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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.


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.


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

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.


Knowing When to Say When

8 October, 2015

After time in school, when I had to finish whatever I was reading no matter how dull or pointless it was, I spent the next several years maintaining a pattern of starting a book, finding out it wasn’t for me, and finishing it anyway.  Then I woke up.

For about the last eight years, I’ve given myself a fairly flexible rule of 50 pages to find out if a book is worth continuing with or not.  I’ve made a big deal about having this “50-page rule” with regard to my reading.  Sometimes I’ve given up about four pages in, and sometimes I’ve quit after 200.  Guilt free.  Then I started reading Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett.

I love Ken Follett.  In particular, I loved his Pillars of the Earth/World Without End duo.  I started the trilogy that begins with Fall of Giants.  Loved that book so much.  Then moved on to Winter of the World.  I liked that, too, but not as much.  Then came Edge of Eternity.  Gah.

I gave this almost two months, and got through almost half of it.  I’m a slow reader, but even I can manage more than 200 pages a month.  I realized the problem wasn’t distractions, chores or other demands on my time.  It was the book itself.

Generational saga, supposedly, but the characters are so far removed from their predecessors that I couldn’t determine how their stories related to the previous novels.  The situations were so trite, and the storyline so predictable that I found myself saying “oh, come ON!” at least once a chapter.  I kept trying, though.  It’s Ken Follett.  It’s a generational saga.  It’s a chunkster.  My bells should all be ringing.  Silence.

So, much as I hated to, I did something I never thought I’d do.  I gave up on Ken Follett (for this novel, anyhow).  And for the first time since I imposed the “50-Page Rule,” I felt guilt.  The guilt is lifting, though.  I need to remind myself that if a book is not entertaining or interesting to me, that’s not my problem.  It’s time to move on and not feel shame about that.

ItsYouBack to the stacks it goes, and on to something else I will meander.  I must remember, and remind myself with a neon sign if necessary, that if whatever book I’m reading isn’t ticking the boxes, I should be reading a different book.  And so I shall.

May & June 2015 Reads and Reviews

3 July, 2015

I’ve been catching up on my Diana Gabaldon, which is enjoyable.  The downside of this is that because her books are such chunksters and I’m such a slow reader, I manage maybe one a month.  Doesn’t make for very scintillating totals on my books read (though the page count is pretty cool).


On to the three reviews for the month:

50 Books: (25)
25,000 Pages: (8,426)
Historical fiction: (7)
Chunkster (5)

23. Grant
Author: Max Byrd
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 362
Rating: ** (out of 5)

If I were asked to pay for this book on the basis of how much of it is actually about Ulysses S. Grant, I’d ask for 80% of my money back. So here’s the thing. I buy a book called “Grant.” My copy has an impressive image of the man himself on the cover. Even the endpapers lead me to believe that the book is about one of the most fascinating, and yet elusive, figures of the 19th century.

Not so much.

He’s here, don’t get me wrong. He’s discussed in absentia by other characters. He’s sometimes glimpsed at a gathering while others speak. In the second half of the book, we occasionally get chapters wherein the action includes him (imagine that). By and large, however, the story concerns a Civil War veteran, now journalist, who lost his arm at Cold Harbor, and an embittered jerk whose only claim to fame is that he is the grandson and great-grandson of presidents. There are also his far more interesting wife (of whom I would have liked to see more if, you know, the book hadn’t been sold as a novel about U.S. Grant), and a drunken senator who, along with his arm-candy wife, just about bored me to tears. I saw way too much of them, and especially her. Everybody who crosses her path almost immediately falls in love with her. Why that is the case is not something I can come close to understanding.

So, if you would like to read a novel that’s rich in historical detail, with real-life (bar one) characters who actually said and did most of the things that are portrayed, this might be a good read for you. If you want to read a novel that does “what it says on the tin,” like I did, you may wish to look elsewhere.
24. Puddn’head Wilson
Author:  Mark Twain
Genre:  Classic
Pages: 98
Rating: ***** (out of 5)

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this story – I love Mark Twain and haven’t read any of his work that I haven’t enjoyed, but for some reason this one sneaked away from me until now. I’m glad I finally caught up with it. Twain is as instructive (while being entertaining) as any dry historical tome.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is a lawyer who has yet to get a case. He is “different” from the other folks and thus they’re not quite sure what to make of him. He still manages to grow on them a bit over many years, however. At a critical point, one of his silly hobbies proves to be of value.

That’s what this story is about (among other things) – being “different.” The themes present here – greed, bigotry, distrust of “otherness,” mockery of science – are all still with us, today. This is a sad truth, but it remains truth nonetheless. Mark Twain saw it more than a century ago; he’d see it today, too.
25. A Breath of Snow and Ashes
Author:  Diana Gabaldon
Genre:  Generational Saga, Series
Pages: 980
Rating: **** (out of 5)

This review assumes that you have read the previous five books in the Outlander Series and are thus familiar with what’s happened to the characters so far.

Another reviewer here at GoodReads wrote a review that I loved. She played a drinking game in which she had a slug of whisky whenever Claire said “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ” or Jamie rubbed the bridge of his nose. I don’t think I’d noticed just how often these two things happened, but I certainly notice them now!

I’ve stayed with the Fraser family now for several thousand pages, all told, and it’s mostly been a rewarding experience. Yes, there are flights of fancy that test my ability to suspend belief to the extreme, and yes, Gabaldon’s need to demonstrate that she has indeed done a great deal of medical and historical research can become a bit of a drag, but in general, the arc is an interesting one.

Here we are faced with life on Fraser’s Ridge and the ever-closer drumbeats of the Revolutionary War. Thanks to Claire, Jamie knows which side to be on, but that doesn’t make his life any easier. Throw in kidnappings, rampant theft and at least a few deaths, and you’ve got yourself an entry in the series.

I almost gave up on the Outlander series after The Fiery Cross, but I’m glad I didn’t. I see A Breath of Snow and Ashes as a return to form. A form where I might skim through several pages of Claire treating a hemorrhoid in 18th century fashion, but a form that I still enjoy reading. I may complain about how my slow reading keeps me from finishing these in less than a month, but I’ve already started the next one.

I had hoped to finish the next one, An Echo in the Bone, by June 30, but it looks like I’ll finish it on Independence Day.  For a book that takes place largely during the American Revolution, this seems somehow appropriate.  Have a wonderful July, everyone.

And now, because July 4 is, more importantly, Atticus’s birthday, here is my very favorite photo of him, with his human Daddy.


365 Good Things – A Cessation

17 June, 2015

So, here’s the thing.  I love noticing the Good Things in my life.  It is true that if you focus on what’s missing from your life, you’ll never have enough, but if you focus on your blessings, you will usually feel their abundance.

However, what I’m not loving is the obligation (self-imposed) of documenting something each day, and trying to find a way to illustrate it.  It started as pure joy, but it is becoming a chore, and that’s the opposite of what this project was meant to be.

time-to-rest-15617830My blog will still be a (mostly) positive space.  I’ll still share my little joys and blessings.  I just won’t do it as a daily post that makes me stressed and steals the enjoyment of the Good Thing that made it possible in the first place.  Hopefully, my little group of subscribers won’t mind.

And now, to step outside into the sunshine, without feeling a guilty drumbeat that chants “blog it, blog it.”

365 Good Things – June 15

15 June, 2015

Staying in bed to finish my book.

reading-in-bedToday, usually, is chore day.  But I had only about 60 pages before I got to the end of my current book, and I wanted to finish that more than I wanted to deal with the laundry (go figure).  I stayed in bed, and snuggled up comfortably, and read my book.  I’m still aware of what a marvelous thing it is to be able to do what I want at times of my own choosing.  I felt slightly (but only slightly) guilty tucked away with the Fraser Family, but the guilt was far outweighed by the happy.


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