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January 2016 in Photos

9 February, 2016

January started off with a lot of activity, and ended fairly quietly, with me doing a lot of things that would not be interesting to photo (starting reorganization of my dresser, for instance).  I’ve been busy during the whole month, but not with exciting projects, I’m afraid.  Here, however, are some highlights.

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Artwork appears in unexpected places here in London – this is at Carnaby Street

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We tried a new afternoon tea – the Fried Chicken Afternoon Tea at Ma Plucker near Carnaby Street

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And the very next day, we had a more traditional repast at the Elizabeth Hotel

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I received a ridiculously large box from Amazon for a smallish tube of knitting supplies (pictured and dwarfed by the box). Even Attie couldn’t figure it out.

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And then we got a new teapot (box not shown, but appropriately sized)

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I modeled earrings I’ve owned and loved for more than 20 years

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And Attie modeled the big ass blanket that I only made last Winter

I’ve already had some lovely experiences in February, and I look forward to sharing those next month.

 

January 2016 Reads and Reviews

9 February, 2016

I’m a little late out of the gate with my January reviews, but for good reasons.  The Mister and I have been out and about and I’ve not been near my PC for much of the last week, I’m happy to say.  We’re just now getting our first dose of winter, which means bundling up a bit, but there’s a Preston Sturges Season at the BFI right now, so we’ve been seeing as many of those movies as we could.

50 Books: (4)
15,000 Pages: (637)
Historical fiction: (2)
Chunkster (0)

1. Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants
Author:  Alison Maloney
Genre:  Social History
Pages: 192
Rating: *** (out of 5)

This is a very basic overview of what life was like for those “in service” in the manor houses during the Edwardian period. Accent on the word “overview.” There is nothing in-depth here. It’s perfect for those who loved Downton Abbey (and, before that, Upstairs, Downstairs) and would like to know how the shows and real life differ. It also helps if you haven’t read any other, more encyclopedic, references.

Life Below Stairs is very short, so if one is in a hurry to learn these things, it’s good for that. There is precious little in the way of getting to know any one specific job, however, so if you’re looking for something meaty, this is not the book for you.

I was slightly disappointed as I was looking for slightly more than was on offer here. If I weren’t already familiar, based on other reading and documentaries, with life in service, I might have found this quite helpful. For me, however, it only skimmed the surface with information I already knew.

2. Strictly GI: The WWII Letters of Corporal Wanda Renn
Author: Patricia Arnold
Genre: History/Memoir
Pages: 158
Rating: **** (out of 5)

This collection of letters saved through several generations gives the experiences of a young WAC during WWII. Since we don’t have the replies, there are a few mysteries here, but that’s part of the fun.

The biggest mystery, to me, is why the editor’s mother (daughter of the letter writer) forbade her from reading the letters, even after Wanda Renn had died, and even when she (the editor was well into her adulthood). Now that I’ve read them, I don’t understand this – I would be proud to share this young woman’s thoughts, enthusiasm, humor and sheer pride at doing her little bit to make a positive difference in the world.

Wanda writes about the difficulties in getting various luxuries, and about the friends she meets during the course of her work. There are things that made me say “I wonder what the story was there?” but at the end, Patricia Arnold does her best to fill in those gaps. I’d love to know what the “old trouble” was that put Wanda in the infirmary, though.

If the responsive letters had been around, providing more of a conversation than a monologue, I think this would have been a five-star read. Even so, it’s enjoyable, breezy and uplifting reading from a time when a whole generation pulled together for a common cause.

3. We Sink or Swim Together
Author: Gill Paul
Genre: Historical Fiction/Long Short Story/Short Novella
Pages: 43
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

I like Gill Paul a lot – probably because the first book I read by her, Women and Children First, was about the Titanic, so I was predisposed to be interested. The setting for this little story is the Lusitania, in May of 1915. I started it expecting a love story, and We Sink or Swim Together delivered beautifully.

Gerda Nielson was returning to her family after working in the States for five years. On the ship, she meets Jack Welsh, who is also heading back to England. An instant rapport occurs….

I would hope that most people would know why the Lusitania is an important backdrop. Gill Paul seems to be drawn to writing about shipboard drama, and she does it well. She’s got a lot to delve into for future books, too, so she’s given herself a great launching pad. I enjoyed this little “keep the fans entertained” story that helped me bide my time until I start the next novel.

4. Booth
Author: David Robertson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 244
Rating: *** (out of 5)

It took me a long time to read this relatively slim volume, and I think that’s part of why my rating is closer to three stars than four. While the story, by the end, was an interesting one, I had a hard time caring enough about it to put other things I was reading down in order to get back to it.

John Surratt, Jr. was the only one of the accused Booth conspirators to live to the end of his natural life. His mother, on the other hand, was executed along with three others in connection with the assassination, and the strength of the evidence that convicted her has been a matter of endless debate for more than 150 years.

This book is about John Surratt, however, and the author’s novelization of his friendship with John Wilkes Booth. Booth here is manipulative and smarmy; Surratt naive and needy. Surratt is initially awed by Booth’s attentions, and then disillusioned.

The story is highly fictionalized, though Robertson takes time in the afterword to tell us what was real and what was part of his imagination. It is intriguing to consider what might have occurred if Surratt and D.W. Griffith had met and if Surratt had shared his memories, but that experience exists only in the pages of this novel. Ditto Surratt working as a photographer’s assistant.

There are a lot of “what ifs” here, but that’s what makes historical fiction enjoyable. Taking the known narrative and asking how differently the story might go if a few curve balls had been thrown into the mix is great fun.

I’m well into my first read of February, though I’m moving a bit more slowly on the reading front this month.  I’m enjoying what I’m reading, however, and that’s what matters.
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Reading Later, Cuddles and a Nap Right Now

New Project – A Month in Photos

3 January, 2016

I really enjoyed my 365 Good Things posts last year, but posting every day was time-consuming for me, and it became a chore.  I was not actually enjoying the moments, since I was so intent on documenting them.

I do miss the chronicle, however, and have been thinking ever since I discontinued the 365 Good Things project (June 2015) about how to document my life without giving up a good portion of it.  Thus, we arrive at A Month in Photos.

My iPad is with me every single day.  There are some days when I never turn on my computer, and some weeks when I’m never near my phone (blissful, blissful weeks).  But my iPad?  It’s a lifeline, a direct route to answers and a useful camera for catching those lovely moments that make me happy.

A good place for me to start would be with December 2015.  There was lots to remember, what with Christmas, knitted gifts, dog-sitting and all, and I hope that at some point these images will give me a visual diary to help me recall nice things during challenging days.  I hope my friends will enjoy going through the process with me.

So, to begin, as they say, at the beginning.

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A Dec 1 Knitting Finish-A Scarf for My Friend Martha

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A Visit from Izzy

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Some Pretty Yarn Just for ME

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Another Scarf-This One for Our Cupcake Lady

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Fancy Toes – Just Because

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Feast of Roast Beast at Christmas

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Taking Care of Weegie

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Much Needed Rest at the End of a Long Year

December 2015 Reads and Reviews

2 January, 2016

I made my 50 Book goal for 2015 (but only just, and only by reading very short books in the last weeks of the year, but I got there) and had a fun time doing it.  December was a very good month indeed for quality of reading, with two books that were especially interesting/entertaining.  I will significantly lower my sights regarding how many pages to shoot for in 2016, however.  For several years, I’ve tried to get to 25,000, and rarely have I even gotten close.  I think in 2016, my goal will be 16,000 pages, since I got to 15,401 last year.

For Christmas, I received a gift card from one of my family members, and at the moment it’s rather a toss-up as to whether it will be used for books or knitting supplies.  Since I have a backlog of more than 500 books (or ten years’ worth) waiting to be read, perhaps the money will go for yarn.  Or a new bookshelf.

50 Books: (50) – GOAL MET
25,000 Pages: (15,401)
Historical fiction: (13) – GOAL MET
Chunkster (7)

43. Born to be Hurt: The Story of Imitation of Life
Author:  Sam Staggs
Genre:  Film Criticism and Study
Pages: 372
Rating: *** (out of 5)

Sam Staggs would like you to know that Imitation of Life (1959) is a masterpiece. That’s a fact. Period. If you need reminding, he’ll take 372 pages and do just that. If you prefer the 1934 version (as I do), you’re wrong. If you consider the 1959 version to be somewhat camp, or soapy (as I do), you’re wrong. Got it? You think you do, but perhaps being beaten against the eyeballs for 300+ pages will ensure these facts stay with you forever.

Once you get past this confusion of opinion with fact, this is a fascinating look at what went on behind the scenes of the filming of the second iteration of Imitation of Life. Juanita Moore was still around when the book was being written and shared her reminiscences, and Susan Kohner (and her mother, Lupita Tovar Kohner – who was already in her 90s and is still with us in 2015) clearly spent a lot of time talking with Staggs, not only about making this film, but about her career in general.

The film was was the first professional gig Lana Turner had after the Johnny Stompanato scandal, and it was a much-needed boost for her. Not only did it go over well with audiences (critics, not so much), but the filming atmosphere was supportive and protective. Susan Kohner had help from her parents (her father was uber-agent Paul Kohner, who represented just about everyone on the set) and her movie-mother, Juanita Moore.

Lots of the proverbial unsung heroes get their mentions here – this really was a collaboration that worked. From Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk, to Troy Donahue and Robert Alda, everyone gets a bit of page-time. Even the young woman who only had one scene with Kohner (though it is a pivotal one) gets a mention.

The original film, and its director, John Stahl, get chapters, as well. As you might imagine, the author’s opinion of them is not favorable. Claudette Colbert, especially, comes in for some rather pointed commentary. Yes, we get it; you’re not a fan.

Born to Be Hurt was worth reading for me because of the backstage stories and the real life situations the cast and crew were dealing with during filming. I was also interested in audience and critical reaction to the film upon its release, and all this is there. I would have preferred to be presented with the information and left to formulate my own opinion, however, rather than be told (over and over again) what that opinion must be.

44. The Girl in the Mirror
Author: Cecilia Ahern
Genre: Slightly Lengthy Short Stories
Pages: 73
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

This short volume contains two stories of about 35 pages each. The Girl in the Mirror is the first one, followed by The Memory Machine. I loved them both, but the former slightly edged the latter just on oddness/creepiness.

In the first, a young woman is close to her grandmother, who seems to be a bit of a recluse. A nice recluse, but nonetheless she keeps herself to herself. Perhaps it was my own fault for reading this in the dark and under the covers, as I used to read when I was a kid, but the story creeped me out. It is darker than Ahern’s usual fare (I’m not complaining) and I wasn’t expecting it. It was one of those deliciously spooky stories that I find just dark enough to be entertaining, without being so terrifying that I’m awake for the next three nights.

The second story delves into how we might restructure our memories if we had the opportunity to do so. I found it fascinating – what memories would I add to my mind if I could? How would my relationships change? How would my grief be altered? I thought that this concept was thought-provoking and rather beautiful to contemplate. I realize this might be strange for me to say of someone who, unfairly in my opinion, gets the “chick lit” pejorative thrown at her, but I think this is the kind of thing that Cecelia Ahern does rather often – she makes me think things over.

45. The Day Lincoln Was Shot
Author: Jim Bishop
Genre: History/Non-Fiction
Pages: 304
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

From my rudimentary look at Jim Bishop’s books, it appears that “The Day” stories were his specialty. This book was an instant bestseller, and he followed it up with The Day Christ Died, The Day Kennedy Was Shot, and FDR’s Last Year, which were among the 21 books that he wrote over his lifetime.

The Day Lincoln Was Shot is certainly my favorite read for this month and it may make my top five for the year. Bishop writes in a style that is eminently readable, while still being non-fiction. Nothing about this hour-by-hour account of Lincoln’s last day is at all dry. You would be amazed at how many writers can look at a man as fascinating as Lincoln, and then turn out work that makes watching paint dry seem exciting.

The book starts with a bit of background regarding Lincoln’s visit to Richmond and his second inauguration, and Booth’s building enmity toward the President. Nowadays, the seditious and outright threatening comments that Booth made in public might have gotten him a visit from the authorities (one would hope so, anyhow), but he was very famous and much admired as an actor and a public figure, and he wasn’t alone in his sentiments about Lincoln and the War. He expected, not without some small amount of justification, to be received as a hero by the whites in the South after the assassination.

There is a lot here to digest, and a lot to infuriate anyone who wonders how things might have been different had Booth been unsuccessful. Looking back, you can see so many missed opportunities to thwart the plot. A century and a half later, we’re still feeling the repercussions of the events of April 14-15, 1865. The backlash begins in that 24-hour period, and Jim Bishop does an informative and riveting job of telling us about it.


46. The One Hundred Ninety-Nine Steps

Author: Michel Faber
Genre: Fiction/Novella
Pages: 107
Rating: *** (out of 5)

There are some books that I read and finish, and then say “hmmm, I think I need a while to process this in order to understand it.” This is one of those books. I’m writing the review now anyhow, in the belief that I may never fully understand what just happened here.

The story opens with a nightmare. Every night, the main character has this same nightmare. She’s working on a dig at Whitby and every day requires a climb of (yes, you guessed it) 199 steps. One day she meets a handsome stranger (who I, frankly, didn’t care for) and his gorgeous Finnish Lapphund, Hadrian, who I loved from the moment he appeared. What follows is part mystery, part (I guess) romance, though that was the least understandable portion to me, given that, as I alluded to earlier, I thought this guy was a tool.

The most interesting portion of this is that the lead character is damaged, both physically and emotionally. Through the process of working on this mystery, and of considering her own reactions to situations, the onion begins to be peeled and, she starts to move forward. Not a lot, and not fast, but forward. I believe this is how most of us who have challenges to face tend to deal with them if we’re blessed to attend to them at all.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters here, except the dog. I’m not sure that was the goal. Not everyone we meet in life is likeable. They do, however, all have their own stories.

47. Keaton Comedies
Author: Harold D. Sill
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 64
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

What a darling little book!

Keaton Comedies takes the premise that young Toby meets Buster, and that’s really all you need to know. Buster makes it worthwhile, and the story and illustrations make it special.

There are lots of forgivable errors (if you’re reading this for research purposes into the facts of Buster’s life, you may not understand how research works), but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s fun.

This would make a great bedtime reading aloud book or, if a younger kid is reading on their own, an excellent chapter book that isn’t too demanding but is enjoyable. It provides a great launching pad to viewing Buster’s films, which I heartily encourage anyhow.

48. Gentlemen to the Rescue
Author:  Kalton Lahue
Genre: Film
Pages: 244
Rating: *** (out of five)

This is a classic example of a book being “of its time,” I think. Kalton Lahue wrote this in the 1970s, and the essays reflect his curmudgeonly “get off of my lawn” attitude regarding the changes in cinema and cinemagoers.

Having said that, it’s interesting to see short biographical pieces on people that we still remember today (Valentino, Will Rogers) to those who were not terribly well-remembered but who have enjoyed small resurgences (John Gilbert) to those whose names would only be recognized by hardcore cineastes (Ben F. Wilson). I love silent movies; I love watching them and I love reading about them. Even so, there were people I read about here whose names were completely unfamiliar to me.

The photographs are lovely, and even now, 40 years later, they are not the commonly-seen stills that you would expect for people like John Barrymore or Douglas Fairbanks. It was nice to see some images that were new to me.

This was an interesting “curiosity piece” to read through once, but if I want to know more about people like Milton Sills or Charles Ray, I’ll look to more recently published works.

49: We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors
                                      Who Tended JFK on November 22, 1963
Author:  Allen Childs, MD
Pages: 192
Rating: *** (out of five)

We Were There is an interesting book, for a couple of reasons. It provides eyewitness information as to what happened in the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, and it shows how confusing and chaotic an emergency situation can be, even for those who are used to seeing emergencies. All these people were in the same room, and yet some of their recollections differ slightly from the others.

There was quite a bit of repetition here, sad to say. The room was small and so a lot of the same situations are repeated several times. For instance, one staffer gave the First Lady a glass of water at some point, for which he was thanked. A few other doctors witnessed this, and recounted it in their contributions to this book, which means it was repeated in the text times. This happened with several different stories, which made it rather a numbing read from time to time.

Part of what was fascinating was the collection of photographs included in the book – many of which were taken by one of the medical students (who had skipped a class in order to go to Love Field to see the President and First Lady arrive). The assassination of JFK occurred five years before I was born. I have no first-hand memories of “what I was doing when.” These young men know exactly what they were doing – they were trying to save the life of a man who had, for all intents and purposes, died at Dealey Plaza. For that alone, these reminiscences are worth attention.

50. Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis,
                                 the Last Living Ziegfeld Star
Author: Lauren Redniss
Pages: 184
Rating: ***** (out of five)

It’s a bit misleading to mark this as a graphic novel, given that it is non-fiction, but the way the subject is presented, in photographs with carefully selected text, is visually artistic in the most pleasing of ways.

Doris Eaton lived to be well over 100 years old, and stayed mobile almost to the end of her days (she was sharp as a tack, apparently, right up until her last moment). She saw a great deal of history, and even made some of it in her century of keeping body and soul together while being lovely.

Did you know that she introduced the song Singin’ in the Rain? I didn’t, and apparently she spent many, many years correcting others who assumed that it was Cliff Edwards. She had good reason to remember, given that she loved Nacio Herb Brown and he wrote it for her.

Thanks to the scrapbooks that the whole family kept, and the wonderful adventures that Doris Eaton had, this book is a visual treat. I hope Lauren Redniss does more like this because it was a unique, fascinating way to learn about a life.

I wish everyone a 2016 full of reading, and love, and laughter.  If my new year is anything like the last eight, I suspect mine will have a bountiful helping of each of these.
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Happy New Year!

November 2015 Reads and Reviews

30 November, 2015

I’ve had surprising success in finishing books this month.  It’s somewhat of a miracle given that I’ve also finished one knitting project, got to within spitting distance of the finishing line on another, worked throughout the month on two editing gigs, and got my Christmas shopping whipped into shape.  Whew!  I didn’t realize what all happened in November until I wrote it down!   Add to that the necessities of living (litter boxes don’t clean themselves, sadly), and I’m left wondering how it all came together.

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I had no DNFs this month, but I did have one notable dud.  A nice mix of interesting things, which is always my favorite way to experience books.

On to catching up with the several books I’ve read over the last few months.

50 Books: (42)
25,000 Pages: (13,861)
Historical fiction: (13)
Chunkster (7)

38. Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited
Author:  Molly Haskell
Genre:  Film Criticism and Study
Pages: 234
Rating: **** (out of 5)

I was in turns grateful for, and frustrated by, this analysis of GWTW’s enduring popularity. I loved that Molly Haskell delved not only into the film, but spent a great deal of time parsing the book’s charms and flaws (you usually get one or the other, but not both). Her view of it is similar to mine, which rarely happens, and there were so many noteworthy comments relating to it that, if I were the kind of person who wrote in books, this one would be full of highlighter marks and comments in the margins.

Haskell explains how Mitchell’s life and family members offered excellent basis for the characters and situations in the novel, and how David Selznick and Vivien Leigh gave the novel and the character of Scarlett Technicolor glory. The discussion of Mitchell’s reluctance to include the Klan in her novel (something she ended up doing anyway thanks to the exhortations of her editor friend), and her complicated relationship with the black community, is very interesting. I did feel a bit disappointed that, in her discussion of the kindesses that Mitchell did exhibit, Haskell did not include her many donations that made it possible for black men to attend Morehouse College. She insisted on doing it anonymously at the time, but the story is known now. Haskell missed a rich vein of information there, so we did, too.

The book lets itself down at the end when Haskell delves, deeply, into the feminist angle and how this is the true threat perceived by critics of the novel. I realize that this is Haskell’s bread and butter, but still, yawn. It’s a novel about gumption, love and missed opportunities, written by a lady who was in some ways ahead of her time, and in many others, of her time. That’s where the grey areas exist, and that’s the basis of the fascination many of us have with the story almost 80 years later. I’m not convinced that the reasoning has to be much more complex than that.

39. It’s A Chick Thing: Celebrating the Wild Side of Women’s Friendships
Author: Ame M. Beanland & Emily Terry
Genre: Essays
Pages: 177
Rating: *** (out of 5)

In this interesting little volume, women of all ages discuss the wonderfulness and occasional difficulty of friendships among women. Tales abound of cross-country adventures, support in difficult times and, every once in a while, betrayal. Interspersed are ideas for books to read, movies to watch, and parties to have with your sisters of the heart.

Not all of the essays are winners – as happens in a collection, there are a few that make you say “what the heck did I just read?” For instance, one woman writes of the time that her “friend” comes with her to meet a guy that the author had a mad crush on, and 30 minutes later this “friend” is doing him in the parking lot. The author laughs about it, at the time and then again later. Laughing is not what I would have been doing.

For those of us with networks of women who care about our lives, and about whose lives we care in return, this is a nice little memory jogger. It was fun to dip in and out of between “heavier” reads – I felt like I was taking a peek into other women’s experiences, and I guess I actually was.

40. Flickers
Author: Phillip Rock
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 313
Rating: **** (out of 5)

After being so deeply disappointed by The Passing Bells, I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for Flickers, but gave it a chance simply because it takes place in an era I love – the dawn of the Hollywood era. Flickers is better. Though hampered by some stock characters and a few predictable story patterns, the novel as a whole is (mostly) satisfying and worth the time it took to get into.

E.P. Donovan is sharing his memories of his time as a big-time producer in the silent days. Thankfully, we have the rest of the story to tell us how things *really* happened. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a certain director’s memoirs, where every leading lady he ever worked with loved him passionately, or the many interviews in which Milton Berle claimed that he was every kid that was in every early silent movie.

Phillip Rock comes to this story with some provenance. His father was Joe Rock, who started out as a stuntman and eventually became a producer. Phillip clearly listened carefully when his dad told his stories, because there is inside information here that could only come from the source. I could have done without Billy’s character being referred to as “fat guy” by every single person he meets, and I would have happily dispensed with the innuendo that came straight out of Hollywood Babylon, but it worked. As complete fiction, it worked.

A note about the publication itself. There are an appalling number of typographical errors throughout the edition I read. Starting on Page 2 and continuing to the end, there were many, many errors that a mainstream publisher (such as the one who released this) should be ashamed of. This came out in 1974, when publishers still invested in proofreaders and copy-editors, so there’s really no excuse.

41. Last Letters Home
Author: Tamasin Day-Lewis, Ed.
Genre: History
Pages: 261
Rating: *** (out of 5)

In this collection (there was apparently a documentary that went along with this) several British families share their letters to and from loved ones during times of separation in WWII. There are many, many sad letters, but happy ones, too.

The most poignant are the ones written by people who don’t know that this will be the last time they have a chance to exchange “I love you”s with each other – the chapters that ended with a photograph of the “We regret to inform” telegram were the hardest to read.

My disappointment with the book as a whole stems from the “separation and return” segment; there are several very long, repetitive portions (especially one where a fiance answers all twelve of his fiancee’s letters in one go, and they’re all pretty much the same so he’s just repeating himself) that made me want to skim and skip in order to get to some new information.

I appreciate the inclusion of letters between people for whom things didn’t work out, such as a woman who was so changed by the War that she didn’t feel able to resume her friendship with a man she’d met, and the Brit who decided not to continue his post-War relationship with a German girl due to anti-German feelings back home, though if he’d waited, it would have been alright. I say that I appreciate these because it would have been very easy to only include letters from blissfully married couples or tragically separated sweethearts. Not every wartime romance continued, and those who returned were not always excited to go back to the way things were in 1939.

42. Imitation of Life
Author: Fannie Hurst
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 352
Rating: **** (out of 5)

If you haven’t seen either the 1934 or 1959 versions of Imitation of Life, this review will have some spoilers, because I discuss how the book is different from its cinematic descendants. I am trying to be cagey about the details, but I’m sure something will slip through that might impact your enjoyment, so read on at your own risk.

Imitation of Life is the demonstration of the sad reality that the book is not always better than the movie. Or, in this case, movies. Sometimes, the changes in a screenplay improve a story immeasurably.

In preparation for reading “Born to Be Hurt” which is about the filming of the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, I re-watched the 1934 and 1959 films, and have now read the novel. I rank the three with the novel itself at the bottom.

Bea Pullman is a very young widow and mother forced to make her own way in the world after her husband dies. First, however, we are treated to several chapters on her confusion as to how babies are made, and to the abusive treatment doled out to her by her ridiculous father.

Once she meets Delilah and Delilah moves in, the story gets marginally better, but even when this novel was written this had to be a privileged white woman’s view of how a “loyal” black person would behave. It was very hard to read some of the childish nonsense that Hurst had Delilah say; it’s difficult to read when one’s eyes are rolling so acrobatically.

I found Bea to have as much backbone as a jellyfish. How we are to believe that this character became a mogul is beyond me, given that she can’t even manage to tell the people she loves the simplest of truths, or stand up for herself in even the most basic of ways.

And then there’s Delilah who, in both films, is a strong, loving and honorable person. Here, she’s written as a cartoon – every reference to her is about how moving her “bulk” around is an effort for her, and for everyone who attends to her in her final illness. And there’s the simpering, childish gratitude she displays toward Bea, who has gotten rich on her (Delilah’s) creations and using her face as the trademark. If you have seen the films, (spoiler coming) you know that Delilah dies at the end. In the novel, she dies while quite literally kissing Bea’s feet. Spare me.

That’s just the tip of a very frustrating iceberg. The relationships are shallow, the characters ridiculous. I wanted to see how the novel differed from the films, and now I have. The novel suffers in comparison in just about every way.

 

I’m still working on the two editing gigs, and the knitting continues ever onward (once I get interested in something…) but I’m already well into my first read for December and hope that I’ll be able to follow it with 7 others to reach my goal for the year.  If nothing else, I’ll have fun trying.

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July Thru October 2015 Reads and Reviews

1 November, 2015

Well, it’s been a bit of a while since I got myself in gear and posted my reviews!  Between the chunksters, the knitting, the travel and me just not feeling like it, I needed a breather to get my mojo back.  Well, I’m finally back to steady reading and able to share some progress.

I had two DNFs during this time period; Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett, which would have been the final book in his Century Trilogy, but it just wouldn’t gel for me.  The other was Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years.  I loved the first books in the series, but I’m no longer a fan of the character, so I gave the remaining titles to a friend who is.

On to catching up with the several books I’ve read over the last few months.

50 Books: (37)
25,000 Pages: (12,524)
Historical fiction: (12)
Chunkster (7)

26. An Echo in the Bone
Author:  Diana Gabaldon
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Pages: 820
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

This review assumes that you have read all the Outlander books in the series leading up to this one, and thus know what happened up until now. If you haven’t yet, this is going to spoil some things for you.

Thank heavens for a true return to form! I had has much fun with this one as I did with the first couple of Outlander novels, which is such a relief for me to be able to say.

I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for the readers who grabbed this the day it came out and read it immediately, only to have to wait for years for the next installment. I have Written in My Own Heart’s Blood waiting for me to start later today, and I’m already itching to get to it.

An Echo in the Bone starts where A Breath of Snow and Ashes leaves off, with Brianna and Roger separated from Jamie and Claire, and the American Revolution building up quite a head of steam. There’s a good deal of travel in this one, and we see quite a bit more of Lord John Grey and of William. I admit that I did some skimming in the early chapters that dealt entirely with him, as I considered him rather a dim bulb of a character. As is so often the case, however, the storylines intertwine, at unexpected (and sometimes implausible) places, which makes this all the more fun to read.

Plot twists galore, lots of Jamie and other characters saying “mphm,” but not as many “Jesus H Roosevelt Christs,” I was surprised to see. I suppose when you’re several thousand pages into a series, you’re bound to repeat yourself, and part of Gabaldon’s charm (or her downfall, depending on how you feel about it) is that her characters do a lot of things very often. Jamie rubs the bridge of his long, straight nose. Roger touches the scar on his throat. People pause when eating to close their eyes in bliss. It is what it is. Thankfully, I love it. Now I have to open up the following title and see what happens next. It’s nice to be reading a Gabaldon book (somewhat) shortly after its release. I was very late to this party, but I’m making up for lost time.

27. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood
Author:  Diana Gabaldon
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Pages: 834
Rating: **** (out of 5)

This review assumes that you’ve read books 1 through 7 of the Outlander series, and thus will contain spoilers for those particular novels (though none, if I can help it, for this one).

When we last saw the Frasers and the Mackenzies, Claire had discovered that Jamie was not dead, Jamie discovered that Claire had married Lord John Grey, and William discovered that his daddy wasn’t who he thought he was (though everybody else in the world seems to have figured it out just by seeing them both). Oh, and there was the little detail of Jem being kidnapped in modern-day Scotland.

When I started reading this entry in the series, I was under the impression that it was concluding, but now I see that I must have misheard. There are cliffhangers galore and lots of story yet to be told. The Revolutionary War is still underway and the families have changed in numerous ways. We saw the passing of some beloved characters, and the addition of several welcome ones.

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood took me longer to read (a full month) than I would have liked, and I suspect this is because I got so weighed down with the author’s lengthy descriptions of various medical issues that I just glazed over a bit until we got back to the story. In this one, we are treated to a long, oh my goodness, so long, discussion of the treatment of an eye, among several other gruesome episodes. I also got very, very tired of William’s whining and fecklessness, and wondered how he’d managed to keep himself alive as long as he has, given some of the dopey choices he makes. I would get to a passage featuring him and think “here we go with the whole ‘my life is a lie!’ tedium.” Yes, because having several people completely alter their lives to help you in yours is such cause for alarm. *yawn*

The upshot of all this? I liked it much better than The Fiery Cross, after which I almost gave up on the Outlander series. I wasn’t as thrilled with it as An Echo in the Bone or A Breath of Snow and Ashes, which I thought were a return to form. But let’s face it – even middling Gabaldon is better than most other author’s best, and I’ll be there at the bookshop waiting for the next one in four or five years’ time.

28. Go Set a Watchman
Author: Harper Lee

Genre: Opportunistic Ravaging of Author’s Estate
Pages: 278
Rating: *** (out of 5)

So, I hear back in whenever it was that a “new” novel from Harper Lee is going to be released. I immediately pre-order it. Then I start hearing rumors regarding her ability to approve such a project and the suspicion that her affairs may be mishandled is floating about. I start to be concerned, but I still want to read the book and draw my own conclusions.

Well, now I’ve read it. My adoration of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harper Lee, remains undiminished. TKAM quite literally changed my young life. I learned so much from it. I learned that a fight you’re bound to lose is still worth fighting if the issue is big enough. I learned that, in the eyes of a little girl, her daddy is a god, and if her daddy is a decent man, that’s a good thing.

I think the release of Go Set a Watchman does two things. First, it shows the glimmer of the talent that would be displayed in full in To Kill a Mockingbird. Secondly, it demonstrates just what a treasure a truly good editor is. Tay Hohoff was brilliant, and the lack of her collaboration is glaringly obvious here.

After TKAM came out, Ms. Hohoff contacted Ms. Lee several times, saying “isn’t it time that Mockingbird had a sibling?” Now, if Watchman came first, and planted the seed that became Mockingbird, Hohoff would have seen it. If it had been good enough to be published, even with the polishing it obviously needed, she would have suggested, maybe even insisted, that it be used as the foundation. She didn’t, or if she did, Harper Lee resisted, or else it would have happened back in the early 1960s, but it didn’t. This suggests to me that one or both of them determined that this book was not ready, or good enough, to be released back then. Ms. Hohoff passed away many years ago, but Harper Lee is still with us, and has been sharp as a tack either up until a few years ago, or up until this very moment, depending on where you get your information.

I get the main thrust of Watchman. These are southern people of their time, Scout does not share their prejudices, and feels rage against the discovery that her god of a daddy is just a man, after all. Those who read this and only get “Atticus is a racist” are not only incorrect but missing the point of the story. The point is that good and right-minded people sometimes have to engage in hypocrisy in order to get along, and that the South needs people like her to plant little seedlings of dissent among the White noise. What is happening here is that Scout is no longer seeing her father through the eyes of a child, and she is becoming her own woman, with ideas separate from those of the previous generation.

Is the story handled with the subtle grace and simple beauty of that in To Kill a Mockingbird? No. Not even close. Could the stewardship of Tay Hohoff, working in collaboration with Harper Lee, have made that happen? Not only possible, but likely. At the very least, she would have corrected the continuity error of stating that Atticus got an acquittal for the man whose trial forms the focal point for TKAM. But since, for whatever reason, neither of them determined to polish and release this 50 years ago, we’ll never know what it might have been if its rough edges had been smoothed and its glimmers of genius nurtured into bonfires. As Watchman stands, it is an interesting glimpse into the growth process of an author.

29. The Exile
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Genre: Graphic Novel
Pages: 224
Rating: *** (out of 5)

I’m an Outlander fan, but haven’t read many graphic novels, so I thought this might be a “me-friendly” way to broaden my horizons. It was, well, okay. It’s been a long time since I read the first Outlander novel, so I was confused, at first, by seeing characters I hadn’t thought about in some time. Once I got my bearings, I enjoyed the experience. I would suggest that if you want to see what a graphic novel is like, this might be a nice place to start. It won’t make much sense, I don’t think, if you’re not familiar with Outlander. I’m glad I gave it a go, but equally glad that I got the book at a discount.

30. Picture
Author: Lillian Ross

Genre: Film History
Pages: 219
Rating: *** (out of 5)

Lillian Ross knew how to put words together and make them magical. Thank goodness for that, or I would have given up on this book at page 10. As it is, it took me more than two months to get through just over 200 pages, and though I am a slow reader, I’m rarely *that* slow.

Picture is about the making, from idea to release, of The Red Badge of Courage, starring Audie Murphy as the young soldier terrified at his first battle. The film was not a success, and some of the inside information provided here may explain why.

The problem I had was that this story is so “inside baseball” that I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough to slog a little further. Perhaps if I’d adored the film it was about, I might have been more interested. Even if it had been Gone with the Wind (my favorite film) my eyes might have glazed over a bit at the minute discussion of scoring every frame of film and the endless cutting and re-cutting of the same scenes.

I found it fairly interesting that once John Huston finished directing the film and had handed it off to the editors and musicians and publicity department, he pretty much checked out and moved on to his next project. Only dogged determination kept me from doing the same.

If you are a filmmaker, or you are deciding which branch of filmmaking to go into, and would like a detailed look at how a film got from page to screen during the last gasp of the Studio Era, this is going to be invaluable to you. For those of us who just want to sit in the dark, have a little popcorn, and enjoy the show, it might just be a bit much.

31. The Bedford Boys: One Small Town’s D-Day Sacrifice
Author:  Alex Kershaw
Genre:  Military History
Pages: 240
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Bedford, Virginia was a small community just outside of Roanoke, with nothing special about it compared to other communities of the pre-WWII era. Loving families and young men who joined the CCC and the National Guard to earn money during the Depression. Farmers and factory workers and folks just trying to get by.

D-Day changed everything for Bedford, and the reverberations are still being felt by the people who were living there then, and who are descended from them.

Bedford is the community in the United States that lost the most people in any one day during the War. Because the National Guard was formed into the Army units that served, this meant that units seeing action were sometimes formed entirely of people from the same communities. Sometimes these groups included family members. During heavy combat, you can imagine what will happen. Back in Bedford, the dreaded telegrams came, and came, and came after the 6th of June, 1944.

Alex Kershaw shines a light on the boys who left Bedford for England in order to serve their country. He tells us what their training was like, the horrors they saw even before they got to England, and how they attempted to cope with the unmitigated carnage of Omaha Beach. If you think PTSD is a new thing, you’d be mistaken.

Back at home, Kershaw tells us what it was like for the families who were left behind. How nerve-wracking it was to wait for news and not know if your loved one was still alive, and then the abject, unsoothable grief that came along with the telegram.

There were men who survived, and were forever changed. There were men who never even made it to the beach. There were families whose lives became calendars of “before D-Day” and “after D-Day.” The connecting thread is Bedford itself, where the National D-Day Memorial is fittingly located and where these young men are still fondly remembered. Thanks to Alex Kershaw and his beautifully-written, fascinating and heartbreaking book, their stories will continue to be told.

32. Yes Please
Author:  Amy Poehler
Genre:  Memoir
Pages: 329
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

Thanks to the folks at BookRiot (advertising works, kids), I dipped my toe into audio territory by trying a memoir that is read by the author. Rebecca Schinsky suggested this one, numerous times, so off I went.

Thank you so much, Rebecca. Not only do we hear from Amy herself, but there are numerous guest voices (including her parents) and even a “live” segment wherein she talks a bit and then reads a chapter for a roomful of people.

This is “sort of” a memoir, and at times it is laugh-out-loud funny, but that isn’t really the vibe I got from it as a listener. Amy uses her own experiences as a jumping-off point to offer a bit of advice to other women, and to the men who love them.

I’m only a few years older than Amy. My cultural landmarks are almost exactly the same. I certainly have had different experiences from hers, but there’s enough similarity for me to have routinely said “yes!” as I was listening to her tell her story.

I recommend this book if you were a Parks and Rec fan. I recommend this book if you are a woman in your 40s (or anywhere else in your journey, for that matter). I recommend this book if you are new to audio and would like to get your feet wet. I recommend this book – period.

33. The March

Author:  E.L. Doctorow
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Pages: 363
Rating: ***** (out of 5)
 The genius behind Ragtime takes on Sherman’s March to the Sea in this novel. It’s Doctorow, so of course it’s good. As I said to one of my friends recently, he used words the way composers use musical notes.

There is a large ensemble at play here. There are the soldiers, of course, the freed slaves, the two fugitive Confederates and the various other characters with whom they interact over the course of 360 or so pages. There is some very light comic relief before terrible carnage, and some beautiful prose that attempts to leaven the sheer butchery that made up hand-to-hand combat in those last days of the War.

Reading The March reminds me why I miss E.L. Doctorow, and will continue to do so. Writing this lovely doesn’t come along terribly often, and because of that fact, it should be treasured. I treasure Doctorow.

34. Keystone
Author:  Peter Lovesey
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Pages: 186
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

It’s difficult to find a novel about the early days of Hollywood that gets certain bits right. Either it’s all played for “oh look at the quaint old-timey filmmakers,” or it’s anachronistically modern. Peter Lovesey managed to hit just the right note to make this story entertaining, but not silly or implausible.

Keystone is actually a solemn young man named Easton, who is renamed by his new boss, Mack Sennett. As the newest of the Keystone Cops, he is on the periphery as a gruesome death occurs on set during the filming of a Mabel Normand comedy. That’s just the beginning. From there we are treated to layers of intrigue, secrets and separated loyalties.

From the lovely way that Roscoe (his friends never called him “Fatty”) Arbuckle is portrayed to the depiction of the landscape of Southern California one hundred years ago, Keystone is fun, funny, interesting and a thoroughly commendable offering to keep one entertained on a rainy afternoon.

35. The Reaper
Author:  Peter Lovesey
Genre:  Crime Fiction
Pages: 310
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

I do love a dark story without a Hays-Code like finish, and thanks to Peter Lovesey (and my husband, who recommended this read) I got to read this one. It’s not as darkly comic as some other novels I’ve read, but it’s just subversive enough to scratch that itch and make me think “oh, now *that’s* pretty damned clever” at least once each chapter.

Otis Joy is the rector of a church in Foxford. He’s extremely popular with the parishioners, and the ladies find him especially interesting. He always has an interesting story, a humorous anecdote, or a beautiful sermon up his sleeve.

What we learn pretty early on, however, is that the good reverend has a secret, and he’s willing to do anything to protect it. The book starts with a murder, and the bodies keep piling up.

I often say in my reviews that one of the things I hate is knowing what’s going to happen 100 pages in advance. That didn’t happen with this novel. As a matter of fact, there were sometimes things I didn’t see coming from the next paragraph. That almost never happens to me – as a matter of fact, I can’t think of the last time I’ve been so consistently surprised by a storyteller. It makes me want to seek out other Lovesey titles – if they’re anything like The Reaper and, before that in my reading, Keystone, I should be pretty happy.

36. Shocking True Story
Author:  Henry E. Scott
Genre:  Film and Magazine History
Pages: 222
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

I love gossip. Old-time movie gossip, anyhow. I couldn’t care less about that family that begins with the letter “K,” or how some dopey singer ended up in jail. It’s boring. The reason it’s boring is that it’s all been done before. Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton? Both heiresses and famous for their disastrous personal lives – hmm, I wonder why that sounds familiar…

Believe it or not, there weren’t a lot of venues for hearing about the seamier side of a celeb’s life. They were mostly underground, and highly coded. Then came Confidential and it’s many, many copycats and descendants. Confidential managed to stay out of court for a surprisingly long time for two reasons: (1) they fact-checked the heck out of their stories, at least at first; and (2) they didn’t print everything they knew, so there was always something even more embarrassing in the coffers should the stories have to be vetted in open court. It wasn’t until they got sloppy in the fact-checking that things got bad for them, both in the courts and in circulation numbers, but by then, the damage had been done. We have only to look at our own newsagents for titles such as Hello! and The Enquirer for proof. Then, as now, celebrities and sex sell magazines, as Confidential discovered the first time they put a story about Marilyn Monroe on their cover.

But first there was Confidential, with its stories of gay actors and actresses, inter-racial (gasp) relationships, and secret Communists. One of the most famous stories was about the “wrong door raid” that Joe DiMaggio (and Frank Sinatra, and several others) conducted, when they busted down the door on an apartment where they *thought* Marilyn Monroe was trysting. Inside was a very frightened lady who was definitely not Marilyn.

Confidential ended some careers and boosted others, depending on the person being discussed. (Nothing was really going to dim Marilyn’s star, but a white actress photographed out on the town with Sammy Davis Jr. saw her budding career disappear). In some cases, deals were made between PR agents and writers in order to sacrifice lower-rung stars for the promise of protection for higher-value targets. You can have Tab Hunter if you don’t say anything about Rock Hudson, for instance.

In this short, very informative and interesting look at not only the stories that Confidential printed, but at the people who wrote them and the man at the helm, Henry Scott has offered a fascinating window into how our current celebrity gawking and Schadenfreude is nothing new. The faces are different, but the stories remain the same.

37. Every Year: Short Stories
Author: Short Stories
Pages: 73
Rating: **** (out of 5)

The unifying theme (barring one story) in this collection is love. Finding it, losing it, celebrating its long duration.

I sometimes find when I read a short story or essay collection that there’s nothing that ties the tales together. I have to have the frame of mind at the end of one story that will allow me to be receptive to the next. For the most part, Every Year fulfilled this remit.

My favorite stories, The Calling and Celebrating Mum, were utterly beautiful to me. Stories of long and full and mostly happy lives. Twenty-Four Minutes spoke to me in that it described a situation I have seen (and lived) more than once. Actually, now that I think of it, The End was similarly moving for this reason.

As with so many collections, there were a couple of clunkers. All the stories were interesting to some degree, but at least one, The Production Line, seemed misplaced. There was nothing in it that spoke to the themes present in the other offerings. Cecilia Ahern has rarely disappointed me, but here she has me a bit confused.

I’ve already finished my first book of November, so at least there will be that one to share on December 1.  It’s a good start.

Why I Say (in an Opinionated Fashion) That There’s No Such Thing as Objectivity in Book Reviews

25 October, 2015
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Caveat:  I have not attended university and have no training in critical dissemination.  Those who have taken classes regarding “how to be objective” will have different mileage, I’m sure, but I’m functioning in the world, not a classroom and this post is based on my personal experiences in reading both paid and freely-shared reviews.

I often tell a story about a movie that came out in 1992.  It was called Singles, and I watched it when it first came out and thought to myself “what a bunch of losers.”  This was when I was married and in a settled (or so I thought) life.  I saw it again a few years later, after my divorce and after at least one year of being on the dating hamster wheel.  My reaction during the second viewing?  “I’ve done that.”

SinglesCoverI tell that story again in order to demonstrate just why I don’t think an “objective” review is a possibility, even among the most elite of critics.  We each bring a lifetime of experiences to the things we view, read or listen to, and that can’t help but color our impressions of them.  We also have a lifetime of biases and preconceived notions, whether we choose to admit it or not.

Add to this the sheer volume that a professional critic might be subjected to in the course of a career, and you can imagine how jaded that person would become, and thus how hard to impress.  Patton Oswalt talks about when he was an uber movie watcher – he describes himself of being addicted to the experience.  Because he saw so much, there were things that irritated him that a casual viewer might never even notice (but may now because of what I put in the next sentence).  In just about every chase scene, someone knocks over a flower cart.  I didn’t realize that until he said it in an interview, but now it’s glaringly obvious in almost every action movie I see (granted, I don’t see a lot of them, but still).

This may be why I hear more and more often that book wonks, who read lots of new releases and old favorites, don’t often read paid reviews.  I include myself in this cross-section of readers.  I will note what the new releases are, but I can’t remember the last time I read a paid review.  Far more important to me are the opinions of people who actually know me, know my history and have an idea of what I’ve liked in the past.  The things the critics like will speak to what they’ve personally brought to the story, and I’d like to have some concept of what the story might bring to me.

Not Possible

Not Possible

For instance, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, several years ago.  As a childfree feminist who was born during (and thus was too young to take part in) the bra burning women’s rights era, but was the “marriage and family” years just when it was becoming slightly more accepted for women to choose their own path, I brought my own experiences to reading the novel and got, I’m very sure, something different from it than would, say, a woman with children, or a woman who would have loved to have children but struggled with infertility.  I can only believe that a man reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale upon its release would have yet another reaction.  We can’t escape our preexisting biases and experiences, no matter how hard we try.

BenchleyReviewThere are certain metrics that authors worthy of publication should reach.  The work should be one’s own and should be spelled correctly.  If it’s non-fiction it should consist of actual facts and not fantasies dreamed up by the author after a night of red wine and Klonopin.  If there is a hint of beauty (which gets us into subjective territory) in the prose to go along with the bones of the story, so much the better.  What I find beautiful may vary wildly from what critics for Kirkus or The Guardian might recommend.  In a boilerplate world, where you can *pay* to have your book reviewed, I’d prefer to hear from those whose pleasure in reading is the act itself, and want to share their latest discoveries with me.  I’ve had far more luck finding favorite reads thanks to a friend saying “you would love this” than I ever have by following those who are paid to persuade me.

Lucy&Ethel

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