Friday, May 29, 2015


The person who recommended these books is an acquaintance. He is a good friend of my husband, but I’ve met him only a handful of times. From what I can glean of the life he lives on Facebook, he enjoys the finer things in life. His liquor cabinet rivals that of licensed bars. When he goes to concerts or sporting events, he gets the good seats. When he cooks, it is gourmet. He is the only person I have ever met who keeps a babysitter on a handsome retainer so that he always has first pick of date nights. So, I find it fascinating that he recommended two books about the worst possible conditions in which people can live. 

#36 – Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
Recommended by: JM

Now I believe they will leave me alone

This was one of a handful of books on the list of which I was completely unaware. I had heard neither the title nor author. Even the back cover gave away very little. The story unfolds in two parts. The first, in modern day, is the tale of a man confined to a wheelchair who spends all of his time trying to understand the history of his grandparents.  The other tale is that of his grandparents, early settlers in the American West. I know absolutely nothing about that time or place. My choice of historical fiction always involves a queen getting her head chopped off, so the mining towns of California, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 1800s were a complete mystery to me. Would I really be interested in a story about a cultured artist who married a strong, silent mining engineer and tried to carve out a life for themselves and their children out of hope, grit, and sheer determination?

As it turns out, that answer was yes. I found their life fascinating and incredibly difficult. They lived in shacks in remote locations for years on end. They did not have an epic love story – she thought she married beneath her and he agreed. She wrote novels, he barely spoke. They spent years apart and neither seemed to mind all that much. Yet, for all of that, you couldn’t help but root for the two of them to make it.

Which is why the last few chapters of the book are so frustrating. Throughout the book, you are aware that the two lovers do live a long life together, eventually settling down to raise their children and grandchildren. Throughout the book, you learn about Susan Burling and her husband Oliver Ward through letters and other chapters told through her point of view. However, just when the story reaches its apex and everything comes to a thunderous head, the author pulls back and tells it all in fragments, in theories and possibilities, as told by the wheelchair-bound grandson. I felt cheated. I spent 500 pages reading about the everyday lives of these people in great detail, yet at turning point, the moment that changed everything, we get barely a glance. Even worse, the aftermath is ignored almost entirely and we fast forward several decades to a denouement that is rushed and almost ridiculous. I would have much preferred to skip a few chapters in the middle to get a few more chapters at the end. This was the literary equivalent of sitting down to a well-set table, enjoying drinks, apps, pasta, and veg, and just when you are about to enjoy the meat, the waiter rushes over, hands you a little index card with a few choice adjectives about how well the meat would have tasted, gives you a mint, and rushes you out the door. Where’s the beef? Where is the rest of the story? UGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

#37 – Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
Recommended by: JM

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently into the vastness of Tibet.

This book has been on my shelf for years, but for whatever reason, I never read it. I’m so glad I finally did, but dear God and his baby lord Jesus, what the hell is wrong with some people?
I always thought mountain climbing was a slow, meditative, solidary thing. You put one foot in front of the other, step after step, until you reached the top. Once there, you are a clear mind and body, maybe a wee bit tired, but absolutely exhilarated at your accomplishment.

Um. No. Not even close.  

It takes a team of people, weeks of prep, and the only thing you are thinking once you get to the top, if you are able to think at all, is how hard it is going to be to get back down. You are forced to make life and death decisions about where to step and how far to travel on one-third your normal oxygen supply – so you are basically punch drunk and stupid. Most people can’t walk a straight line on a flat surface while drunk. On Everest, you have to climb up and down a knife’s edge with the equivalent mental capacities of a college kid on his first pub crawl. It is colder than you could ever imagine, you haven’t eaten or slept properly in days, and you are practically blind due to solar radiation and ice crystallization. Your feet are raw, any part of you that is exposed is probably frostbitten, and there is a bunch of people you may or may know, of varying abilities and personalities, some hindering, some helping, with you every step of the way.

That is what climbing Everest is like. And people do this for fun! FUN! Back in 1996, when this book was written, it cost $65,000 to join a team to climb to the top. Most people never reach it. This team did, but of the six that reached the summit, only two made it out alive. Those bodies were left up on that mountain forever. This story is about the brutal and harrowing weeks that led up to the events that left so many dead, and the actions, reactions, and the small turns on the wheels of fate that caused it all to happen. With summer upon us, it is the absolutely perfect beach read. Your idyllic hot, sandy, blue setting will so contract that of the books that it will seem as if you are reading about a different planet. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

19 Sins and Counting

Here is my problem with the current news story surrounding the Duggar family and their son Josh.

What took so long?

In order for In Touch to ask for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, they had to know there were documents to find. If I, a casual viewer at best, knew about the “sin in the camp” several years ago, then you cannot tell me that TLC didn’t know about them when they first started airing specials about the Duggar clan. How did I hear about it? Message boards! I visited the now defunct website Television Without Pity every day. I watched a handful of the early shows about the family and wanted to know more, but I didn’t want it filtered through a haze of puff journalism. While message boards are often filled with trolls and haters, the best ones, run by firm moderators, are able to provide a lot of background information. For example, by the time Jon & Kate fell apart spectacularly in the public eye I was well aware of all the private shenanigans that had taken place. I’m not a private detective. I didn’t pore over microfiche. I don’t know the family or anyone associated with them. I just spent a few hours down the wormhole that is the Internet.

Several stories have emerged that provide a timeline of events. The crimes were committed in 2002 and 2003. In 2005, the first special about the Duggar family aired on Discovery Health. In 2006, while prepping an all-Duggar episode, the Oprah Winfrey Show was alerted to the history of molestation. That episode never aired and HARPO studios alerted the Department of Human Services. While Josh was under investigation by the police, Discovery chose to air three more specials about the Duggar family. Let’s be clear – they were actively filming the family while a member of the family was under active investigation for molestation.

The network knew.
By 2007, comments had started to crop up on several different message boards. Now, I don’t run a network. Hell, I can barely run a bath. But, if I DID run a network, I’d have a passel of interns whose entire job would be to monitor social media to keep track of what was being said about my shows. Do people like them? Why or why not? Publicity 101, right? I find it hard to believe that TLC did not have people tracking what was being said about their shows. There were only a few dozen sites that recapped shows and/or had message boards for shows such as 19 Kids and Counting. Television Without Pity was well-established and if I, a bored housewife with a couple of hours to kill and an interest in digging a little deeper could unearth this story, you cannot tell me with a straight face that the powers that be at TLC could not.  
The network knew.
Why did In Touch decide to release the information now? I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with outselling rival magazines People and Us, both of which have published multiple exclusives covers concerning the family. I’m sure it is all about the victims, right? Puh-lease. It’s all about the money. They busted the story wide open to increase their click-view rates, their page views, and their newsstand buys. It is the exact same reason TCL ignored the story entirely. They were looking a cash cow directly in the face! They didn’t care if the milk was sour. They only cared if the milk looked creamy and refreshing on camera. The Duggar family made for good TV. They have aired greater than 200 episodes about them. They have published three books. They have made countless appearances over the past decade. The big Christian family is big business and big money. What is a little incestuous molestation in the face of millions of dollars?

Everyone knew. 

This included the networks, the publishers, their church, their friends, and their family. 
Who helped the victims? The answer was no one, because it wasn’t in their best interest to do so.

Now the entire world knows. They are all claiming ignorance and pulling the show and firing Josh and yada, yada, yada. 
Who is helping the victims? 
The answer, unfortunately, still seems to be no one, because it isn't in their best interest to do so.

And that, my friends, is the worst crime of all. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

My Precious Melange

There are some basic tomes that anyone who calls themselves a fan of a certain genre should read. Today, I explain why two particular books fit the description of being a classic. 

#34 – The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.
When I was in high school, I dated a guy who was very proud of the fact that the only book he had ever read from start to finish was The Hobbit. Obviously, I thought he was insane and couldn’t believe that anyone would ever boast about only reading one book. In retrospect, I can understand why. This book has everything a teenage boy could want – epic adventures, no icky girls to mess it up, and lots of cool characters and scenes. Quite a lot happens in this book and while I have read it before, it was long before the first Lord of the Rings movie and I didn’t remember much of it. Now, with the characters from Peter Jackson’s storytelling foremost in my mind, it actually made keeping track of characters a bit easier.

I will say that the book is far more charming than the movies. In the movies, everything portends doom. The dwarves are very serious. Gandalf is to be feared, Bilbo is always in danger. Gollum is terrible in his wretchedness. But in the story, everything is much more lighthearted. Gandalf is merely odd, the dwarves are not as dutiful, Bilbo is not just along for the ride, and Gollum is merely another character in the story. The tone of the narration is of a tale told round a fire at night, so that it is folksy and warm. Everything in the movies was so dramatic and resounding. Everything in the book is much more colorful and interesting. I was much amused that my daughter, having already read it, was a fan. This really is a classic of fantasy and if you haven’t read it, you should do so immediately.

#35 – Dune – Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

I read this back in high school as well and it pairs nicely with The Hobbit because it is also a classic, but of science fiction. It does what good sci-fi should do, set up a different world, in a different time, with laws of science that differ from our own. It takes its time setting up the premise and more time really allowing the characters to make the changes necessary to get them through the arc of the story, which truth be told, is actually pretty basic. A royal house falls and from it, a messiah arises.

What killed me in this book were the names of things. Kwisatz Haderach. Bene Gesserit. Feyd-Bautha. There were a million of these damn things and none of them could be sounded out properly in my head. Thankfully, the main character is Paul, but he is also Usal, and Maud’Dib, and all sorts of other things. I get that names have to be exotic sounding, but can they be spelled in such a way as to make sense too? It is a solid read, but you will find yourself rolling your eyes at the pretention of it all. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

All this happened, more or less.

We are at a placeholder week. I haven’t finished a book, but I promised to write faithfully. I realized that one thing I haven’t done in this blog is include the first lines of each book. Many first sentences of books are famous in their own right because they are perfect little gems unto themselves. 

I am Ishmael.

124 was spiteful.

I am an invisible man.

It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m pretty much fucked.

The best opening lines sum up the tone of the book. They give you a taste of what to expect in one perfect grouping of words and punctuation. So, deal readers, here are the first lines of all of the books I have read so far. I have to admit that I cheated, but only because the author did first. Instead of a good first sentence, they wrote an excellent first paragraph. In those cases, I included what I considered relevant. Enjoy.

My grandfather loved to fish.
            The Boy Who Said No – Patti Sheehy

A “happiness project” is an approach to changing your life.
            The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin

It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I’d ever seen.
Verbal Judo - George Thompson 

For a long, long time – for nearly forty years – I never had any bees. I can’t think why.
            A Book of Bees - Sue Hubbell

My mother and I talked a lot about the Burgess family.
            The Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout

Have I made a terrible mistake?
            American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld

There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads.
            The Bridges of Madison County – Robert James Waller

When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed – “To Whom It May Concern – that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson, Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.
            I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.
            The Paris Wife – Paula McLain

The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August heat longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese, Tran.
            House of Sand and Fog – Andre Dubos

The golden rays of the summer sun warmed the cobblestone streets of Rome as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia walked briskly from the Vatican to the three-story stucco house on the Piazza de Merlso where he’d come to claim three of his young children: his sons Cesare and Juan and his daughter Lucrezia, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood.
            The Family – Mario Puzo

"They've said some crazy things about me over the years. I mean, okay: 'He bit the head off a bat.' Yes. 'He bit the head off a dove.' Yes. But then you hear things like, 'Ozzy went to the show last night, but he wouldn't perform until he'd killed fifteen puppies . . .' Now me, kill fifteen puppies? I love puppies. I've got eighteen of the f**king things at home. I've killed a few cows in my time, mind you. And the chickens. I shot the chickens in my house that night. It haunts me, all this crazy stuff. Every day of my life has been an event. I took lethal combinations of booze and drugs for thirty f**king years. I survived a direct hit by a plane, suicidal overdoses, STDs. I've been accused of attempted murder. Then I almost died while riding over a bump on a quad bike at f**king two miles per hour.
I am Ozzy – Ozzy Osbourne

Ever after, whenever smelled the peculiar odor of new construction, of pine planking and plastic plumbing pipes, she would think of that summer, think of it as the time of changes.
            Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen

Amal wanted a closer look into the soldier’s eyes, but the muzzle of his automatic rifle, pressed against her forehead, would not allow it.
            Mornings in Jenin – Susan Abulhawa

Dear Sydney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue.
            Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he is okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays.
            Time Traveler's Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

All young people worry about things, it’s a natural and inevitable part of growing up, and at the age of sixteen, my greatest anxiety in life was that I’d never again achieve anything as good, as pure, or noble, as my O-level exam results.
            A Question of Attraction  - David Nichols

“Tonight, we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.” The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than me. So if he’d ever killed in combat, silently or otherwise, he’d done it as an infant.
            The Forever War - Joe Haldeman

First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.
            The Book Thief - Marcus Zusak

I was doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.
            A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below.
            A Dirty Job – Christopher Moore

The angel was cleaning out his closets when the call came. Halos and moonbeams were sorted into piles according to brightness, satchels of wrath and scabbards of lightning hung on hooks waiting to be dusted.
            Lamb – Christopher Moore

She was squinting at the thermometer in the white light coming through the window. Beyond her, in the drizzle, the other high rises in Co-Op City rose like the grey turrets of a penitentiary. 
            Running Man – Richard Bachman

Tika Waylan straightened her back with a sigh, flexing her shoulders to ease the cramped muscles.
            Dragon’s of Autumn’s Twilight – Weis/Hickman

“You are already staying in Smolensk two days, Mr. Fisher?” she asked.
            The Charm School – Nelson DeMille

One night, when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke up to the sound of lovemaking – it was coming from her parent’s bedroom. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu, when she first her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.
            A Widow for One Year – John Irving

It was a dark and stormy night. 
            A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle

When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed.
            Me Before You – JoJo Moyes

Friday, May 1, 2015

Like is Not Equal

Yes, I read A Widow for One Year, but no, I am not going to write about it until after the book club discusses it next month. Until then, we are going back to my youth for a classic of children’s lit and a particular favorite of mine.  

#33 – A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
Recommended by: EB

I loved this book as a kid. I loved it. I honestly believe that my lifelong love of redheads sprouts directly from my love for Calvin O’Keefe. I read this book, and others in the series so many times that it actually inspired a tattoo. I can’t tell you if it is good literature or bad sci-fi because it is just part of who I am and I can’t judge it in any quantifiable way. I can, however, say with certainty, that this book is odd. It moves very quickly and it has a religious side I never once noticed in childhood. The story of Meg, her little brother Charles Wallace, their newfound friend Calvin O’Keefe and their hunt for a long-lost father through planets shrouded in darkness is a relatively simple tale. Maybe I liked that Meg was loved for her faults, and in fact, those very faults are what save the day. Maybe I enjoyed that Meg was not always the heroine. Sometimes she had to reach for Calvin for comfort, but I loved (then and now) that she was her own imperfect person. It isn’t original to make love vanquish all, but this book might have been my first time really understanding what that meant. I’m glad I reread it and am just a little sad that my daughter wasn’t interested in it at all.