About books, reading, the power of fiction, some music, some movies. These are my opinions, my thoughts, my views. There is much wisdom afloat in the world and I like finding it in books. Communicating about wisdom found keeps it from getting lost.
Toni Morrison, one of my top three favorite authors, passed away in August of this year. She was 88 years old. She had won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and wrote eleven novels. I have read them all. Now I am rereading: The Bluest Eye, her first novel, earlier this year and now Sula, her second.
I first read Sula in 2001. It was September of that momentous year of the terrorist attacks, from which America and the entire world is still reverberating. For me, that was a moment that announced the last gasp push back of patriarchal power; they are still gasping, they will not go down easily or they may take the planet down with them. Toni Morrison fought that power all her life through her support of important writers and through her novels.
She did not march or join demonstrations. She wrote from the viewpoint of a woman of color. I like to think she "womansplained"...to women, to men (if they would listen), to the whole world (if they would read.)
In fact, during September 2001, I read four of her novels. I was mightily impressed but I can see on rereading, that I missed a lot of her deeper meanings. Sula is about female friendship, always a fraught endeavor, susceptible to irreparable change, especially during and after puberty.
Yet I don't think there is ever any deeper or more unconditional connection in life than childhood friendships between girls. It is hardly about words. It is just a communion of souls, a recognition, a pact. I got that on the first reading. What I got this time was the complexity of issues: sex, men, marriage, children and of course racism.
Morrison, in her usual incredible prose, captures all this. She hits economics, generations of women and mothers, longing for both freedom and safety, morality and mortality.
I read some reader reviews where I often came across women who found Sula, the character, hard to understand or accept. I think as we grow and age and experience the stages of life, many of us realize that we have a bit of Sula in ourselves, no matter how much we try to bury or ignore or fight against the kind of woman she was.
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem, Random House, 1999, 311 pp
I wanted to read this before I saw the movie, which came out a few weeks ago. I have always meant to read Jonathan Lethem and now I wish I had started earlier. Born in 1964, he is a generation behind me but he is of the generation of much fiction I love.
Four orphans in pre-gentrified Brooklyn are picked out by small time gangster Frank Minna to do "errands" for his "limo service" and "detective agency." Soon they become Minna's Men, his comrades in crime.
Lionel Essrog, one of those orphans, feels he is the closest to Minna. His nickname, created by Frank, is Freakshow because he suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. His barking, counting and outbursts of fractured language, make him one of the most endearing orphans in literature. I am a sucker for orphan stories. It all started for me with Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden.
When one of Frank's capers goes wrong ending in his murder, Lionel's obsessive nature drags him into real detective work. He MUST find who murdered the only father figure he has known.
The scene of the evening Minna is killed became seared into my mind. According to my husband, who has already seen the movie and is now reading the book, it is reproduced exactly at the beginning of the film.
So yes, this is a riff on the classic detective novel, but actually it is a coming of age tale as great as David Copperfield, a tale of a city as gritty as John Fante's Ask the Dust, as intricately plotted as anything by Raymond Chandler, all combined to blow your mind.
Lethem does it with a scintillating display of language that goes beyond words. He can write six really intelligent things in one paragraph without ever losing his rhythm.
Now to see the movie and better yet to read as much as Lethem as I can over the coming months.
Fox, Dubravka Ugresic, Open Letter Books, 2018, 308 pp (translated from the Croatian by David Williams and Ellen Elias-Bursac)
This was my translated literature pick in November. For the third time in one month I found myself reading auto-biographical fiction. The first person narrator in Fox is, I am quite sure, Dubravka Ugresic herself. This is an author I have long wanted to read, who came onto my radar through various literary sites where I lurk as she began to receive acclaim a few years ago due to seven of her works being translated into English.
The author has lived in self-imposed exile from Croatia ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The result of her criticisms of nationalism there left her branded as a traitor.
Fox is thus biographical, following the life of an author living in exile in the Netherlands and including sections about writing process, attending literary conventions and speaking engagements, and returning for a heartrending episode to her Croatian home town. She uses the mythic figure of the fox as trickster to great effect throughout the novel, making the case for authors who travel across cultures. The through line asks the illusive question, "How do stories come to be written?"
Though I felt somewhat adrift in the long first chapter, A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written, I discovered as I read further that it was a brilliant set up for the rest of the book. I grew accustomed to her sly humor. Most of all, I reveled in the ways she pans the entire international publishing world. She is so bold I worried she might be accused of being a traitor to her own profession!
Currently I am making the progress of a snail through Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, as that author travels through Yugoslavia in 1938. Her travels begin in Croatia and she relates the history and mixture of cultures there: Roman Empire, Slavic, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish. Reading Fox, I felt I had the long and troubled background to Dubravka Ugresic's current concerns. It was one of those delightful events of synchronicity that happen to readers.
Throne of Glass, Sarah J Maas, Bloomsbury, 2012, 404 pp
Recently I have connected with a few bloggers who are quite a bit younger than I am. It has been fortuitous because I like to read Young Adult books but I need guidance. Both Carrie at The Butterfly Reader and Esther at Bite Into Books steered me to Sarah J Maas.
Throne of Glass is the first book in Maas's 7 book YA fantasy tale and I loved it. It hits many of my requirements for fantasy: a tough heroine (in this case, an assassin--move over Gabriel Allon!), a vicious King who has suppressed any sort of magic, affairs of the heart for our heroine Celaena, and a dark mystery. Epic!
Celaena is a fascinating character with her supreme ability to kill, her audacity when it comes to any kind of betrayal, and her literate, secretly kind heart. She reminded me of Killishandra from my favorite Anne McCaffrey series, the Crystal Singer trilogy.
While I have no business adding another series to my reading life, I got attached to Celaena and since there are another six books to go, I can be all in suspense for her but don't have to worry about her dying, at least for a while. I am dying to find out!
The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, HarperCollins, 2012, 278 pp (translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves)
Surely you have read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I have rarely met anyone who hasn't. I read it in 2005 and had this to say about it:
"Yesterday I finished The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It
is longish (487 pages) but I loved every minute of reading this book and
it was a fast read. The story takes place in Barcelona spanning the
years of the Spanish Civil War up to the 1960s. As a young boy, Daniel,
son of a bookseller, is mourning the loss of his mother. His father
takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is allowed to
choose one book. His choice is The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax.
Daniel reads all night, is entranced and begins to search for other
books by this author.
So I am immediately entranced because it
is a book book and that is exactly what I do when I read a book that I
love. I look for more by that author. But Daniel's search opens up a
mystery which becomes an epic of murder, madness and hopeless love. The
successful mixture of genres is only one of the wonders of Zafon's
writing. He also now and then drops in philosophical, political or
humorous bits that are clearly his views, but done with such a deft
touch that you hardly notice. The characters are excellent, the mystery
is gripping and the descriptions of Barcelona are truly stunning.
Then he pulls off a great ending. I want more books by this author."
I read the next book in what is now a four book series, The Angel's Game, as soon as I could get my hands on an Advance Readers Copy in 2009. Not all readers were entirely pleased to be taken into a much darker and more Gothic tale, set just after WWI in Barcelona. I was as entranced as I was by the first book.
Somehow I missed the fact that there have been two more books since. I learned about those from a fellow blogger recently, ran out and bought both of them.
Compared to the first two, The Prisoner of Heaven felt much shorter, almost like a novella, but it sizzles with just as much adventure, danger and history. Daniel Sempere, the boy from The Shadow of the Wind, is now married with a new baby, named Julian of course.
The irrepressible Fermin Romero de Torres, Daniel's close friend, is about to be married but has become mysteriously distracted and depressed. By the time Daniel finally forces Fermin to confide in him, a dangerous man and the threat of a terrible secret involve both of them in a terrifying adventure. As the two friends search for true events from the 1940s and the early days of Franco's dictatorship, as the day of Fermin's wedding approaches, the suspense has built to an unbearable pitch.
I enjoyed The Prisoner of Heaven in equal amounts to the previous books. There are scenes in a prison, involving an escape by a writer/political prisoner, in which that prisoner refers several times to Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. I have purchased a copy. In the coming year I plan to read long books, the ones I have been putting off all this year in an attempt to read more books. The Count will be one of them.
On the very last page of the paperback edition of The Prisoner of Heaven, Zafon provides a list of "Dead Fellows You Should See and Read Frequently:"
John Dos Passos
*Honore de Balzac
*James M Cain
I have read at least one book by the starred ones. How about you?
The Library Book, Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 310 pp
If you love libraries chances are you will enjoy this book. It includes American library history, true crime coverage of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986, a history of that library, and more.
The main suspect in the LAPL fire was an enigmatic fellow by the name of Harry Peak. Orlean opens the book with him and in alternating sections continues his story along with the investigation into the fire. That investigation failed to prove that he started the fire or even to prove that it was arson that started it. I learned that a surprisingly high percentage of arsonists are firefighters. What?
It is a wonder that we still have a main branch of our library in downtown Los Angeles. The destruction of the building and of so many books was devastating. Librarians, the public, and some very savvy people all contributed to its survival and rebuilding. A heartwarming tale of people working together.
Some of my reading group members were less than thrilled by the way Susan Orlean put the book together. It does skip around but it worked fine for me. She plays on the love of libraries that those of us who were taken there by our mothers from a young age will never forget.
She also does a great service to our culture by showing how important they are as repositories of knowledge. I had no idea of the many records libraries hold, especially the main libraries of cities. The records go beyond books to include music scores, maps and dozens of other arcane references.
I was also struck by the many services libraries provide to all ages and peoples, including immigrants, illiterates, and the homeless. Librarians, even the strict and sometimes crabby ones, are a liberal bunch who believe in the power of writing, in privacy, and rights for all. They recognize each other as "library people." I love that! I love libraries. I use mine even more than I do bookstores.
I almost forgot to post the reading group update this month. It is a bit thin as only three of my groups are discussing books in December.
Tiny Book Club:
One Book At A Time:
The Bookie Babes:
We are having a party at a restaurant, voting on our favorite book discussed in 2019, and exchanging books in anonymous packages. We gave up reading a book in December because so many would not get it read.
The One Book At A Time party last year!
Do you have a reading group meeting this month? Have you discussed any of these books?
I wonder how The Testaments discussion will go. I have seen many conflicting reactions to it around the blogosphere. I loved it.
Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1995, 329 pp
Summary from Goodreads: After four novels and several years living abroad, the fictional protagonist of Galatea 2.2
— Richard Powers — returns to the United States as
Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced
Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive
neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of
computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish
and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of
Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more
worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason
More autofiction! Richard Powers is the main character in his own novel, living through a year of personal crisis. He is looking back over his life so far. In the present he is helping the annoying Philip build a model of the human brain.
The Richard Powers character reconstructs the writing of his four previous novels which are the actual four first novels by Richard Powers, the author. Since I am reading his novels in reverse order of publication, I have yet to read those earlier novels, but when I do I will know what he was living through as he wrote them.
The other main character in Galatea 2.2 is Helen, the computer-based neural network brain, who comes to life under Richard's tutorials like his own personal female Frankenstein. They kind of fall in love, or at least Richard falls in love with his creation.
As usual, I skimmed over the technical computer stuff but any computer nerd would love those parts. The story had a claustrophobic effect on me. I was in Richard's mind and memory as well as in Helen's "mind" and circuits.
Despite Power's usual cerebral storytelling though, I was gifted with many realizations about memory, love, reading, regret, perception of others and life itself. The engine of it all is love.
Web of the Witch World, Andre Norton, Ace Books Inc, 1964, 143 pp
Why am I reading Andre Norton? I only recently added her to My Big Fat Reading Project because I read some things full of praise for her. She has been called "grande dame of science fiction." She wrote a gazillion books, various different series, sometimes in collaboration with other authors I have loved (Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mercedes Lackey, to mention a couple.)
She took the pen name Andre Norton (her name was Alice) to avoid the barriers to women in the sci fi writing community of the 1940s when she began publishing and she snuck right in. She also combined fantasy and sci fi in a time when that was taboo among both fantasy and sci fi purists. Now that I have read two of her Witch World series books, I am hooked.
Web of the Witch World picks up pretty much where Witch Worldended. Simon Tregarth entered this world by means of the Siege Perilous (part of Arthurian mythology, a kind of sorting hat/portal and destiny director--look it up.) He had landed in Estcarp, home of an old race, ruled by witches, and under attack from the evil high-tech Kolder, who were also from another universe. Oh yes, it is twisty!
Simon is a brave and wily hero. He fell in love with Jaelithe, a witch, and she with him. In marrying him she had to give up her powers.
Web of the Witch World continues the story wherein Simon must once again outwit the Kolder, who are as evil as it gets. Meanwhile, like the good independent woman she is, Jaelithe goes off on her own to figure out how much witch power she still has and how to use it.
The psychic connection between Simon and Jaelithe goes beyond romance to show how a man and a woman, an earth man and a witch, a hero and a heroine, can live and love and work together to fight destruction and evil. Andre Norton writes adventure and intrigue and battle scenes as well as anyone I have read.
November was still hot for the first three weeks but finally last week it cooled, it rained, there is snow on the far mountain tops visible from my picture windows. What a relief for us in California but I understand travel was difficult in other parts of the country.
I read so many fine books in November and made my goal with no cheating by reading picture books as I did last month. However I did find quite a few full length novels so compelling that I read them in one day!
Stats: 14 read. 13 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 sci fi. 2 fantasy. 1 YA. 1 from My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 thrillers. 1 translated. 1 nonfiction.
Places I went: USA, UK, France, Spain, Croatia, and two imaginary lands.
Authors New to Me: Juliet Escoria, Susan Orlean, Simon Mawer, Sarah J Maas, Dubravka Ugresic, Jonathan Lethem, Ron Currie.
Favorites (so hard to pick these): Juliet the Maniac, Motherless Brooklyn, Sula
Least favorites: Then She Was Gone, Trapeze
I hope you enjoyed your November books. Have you read any of these?
Now we all need good luck on getting our reading done in December!
Juliet the Maniac, Juliet Escoria, Melville House, 2019, 316 pp
Juliet Escoria is the current wife of Scott McClanahan, whose novel The Sarah Book I reviewed last. I received both books through my subscription to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. The Sarah Book had been languishing on my pile of unread TNB books so when I received Juliet the Maniac recently I decided to read the two books back to back. I admit to a bit of voyeurism in wanting to see how these two writers came to be married. Ha! I learned not a thing about that.
Juliet's book is a fictionalized account of her own teenage years. A genre called autofiction has been around since a French author, Serge Dubrovsky, coined the term in reference to his novel, Fils. (ref: Wikipedia.) In her interview on Otherppl, Juliet says that after years of trying to write her story in memoir form, she was finally able to do so in an autofiction format. She does it quite well.
When Juliet was 14 years old, during a period of stress as an honors student aiming for a prestigious college where she intended to study literature, she began to experience hallucinations, panic attacks and insomnia. Then came self-harm and ultimately a suicide attempt. She was diagnosed as bipolar and put on a cocktail of psychiatric drugs.
Possibly because she was only 14 and it was the 1990s, she also began drinking and consuming street drugs. The upshot of all that, after a second suicide attempt, was her parents enrolling her in a "therapeutic boarding school" in a remote area of Northern California.
Juliet came from a middle class Southern California family, not deprived in any way, with loving parents. These parents were so committed to saving her life that they committed her.
For some reason I am drawn to such stories: The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, are a few I have read. Actually I know the reason. I had a bit of a breakdown during my sophomore year in college. I begged my parents to get me to a psychiatrist but my father, for no reason he ever explained, refused. All he would say was that it was dangerous to fool around with someone's mind. That was in the mid-60s.
Somehow I recovered enough to work out my problems as a young college woman on my own, although not in any ways that made my parents happy. All in all though, I feel I've had something like a guardian angel watching over me and here I am.
Juliet's "therapeutic boarding school" used a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, psych meds and restraint on its patients along with regular schooling and some other weird and questionable techniques. But she managed to "graduate" and return home, then go on to college. She writes about the whole experience with an exquisite realism touched with humor and no self pity. Her intelligence and bravery come shining through her prose.
According to her Otherppl interview, she is able to function in life on a finely-tuned prescription of medications though the fine tuning has put her through its own kind of hell. She now teaches, she has published a collection of poetry, Witch Hunt, and a story collection, Black Cloud. It appears to be a happy occurrence that she and Scott McClanahan found each other.
Her book, Juliet the Maniac, is amazing in my opinion. I hope that the young women who need such books to know they are not alone, find hers.
The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan, Tyrant Books, 2017, 233 pp
I first read Scott McClanahan when I read his earlier novel, Hill William, as part of the 2014 Tournament of Books. It was a gut punch of a novel and I barely survived reading it.
The Sarah Book is a sequel and investigates how the protagonist from Hill William managed to screw up his marriage to Sarah, the woman he was dating in that earlier book.
It is just as gritty and sad and upsetting, except you might say there are more moments of humor and lightheartedness. I too was unable to keep my first marriage together so there was that connection for me. Still, I grew up privileged while Scott grew up in Appalachia and still lives there.
Here's the thing: After reading Hill William, I felt depressed about how unfair life is. The author has suffered from depression but he has also seemingly read everything, he is a successful teacher of writing, and he keeps publishing his own books. Plus is happily married to the author of the next book I will review: Juliet the Maniac.
I went and relistened to his interview on Otherppl. He has a unique approach to life. I bet he still gets depressed sometimes. We all do. Somehow he manages to convey that to be born is to have a chance, no matter our circumstances or mistakes. I think he is right.
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 2019, 224 pp
Another one of the best books I have read this year! Though there are many gruesome scenes, the power of this novel is astonishing.
You probably already know that it is about two boys sentenced to a vicious reform school during the Jim Crow era in Florida. I recall a character who went through something similar in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, but here it is the focus of the story.
The boys are opposites in many ways. Turner is worldly wise and Elwood is a somewhat wide-eyed innocent. But they become fast friends and have a large influence on each other.
Having read two of the three volumes of the biography of Martin Luther King by Taylor Branch, I was familiar with the many words of that man which Elwood had taken to heart. For much of The Nickel Boys, it seemed that Whitehead was refuting those words by means of his dark and disastrous story.
However, and this is a big however, in a surprising twist at the end of the book, I felt that the author was honoring the hopes MLK worked so tirelessly to instill in his people. We discussed that very thing for quite a long while in my reading group.
Now that Colson Whitehead has blown me away by his two latest books, this one and The Underground Railroad, it is time for me to go back and read his earlier work. If you have read his earlier books, which ones have you liked?
A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Counterpoint, 2017, 228 pp
This is a generational story about a black family in New Orleans, beginning in 1944 and ending close to the present day. Though it is a debut novel the writing is smooth, the characters vivid, and the dialogue crackles.
The major world events hitting this family are WWII and Hurricane Katrina. The title refers to the not quite full freedom of black people in New Orleans. Evelyn is the elder daughter of a medical doctor and his energetic wife. Ruby is her younger sister whose forward ways and volatile moods leave Evelyn feeling somewhat in the background.
There are love affairs and marriages, children are born. Relationships don't always last. Children don't turn out as their parents hoped. As the 21st century hits with drugs and crime creeping into their lives, the family gets complicated. But family also holds them together.
I have read and loved Jessamyn Ward's novels, Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied Sing. I loved this one just as much. Ms Sexton's writing style is a bit quieter but she shares Ward's ability to bring her characters alive, showing their pain and their joys.
The sections of the story set in post-Katrina years reveal how racism and inequality affected black lives in its aftermath. I don't think I have read anything that has done that better.
It is especially good news that Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's second novel, The Revisioners, was just published this month.
The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 363 pp
I do like fantasy novels when they are done to my rather picky standards. The Girl in the Tower is #2 in Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. These books hit all my loves in fantasy. I would call this trilogy historical, myth-based fantasy.
Vasya is a complex yet believable heroine. She was raised on tales from her nanny, including one about the Frost King, a tale that opens the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale. She can see the spirits that inhabit hearths and barns. Morosko, the Frost King, is a character in these books and someone who Vasya has strong feelings for. Because of all this, she is considered a witch by her family and community.
So, I loved The Girl in the Tower as much as I did the first book. Vasya has grown into a young woman in this one, impersonating a boy and trying to avoid marriage vs the convent as she tries to help her brother who is a monk and her cousin, the Grand Prince of 14th century Moscow, save the kingdom from their dangerous enemies. She also has a fabulous horse!
Lots of story, action, tension and I never wanted to put the book down. So glad there is still one more book to read.
A Passage to India, E M Forster, Harcourt Inc, 1924, 362 pp
This was the second most challenging book for me in October. It is a classic. I have only ever heard the highest praises for E M Forster and I discovered for myself that he was a wonderful writer. My trouble with it stemmed from the characters. Not that there are too many but each one had a first name, a last name and many of them also had an office title such as Civil Surgeon, the Collector, etc.
Had I not been entranced right away by Forster's melodious language, I might have noticed sooner that he used these names and titles interchangeably as he went along with his story. In the back of my mind I felt there were triple the number of characters than there actually were as Mr Aziz became the underling of the Civil Surgeon, Cyril became the headmaster, etc.
Finally I came to my senses and sought out a character list online. As I studied this, suddenly the whole story came into focus. I admit I felt a bit tricked or perhaps taken advantage of by Mr Forster. I think though that novels from earlier times coddled readers less than our carefully "edited for the masses" bestsellers of today. Another reading lesson learned.
A Passage to India is truly a wonderful story about the clash of cultures, the insensitive ways of colonialism, prejudice, racial tension, religious conflicts, etc. It even contains a mystery centered around a perceived assault by an Indian native on a young British woman. #MeToo in 1920s British ruled India. Who knew? Not me, until one of my reading groups sent me there.
The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett, G P Putnam's Sons, 1961, 543 pp
Note: I have some free time this week, something I've not had much of recently. So I am going to pour on the posts in an attempt to get caught up on all the books I have been reading. I hope I don't subtract too much from whatever free time you have!
Summary from Goodreads:
Dunnett introduces her
irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of
elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his
rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is
threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a
band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save
This was the most challenging book I read in October. Normally I read about 30 pages an hour. It took me three days to read 119 pages and six more days to finish. In the end, it was also one of the most rewarding.
The barriers to my reading speed were the time period (1547 was not a known time to me), the humongous list of characters (though thankfully a character list is provided), the politics between Scotland and England in that time, and a fairly convoluted plot. With quite a bit of help from the internet, I conquered all!
A Game of Kings is the first in Dorothy Dunnett's six book series, The Lymond Chronicles. Francis Crawford of Lymond is a fantastic character whom I now intend to follow to the end of the series. He reminded me of one of my favorite Neal Stephenson characters, Jack Shaftoe from his Baroque Cycle trilogy.
Francis is a wily, outrageous, determined patriot of Scotland, carrying deep personal burdens, who comes within inches of being hanged by his own people. It is as though he embodies all the evil of those he fights against. He understands the craven qualities of his enemies so completely that he defeats them by aping them.
I learned a lot more than Scottish history by reading and figuring out The Game of Kings. It was an education in how to read. If I want to read such deep and twisty historical books (and I do), I have to put in some work of my own. 16th century Scotland had many differences from present day America.
A big theme in the book is chess and I have never mastered that game's intricacies, but I was forced to understand it a bit better as Dunnett uses it as a metaphor for the times when kings and queens ruled the world.
So, thank you to Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001) and to Helen at She Reads Novels. Dorothy must have been someone close to genius. Helen is one of the most knowledgeable bloggers I know when it comes to historical fiction and she introduced me to Dorothy.
The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith, Coward-McCann, 1954, 265 pp
This was Highsmith's third novel, published a year before The Talented Mr Ripley. As in Strangers On A Train, her first novel, it concerns a double murder. Two men lose their wives to what appears to be murder, but one of those men did kill his wife and the other did not. To twist things a bit more, both wives died in similar ways.
The two husbands become involved with each other in an antagonistic manner. Then there is the cop who wants to make a name for himself by solving the murders and pits these two men against each other further, in an effort to get confessions from both.
Her theme of the psychology of evil and violence which pervades her novels in is full play in The Blunderer. I have quite a few of her novels left to read and I am curious as to whether she just keeps working on that theme or if it evolves into more.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English
illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It has been awarded annually since 1938 by
the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the
American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished
American picture book for children.
I do not know how this whim came about but one day I got the idea to read a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. I have always included the Caldecott winners in the years of My Big Fat Reading Project. When I read those winning books from the 1940s and 1950s I recognized a few because my mom read to me and my sisters every night before bed. For some reason I wanted to compare the books from a decade I had not gotten to yet. I chose the 1990s.
Here are the ten books I read with short comments on each:
1990: Ed Young translated and illustrated this Chinese version of the Red-Riding Hood tale. Po Po is the grandmother. The mother of her three grandchildren leaves to visit Po Po because it is her birthday. While she is gone, a wolf comes to the children's home, claiming to be their grandmother. After figuring out that it is not Po Po, they trick the wolf. In fact, the kill it!
The illustrations are watercolor and pastel, appearing in panels, soft-edged with mists and shadows but also lots of color.
1991: I had to read this one several times before I "got it." Each double-page spread is divided into quadrants, each showing a part of four different stories that by the end seem to merge. I wonder if a child would understand it more easily than I did.
1992: This story involves frogs who fly about on lily pads one night. Leaving their wetlands pond they invade a neighborhood where they frolic about in the yards and streets in the moonlight until they return to their pond at dawn.
The story is as crazy as a cartoon but the illustrations have the look of art.
1993: One of my favorites. With illustrations reminiscent of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the author creates a story based on Charles Blondin, the famous 19th century French tightrope walker. Mirette, a daredevil of a little girl who is always climbing on things, meets a famous tightrope walker who has come to rest at her mother's inn after an accident. He has become afraid of heights.
By convincing the man to teach her, she helps him recover from his fear. A more magical and beautiful picture book I had never read.
1994: Allen Say wrote and illustrated this one. He honors his Japanese grandfather with his own paintings to recreate the love of both of them for Japan and America. The grandfather was an immigrant who took Allen to visit Japan years later. Both felt a constant desire to be in each country at the same time.
1994: Sometimes the winning books are both written and illustrated by the same person. In this one, the author wrote a fine story about what riots might mean to the children who live through them, inspired by the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
David Diaz won for his striking illustrations with boldly colored drawings of the characters set against collages of objects. The results are a stunning synergy of talent.
1995: This was the funniest of the books I read for the project. In fact, it is hilarious.
Officer Buckle collects safety tips and goes around to schools sharing his tips with the kids. They are very bored.
Then his department gets a dog named Gloria, a trained K-9. Buckle starts taking Gloria along on his safety speeches and the kids love it. You'll have to read it to see why.
1996: I felt this one might be too scary for little children. It is based on the medieval legend of the Golem, a tale of supernatural forces called upon by a rabbi to fight the oppression of Jews in 1580s Prague.
The illustrations are stunning. There are many more words of text than in most picture books. I loved learning the original legend and I think somewhat older children would benefit from learning it too.
I also admire the ALA for awarding the prize to this author.
In A Note at the back of the book, a fuller explanation of Golem and its history is given, along with details about how oppression of Jews gave rise to the establishment of Israel.
1998: Another one of my favorites for the decade. The author and illustrator creates a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale based on several different versions.
The illustrations are all his original oil paintings with lots of peacocks! As well as recreating the tale, his paintings are in the Italian Renaissance style.
In his author's note he references the history of the fairy tale and mentions the versions he consulted. The book is so beautiful, I want to purchase my own copy.
1999: We come to the end of this project with a biography! Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 in Jericho, VT, where he lived all his life. His family were farmers. He is the first known photographer of snowflakes.
First line: "In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world."
The author tells the story of Bentley's life and that is a story of what can happen when you follow a passion.
Mary Azarian, the illustrator who won the medal, filled the book with woodcuts colored in the blues and whites and grays of a Vermont winter, accented with reds, greens and wood shades.
A wonderful book because it is filled with wonder.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tour through a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. All of these books are in print and available at your favorite bookstore or local library. My gratitude goes out to the Los Angeles Public Library for keeping all the books in their catalogue and to my local branch librarians who helped me locate the books.
If you have little ones in your life, any of these books would make excellent holiday gifts.
Do you have any tales of your own about reading these books to kids or having them read to you?
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow, Redbook Books, 2019, 371 pp
Just today I was proclaiming on one of my friend's blogs that I don't read romance novels. Then I sat down to write this review and realized that I do like love stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is built around two wonderful love stories set amidst a complex historical tale in the 19th century. The narrator is a woman who lost her mother in infancy and whose father comes and goes, so she is a little more than half an orphan.
When our heroine, named January, was seven she found a door to another world. The world she lived in was a world of privilege as the ward of an extremely rich man who seemed to be her protector. He was also the man responsible for sending her father on long journeys for reasons unknown to January. The door she found as a young girl and and a strange book she found later may contain answers to the mystery of her life.
I loved this book with all my heart. Not everyone does, including the other two readers with whom I discussed it, but I love them for leading me to the book. Alix E Harrow was trained as an historian, though she jumped that track and wrote a debut novel that may have a flaw or two but deals with portals to other worlds. The villains of the story are evil rich men who would have those portals closed lest they let in new and strange ideas that might upset the order upon which their wealth depends.
Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of portals that lead to other worlds. Therefore this novel was just right for me. There are wonders beyond portals, full of adventure and often danger, but always possibilities that you might find your true self, not to mention true love.
If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will want to read The Ten Thousand Doors of January.