watch is possibly my favorite of her books.  I think this is likely due to the structure, which starts in 1947 and then follows the end backward through to its start in 1941.  I am thinking the same story, told chronologically, would not have had the same effect, would not have been as poignant.  Which is a little mind-bending in and of itself.

The title is referring to the third shift ambulance work that the main characters engage in during the bombings of London in WWII.  When Waters takes us out with Kay and Micky, the mood and feel is just amazing.  The same for the times we spend with Duncan in prison during the bombing raids.  Supremely eerie.

But the real gem, the passage that just takes the cake, is the 1941 section that gives us Alec.  An action that drives so much of the novel.  Most authors wouldn't have taken us as far along the path as Waters did.  The action would have happened off-stage, probably because another author wouldn't have been able to handle it as well.  This part reminds me so much of Robert Frobisher's character in Cloud Atlas.

I also thought it was a brilliant move to make some typically male faults a part of Kay's character.  

Final call:
If you are going to jump into Waters, I'd probably choose this book first.  It's got all of the Waters hallmarks without too much grinding miserableness.  And I'm still, apparently, a sucker for a non-linear plot.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Hilary Mantel is one of my favorite people, based on the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy.  So, when I saw her newest book of short stories on the shelf at the library, I thought, "Why not?"

Only the title story had much of the style that is so captivating in the Cromwell books (Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies).  That last story is top notch, and quite daring in its way.  The Long QT is another of the stories that stands out from the others.  

The other stories, well, most of them I was pretty "Meh." about.  Interesting, but not knock outs.  

Final call:

Borrow the book from the library, read the last story, and "The Long QT."  Then go read her Cromwell books.

Elizabeth Costello & Brooklyn

In the interest of catching up on reviewing books, here's a two pack.  These have nothing in common, really, except I read them back to back.

First, Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee.  This is not structured like a novel, more like a set of essays framed as a series of talks given by an aging author in various places around the world.  Then, she dies and is required to put her beliefs in action in the afterlife, such as they are and such as it is.


I did some research into the book, to help me make sense of it.  I'll be the first to admit, what Coetzee's getting at, what he's approaching, is pretty sophisticated philosophy and it's is over my head.  Didn't mean that I didn't appreciate the book, but I'm sure I didn't take as much away from it as is there.  There are also some deeply unsettling topics covered here.

Next, I read Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.  I'm getting introduced to some fine Irish writers this year.  Toibin has an extraordinarily straightforward and uncomplicated writing style, at least in this book.

Eilis is the main character of Brooklyn.  The plot has a very even keel.  Eilis faces trials and travails, no doubt, but usually makes the right decision (or is pushed toward the right decision, but that's another issue) and moves forward.  No one takes advantage of her, despite the tremendous opportunities.  She meets a man and falls in love and he has no major faults.

The end disappointed me, though.  Eilis is already quite the passive character.  (She frickin' emigrates to America because her sister and mother decide that someone has to go, and it should be Eilis.)  She secretly marries her boyfriend in Brooklyn, at his insistence, before returning to Ireland for her sister's funeral.  While there, she develops a serious relationship with an old acquaintance and appears to come out of her dream only when one of the local gossips hears from Eilis's Brooklyn landlord.

It would have been much better, to me, if Eilis had decided to return to America on her own, without being tattled on.

Final call:

For both books.  Elizabeth Costello probably deserves a half a star extra, and Brooklyn a half a star less, but what's one to do with only whole-star graphics :)

Cat's Eye

I chipped away at this book for a long time.  It's one that got interrupted by my studying.  And it is fairly melancholy, at a time when I was, too, so sometimes it was hard to pick it back up.

This is the third of Margaret Atwood's books I have read.  Cat's Eye has a lot more in common with The Blind Assassin than The Handmaid's Tale.  Excellent characterizations of women, very nuanced relationships.  Such an accurate depiction of girlhood, and one woman's interior life as she grows.

Atwood is just delicious to read.  This is not a happy book, but it doesn't matter.  Elaine, the protagonist, has been damaged by her life but has come to terms with her childhood through art.  She's most haunted by the lost chance at genuine friendship with her childhood best friend.

I felt kinship with Elaine's early years, where she was left to be herself, as she defined it, and lived an unorthodox life chasing insect infestations of forests with her scientist father.  Not that I did that, but the part about the lack of forced gender roles.

Final call:

Read this.  Read all her books.  Authors don't come this consistently good very often.