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Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.07

I’m only reviewing two books in this edition of the Book Blather. I did read a third book in July, but it’s thematically similar to the one I’m reading now, so I’m planning to put them together in a special blather sometime in the first half of August.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith. Honestly, I’m having a bit of a hard time figuring out how to review this book. Partly, it’s because I should really write the review of each book soon after I finish reading it, perhaps giving it a few days to digest, but not waiting to get through another few books and then write it up at the end of the month. Since finishing Brooklyn, I’ve read another powerful book that I have lots to say about, and now I’m finding this one almost too far gone. I try to write the reviews promptly, but sometimes that’s harder than others. However, on the other hand, part of the reason I didn’t start the review right away is that I wasn’t sure what to say even at that early point.

I enjoyed Brooklyn. It was a great way to learn about the social context of living in poverty in the immigrant slums of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century. The book is primarily a coming of age story about Francie Nolan, but we also learn so much about lives of her immigrant grandparents and first-generation American parents and aunts.

Although they live on the edge for most of Francie’s childhood, without much to eat, few personal possessions, and sometimes without heat for the apartment, the Nolans are never homeless thanks primarily to Francie’s mother Katie, who works hard as a cleaning woman, securing a room in a tenement as payment for that work. Johnny, Francie’s father, is a beautifully-hearted young man, but an alcoholic who can’t hold down a job and makes money as an occasional swinging waiter. His will be a short life.

Although Johnny is not dependable and is, in many ways, a failure while Katie keeps the family going, both parents teach Francie and Neeley, her brother, valuable, though different, lessons. Katie teaches hard work and discipline, perseverance and making the most of what you’ve got, while Johnny teaches joy and compassion, beauty and empathy. I think one prime example of this is the role of music in the book. Upon moving into a new building, the Nolans inherit a piano that the prior tenants can’t afford to move. Katie notices a pair of spinster sisters downstairs give piano lessons and she barters with them to get lessons for herself in return for her cleaning services. Katie has Francie and Neeley sit in the room with her while she has her lessons, then they all practice, with Katie trying to impart all she’s learned, once the formal lesson is over. The piano teacher isn’t fooled by the 3-for-1 attempt, but allows it to continue. Through these machinations and efforts, Katie and her children learn to play the piano.

Meanwhile, music comes easy to Johnny who simply lives with it in his soul. It is a part of his world, and he sings to announce his arrival home in the evenings. His singing is a predominant memory in Francie’s childhood. It is a simple gift that brings joy and beauty to an otherwise harsh existence.

The juxtaposition of working hard to better oneself through learning, and recognizing and creating the beauty in your own existence pretty much sums up the twin lessons Francie takes from her parents.

Johnny also teaches Francie to feel compassion and empathy for others and not to judge them. Once when a prostitute approaches Johnny, Francie asks if she was a bad lady because she looked bad. Johnny told Francie, “There are very few bad people. There are just a lot of people that are unlucky.”

The structure of the book is a little strange. It begins with an in-depth detailing of a day in the life of young Francie, then moves into a section that seems primarily like a series of vignettes, barely woven together, or even necessarily chronological, as the years pass and Francie becomes a young woman. Perhaps this is intentional since memories of childhood may be more about moments than about having a through line.

Francie has to leave school after middle school so that she can get a job when her father dies, and here the book turns back into a more chronological telling of the story. She has to pretend to be 16 for 2-3 years before her 16th birthday in order to get those jobs, but she is able to support her family and they live more securely than they ever have before, as Francie moves into white collar office work thanks to the education on which her parents always placed value. Working full-time on the night shift, Francie helps take care of her baby sister during the morning while her mother cleans the tenement, then takes classes through the local college’s summer program in the afternoon. After failing the exam that would allow her to officially enroll in college without her high school diploma, Francie studies Neeley’s high school textbooks, learning all she now knows is on the test so that she can pass it later and continue with her schooling by the end of the book.

Brooklyn is the quintessential novel of the American Dream. Poor immigrants who can’t speak English raise their first generation American children, who live a poor, but slightly better, life due to the minimal education they’ve been able to get in the public schools (minimal because they had to leave early to start working). The grandchildren of the immigrants then find a path out of poverty through their own access to education and the hard work they all exhibit throughout. It’s one of those great American stories that you read and wonder if it’s still possible today.

Access to education through the public school system is obviously an incredibly important theme in the book, but so is the acknowledgement that not all schools are created equal. To allow Francie to enroll in a better school than the one in her neighborhood, Johnny writes a letter to her principal saying that Francie needs to transfer to a school a couple of miles away because she’s going to live with relatives at a random address they’ve selected near the new school. Francie walks back and forth to the school every day, including coming home for lunch, and never gets in trouble so that the school will never have a reason to send a letter to that address. It’s a small fraud on Johnny’s part, and one which is easily perpetrated in those days before report cards being mailed home and databases tracking students. As Smith writes, “It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable.”

In all of this, it’s a very worthwhile book, but I had a hard time feeling really connected to any of the characters. Yes, I got a little teary-eyed when Johnny died, but there were no really intense feelings and, honestly, the effect of a papa’s death on a little girl should have me sobbing. Somehow the book held its distance from me. It almost felt like I was watching a documentary. Perhaps Smith spent too much time describing the life the Nolans were living rather than the thoughts and feelings they had about it.

Definitely worth reading, but I didn’t find it carried a huge punch.

The Prince of Tides – Pat Conroy. This book selection was made at the overwhelming recommendation of my parents, who have described their love of Pat Conroy books and asked if I’d read one yet multiple times since I started my reading commute. Well, honestly, meh.

I spoke with my parents one weekend when I was about a third of the way into the book and my mom told me she had started reading the Ann Patchett book I blathered on about back in the May post. Her main comment was that Patchett would never use one word if five would do.

I literally laughed out loud, because that is my exact perception of Conroy, except instead of five words, he’ll use five sentences. There were pages and pages of descriptive paragraphs that just seemed to go on and on without adding much more to the feel of the scene.

As for the characters, I loved Luke and Tolitha, their grandmother, but I found the adult Savannah (as told through Tom’s remembrances) to be pretty annoying, actually. It’s certainly not that she was a victim. It’s that she was a holier-than-thou martyr, constantly telling Tom how much better she was than him since she’d moved to New York, and dismissing him as someone who didn’t know how it was “to be a woman in this world”. Tom was fine.

I did enjoy reading the stories about the family’s past and Tom’s childhood, and found those sections flowed very well and the dialogue worked. However, the dialogue of adult Tom and the characters in “present” day felt rather contrived.

I always knew what the big reveal was since I had seen the movie, but it was so many years ago that I remembered very little else, including having no memory of Luke’s unfortunate end – was that even in the movie? All that’s to say that I don’t think I was much influenced by the fact that I saw the movie first.

Well, to each their own I guess. Patchett for me and Conroy for my parents!

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.06

When I first started the monthly Book Blather, I thought consolidating a full month of reviews in one blog post was the way to go. I thought I’d only be writing a few sentences about each and that way I’d have one solid post. As it turns out, I have more to say. Shocking! These reviews are rather long. Perhaps I should reconsider the consolidation?

As the Poppies Bloomed – Maral Boyadjian. Note to self: a love story set during a genocide is unlikely to have happy ending. Damn, this book. . . I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I was almost wholly unfamiliar with the Armenian Genocide. Perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising. Looking into it a bit more after reading the book, it seems that this is not entirely uncommon and it may be, partially, to do with the fact that Turkey will not admit such a thing occurred and that Turkey is an important ally of the U.S. So, perhaps it’s maybe glossed over in history classes. After all, the early 20th century has enough drama to teach about, what with WWI and all. At any rate, I was unprepared for this book.

It follows the lives of teenagers Anno and Daron, and their families and village during the late Ottoman Empire. The first half of the book is a charming portrayal of village life and the blossoming romance between Anno and Daron. The characters are beautifully drawn and you fall in love with them all. The writing isn’t perfect. There are some quick shifts and jumps between characters, and the author’s use of an omniscient point of view sometimes made it difficult to follow those jumps. I found myself having to pause and take a minute to realize whose point of view I’d shifted to, before the narrative shifted quickly back again to a more central character.

There are also a couple of seemingly superfluous characters. One entire chapter early on focuses on a bee keeper, but I think his character only made one, maybe two, brief appearances later in the narrative, so I was never quite certain why he warranted that initial section.

Finally, the dialogue felt very stilted and formal. However, not being at all familiar with the way people spoke to each other in that time and place, I’m entirely willing to allow that it may be an accurate representation of the forms of speech of the area, time, culture, and dialect.

There are shadows of the coming conflict throughout the first half of the book. Anno and Daron’s village is Christian and, therefore, under suspicion and subject to mistreatment by their Muslim Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. The shadows grow deeper until finally the genocide boils over and threatens the village and its families. Going into the end of the story, as the danger comes closer and closer to the remote village, what you think is going to happen isn’t what happens. It’s worse. It’s heartbreaking. Have a tissue ready. Or a whole box.

This book strikes me as very timely, indeed, as we discuss once again, in what seems to be a never-ending cycle, a refugee crisis. And while I would hope no one would read this book and limit their thinking to the specific religious groups in conflict, the perpetrators and the victims, I could also totally see that happening. So, while it matters to history that the Armenian Genocide involved Muslims killing Christians, that’s not the point to dwell on for the novel. Because to me (and I know some will disagree vehemently), both are just human constructs that have been used to bludgeon other people for centuries, whether it’s one against the other, or different flavors of each, or involving another religious group as bludgeonee or bludgeoner altogether. The book isn’t about Muslims killing Christians. It’s about a minority group of people, of human beings, just trying to live their lives and being set upon by another group of human beings with their own agenda. It is people being inhuman to other people. The villagers were, could have been, are refugees.

Last December, author George Saunders was being interviewed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and he made a statement that really struck me and has stuck with me ever since. When talking about why books can feel like friends, he said, “Prose, when it’s done right, is like empathy training wheels.”

That statement came back to me in full force as I finished this book. We seriously need more empathy in our world. Reading this book should make you feel empathy. And if you read this book and focus on the specific religions of the historical event, rather than on the truth that those Christian refugees from 1914 are just the same as Syrian refugees today, then you are big time missing the point. And perhaps you need to read more. #standwithrefugees

Well worth reading for insight into another culture, a horrific historical event, and the refugee crisis of the moment. Just be prepared for an ending that will break you.

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller. Set in the years preceding and during the Trojan War, this book follows Patroclus from childhood and details his relationship with Achilles. Apparently the notion that Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship was probably something more than brothers-in-arms is relatively common among classical scholars, with such debate going back to at least Plato’s writings. However, this possibility was certainly not discussed when we were learning about the Trojan War in Catholic high school.

This is a romantic love story that is striking in that it is both unlike anything I’ve ever read before and also just like many books I’ve read before. I have never read a historical romance about a same sex couple before. The book jacket description does not dwell on this particular feature, so I completely missed that the “epic love story” had nothing to do with Helen of Troy. Patroclus goes to live with Achilles as a foster child to Achilles’ father, and the two boys become close friends. As the narrative unfolded, I kept thinking basically, “Huh. That seems like an odd way for Patroclus to describe Achilles. This is almost like a romance novel.”

Well, duh, that’s exactly what it was. I did figure it out before too much time had passed (and certainly before their first kiss), so, while I was clueless going in, I’m not completely obtuse. But it was a beautiful love story, in which the homosexual nature of it was only an issue in that Achilles’ mother did not approve. But even this could have been replaced in a different version of a romance with, let’s say, a Duke disapproving of his son’s relationship with a commoner.

Told from Patroclus’ point of view, the story is extremely easy to read and I know more about Achilles’ role in the Trojan War than I did before reading the book, as well as the other well-known names of Odysseus and Agamemnon. My memory of learning about the Trojan War in school focused much more on Helen as the face that launched a thousand ships and on the wooden horse, both of which are quickly glossed over in this book.

Of course everyone knows it doesn’t end well for Achilles, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Patroclus knows it doesn’t end well for him either. It isn’t a particularly happy ending as they shuffle off their mortal coils, but the book concludes with a moment of redemption and immortal peace that takes the edge off what was looking like a pretty bleak conclusion to their story.

An Inheritance of Ashes – Leah Bobet. The story is a mix of post-apocalyptic and supernatural, I guess is the term, in that the external conflict is generated by what seems to be a hole between parallel universes. It’s set at the tail end of a war that has been fought, and apparently won, against some mysterious Wicked God Southward. The cities have fallen, but that happened years earlier and not as a result of the current war. The main character is Hallie, who is desperately trying to manage running the family farm with her older sister, Marthe.

But what this novel is really about is the long legacy of child abuse and how it can warp and corrupt a person’s relationships and ability to communicate well past the abuse itself. It’s about being afraid every day that your older sister could someday become violent, or worse, that you yourself could turn out to have the same horrible rage that seems to run in the family. It’s about a person’s inability to ever fully connect or commit or even be physically close to another person for any length of time, because you have, for years, kept a bag half packed and have been ready to leave at any moment because you just know that moment will come eventually.

I have read several other reviews of this book by people who just didn’t get it for some reason that I can’t explain. Some people complain because Marthe is so “mean” to Hallie and is so unlikeable. They don’t seem to get that both Hallie and Marthe are damaged by the history of their father’s physical and mental abuse. Neither of them can communicate well with each other and, since the book is told from Hallie’s point of view, Marthe’s actions and words are tainted by Hallie’s interpretation of them, weighed down not just by Marthe’s baggage but by Hallie’s as well. And let’s not forget that Hallie is 16-years-old and, let’s be honest, 16-year-old girls can be volatile and, at times, logically challenged. And Marthe is 7-8 months pregnant and has just lost her husband in the war. So, yes, she’s probably a bit volatile, too. Both characters are just trying to hold their shit together.

Other reviewers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on with the Wicked God Southward or the Twisted Things until close to the end of the novel or even the fact that it was set in a post-apocalyptic North America as opposed to, inexplicably, being a Civil War novel. For the latter, seriously? Just pay attention. For the former, seriously? Have you never read a quest fantasy novel before? The Wicked God Southward and the Twisted Things aren’t clearly explained from the start because the novel’s characters don’t clearly understand what has happened either. It’s okay that you don’t understand at first because the reader is figuring out what is happening right along with the characters. From Wheel of Time to The Game of Thrones, that’s fairly standard questing right there.

I won’t explain what the Wicked God Southward or the Twisted Things turn out to be, because you should read it yourself, but in case it needs to be said, they are also metaphors. Pay attention to them and what they turn out to be. They aren’t just “monsters”. And if they were fully described and explained at the start, before you really got a feel for what the book is about, they wouldn’t have the same revelatory impact anyway. It’s almost as though the author had a plan all along!

Okay, that all sounds harsh, I suppose, but I was really surprised by the number of “I don’t get it” reviews out there, and it disappoints me a bit because this is a layered book about complex communication and emotion and I think it’s worth a read. Is it perfect or the most awesome thing ever? No, but it’s different and original and really high quality.

Other things I really liked about the book: in many respects society has continued to develop in a good direction past the fall of the old cities. Life’s still hard and people still aren’t perfect, but there are married homosexual couples that simply exist and aren’t at all remarkable or remarked upon; multi-racial families are the norm; and all religions are accepted just fine (except maybe the one that is hell-bent on destroying the world to make way for the Wicked God, that is).

Also, I noted in my reviews of the McCaffrey Pern books that I was bothered by the overall role of women in Pernese society – that, as the people of Pern had lost knowledge and technology and became a more pastoral society, the women had fallen back into a submissive “traditional” role, in spite of the fact that the women who first came to Pern were scientists. Well, there’s none of that in this book. The great cities may have fallen, technology has been lost, and people are just trying to survive, but women are on equal footing as men. The problems Marthe and Hallie experience with the Mayor and the other good people of town have much more to do with their youth upon inheriting the farm and the fact that their father was an asshole than with the idea of women owning and running a farm on their own.

The other thing I really liked about this book has to do with the romance part of it. “Ick, blech, romance? After all that, you’re going to settle on the romance part.” Well, yes, I am, because it’s different, too. It’s slow and respectful as Hallie and the neighbor boy start to explore their feelings for each other, but the important part is a message repeated a few times in the book. Hallie, as I mentioned earlier, has a bit of trouble with relationships, communication, and physical contact. When Tyler asks if he can kiss her, she hesitates and thinks to herself, “You can say no… it doesn’t have to mean never.” Then she also thinks, “You can say yes, and it won’t mean always.” These are both such important messages for young women to hear, and it’s the first time I’ve encountered them so strongly and clearly presented in a Young Adult novel.

Really, an astoundingly good book for the genre.

Georgiana Darcy’s Diary: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice continued – by Anna Elliott. After reading three emotionally heavy books back-to-back, I really just needed something where the stakes weren’t so bloody high. And, somehow, Austen fan fiction just seemed like the right call.

Focusing on the romantic interests of Darcy’s sister Georgiana, this is a super quick read with a standard-issue romantic plot that benefits by having a familiar and beloved cast of characters that one might wish to follow past the end of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married a year and are living their happily-ever-after at Pemberley. Lady Catherine de Bourgh has insisted on a house party of seemingly infinite duration at which “eligible” suitors stay at the estate to try to win Georgiana’s hand. There are long walks and balls and trips to town to buy hats.

It’s cute and entertaining, but with hints of more modern ideas and themes than you’d perhaps expect to find in an Austen-esque novel. For example, although it is veiled, one of Georgiana’s potential suitors turns out to be gay. Also, Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne is so smothered and constrained by Catherine that she actually contemplates suicide before Georgiana is able to help her wiggle out from under Catherine’s thumb.

There’s nothing particularly compelling about the work, nor is there anything off-putting. People who just can’t get enough of the Darcy opus will probably enjoy it. And it served as just the break I needed after a month of significantly heavier reading selections.

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.05

May was a strange month of reading for me, partially due to the selections I chose, but also because I was traveling for a week for a mini-vacation and conference, which cut into my reading time quite a bit. But I did manage a few books.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage – Ann Patchett. I have not read any of Patchett’s novels, but, based on her writing in these essays, I intend to. I had heard an interview with her promoting this book on NPR a couple of years ago and thought it sounded like something I’d like to check out. As a collection of essays, I liked some of them better than others, as you would expect. They were all well-written and interesting, but the ones that really spoke to me were those that had to do with her relationships, primarily those with her father, husband, grandmother, and dog. For the purposes of this review, I’m only going to focus on those selections that I was particularly fond of. For most of them, I’ve pulled a quote or two from the piece to help speak for it.

The sacrament of divorce. This was a really thought-provoking essay describing her short first marriage, doomed pretty much from the start. Although divorce is pretty darned common now, I think there is still a bit of stigma to it. “Common” does not necessarily mean “good”. But Patchett makes a compelling case for accessible divorce as a good. In it, she reveals when it first dawned on her that the marriage would end in divorce – it was the week before the wedding and she and her fiancé were meeting with a priest for pre-wedding counseling, during which one of the questions asked was:

Was this a marriage that could only be dissolved by death?

That meant that if the marriage didn’t work, my only way out was to die. He was asking me to swear to my preference for death over divorce.

As the essay goes on, she talks about the community of divorced people, and the judgments cast by non-divorced people. One sentence in particular struck me and is applicable on a much broader societal scale when thinking about economic hardship, homelessness, mental illness, and, yes, divorce:

There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune. They equate it with personal goodness.

She comes back to the idea of marriage being until death do us part at the end:

. . .if we fail at marriage, we are lucky we don’t have to fail with the force of our whole life. I would like there to be an eighth sacrament, the sacrament of divorce. Like Communion, it is a slim white wafer on the tongue. Like confession, it is forgiveness. Forgiveness is important not so much because we’ve done wrong as because we feel we need to be forgiven. Family, friends, God, whoever loves us forgives us, takes us in again. They are thrilled by our life, our possibilities, our second chances. They weep with gladness that we did not have to die.

This dog’s life. This was the first of three essays to focus on Patchett’s dog, Rose, whose breed is eventually cast as Parking Lot Dog. Of course, I love this because all of our cats have been the equivalent, while Jonas is, in fact, also a literal Parking Lot Cat, having been found in a Walmart parking lot.

It’s a charming read about the close bond Patchett feels with Rose. It definitely brought a smile to my face as she described going through 10 weeks of obedience training during which Rose was not allowed on the furniture, but through negotiation and disagreement with the trainer, Patchett insisted that Rose could still sleep in the bed. Patchett passed the 10 weeks either sitting on the floor with Rose or lying in bed, then celebrated graduation by letting Rose get back on the couch.

Patchett also uses it to describe the interpretation by family, friends, and society that what she really wanted was a baby, despite her insistence and certainty to the contrary.

I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.

My road to Hell was paved. This enjoyable piece describes her trip out West in an RV. She had been hired to write a piece about the horrors of trying to see the country in these gas-guzzling beasts, but found it a much more enjoyable experience than she had anticipated. I’ve never had a desire to go RVing, but I admit her experience and at least the third of her Four Great RV Truths are persuasive.

First Great RV Truth:

Like ocean liners and oil tankers, RVs do not stop. While Karl grinds the pedal into the carpet, I scream at the dog, “Go! Go!” It looks like we shear a few hairs from its tail, but the dog escapes doom, and we, very nearly stopped now, are giddy. We did not kill a dog in the first five minutes of the trip.

Second Great RV Truth:

There’s a lot out there you just can’t see. This lesson is important even if you never plan to drive one yourself. Give all vehicles containing showers wide berth.

Third Great RV Truth:

Wherever you are, you are approximately 15 feet from bed. For all of my bone-deep distrust of motor homes, they do combine two of my favorite pastimes: compulsive driving and occasional napping.

Fourth Great RV Truth:

People who don’t like them have never been in one. I feel like I went out to report on the evils of crack and have come back with a butane torch and a pipe. I went undercover to expose a cult and have returned in saffron robes with my head shaved. I have fallen in love with my recreational vehicle.

Tennessee. Patchett uses this essay to describe her home state of Tennessee and its relationship to its cities like Nashville and Memphis. Although she actually states that the following is not a metaphor, but a literal reference to the way the foliage can reclaim, or even never let go of, an area, I think there may be a bit of metaphor to it in the end.

While Memphis has changed and Nashville has changed and Knoxville has changed, the state of Tennessee has not changed. To understand this you have to back to that place where real estate prices out by the acre. . . The cities do push out, but down here the cities are islands surrounded by an ocean of country, and the country pushes back hard.

On responsibility. Another essay that focuses on her dog, but also on her relationship with her aging grandmother, who lived well into her 90s, the final years spent in decline. Patchett moves back and forth between taking her dog to the vet for a skin infection and taking her grandmother to the emergency room, and then to the hospital for a leg infection, and her inability to explain the temporary nature of the situation to either in a way that they can understand or retain for more than a few minutes.

Is it wrong to tell a story about your grandmother and your dog in which their characters become interchangeable?

Very moving.

The wall. There aren’t any specific passages I feel the need to quote from this piece, but it’s a very interesting discussion of L.A. police officers, particularly in the time just following the Rodney King riots, and description of the tests given to candidates applying for a position at the L.A. Police Academy. It also focuses more on Patchett’s relationship with her father. Just an all-around good read.

Love sustained. A powerful essay about the long decline in her grandmother’s mental and physical health at the end of her life. Again, there aren’t any specific one-liners I can call out on this one. It’s just a very moving essay that would speak to anyone who has ever dealt with the long illness and decline of a loved one. Grab a hanky.

Dog without end. I knew this was coming as soon as I saw the title lurking there a few chapters after Love Sustained. Fortunately, I was astute enough to know this was an essay I should read in the privacy of my home, rather than on the commuter bus, so I skipped ahead and finished the rest of the book, coming back to this one on the weekend. As Rose’s long life comes to an end, Patchett tells the full warts-and-all story of how she came to adopt Rose, even though she doesn’t come through it looking her best.

Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half. It’s everything in between we live for.

Although her decline was shorter in human time than that of Patchett’s grandmother (1 plus year, rather than 5 plus years), this serves as a parallel to Patchett’s other long good-bye. During that last year, Patchett’s life revolved around efforts to sustain Rose’s health just as they had with her grandmother. Having been through my share of feline long good-byes, and particularly with a cat that had been with me for 19 years, the following sections really spoke to me. Grab another hanky.

I bought a photo album and I arranged the story of her life. What I hadn’t imagined was that it was the story of my life as well. If you flip through the pages you see us age together, always the two of us, Rose in my lap, Rose at my side, other people moving in and out of the frame over time while my hand forever rests on Rose.

And later:

I came to realize… that there was between me and every person I had ever loved some element of separation, and I had never seen it until now. There had been long periods spent apart from the different people I loved, due to nothing more than circumstances. There had been arguments and disappointments, for the most part small and easily reconciled, but over time people break apart, no matter how enormous the love they feel for one another is, and it is through the breaking and the reconciliation, the love and the doubting of love, the judgment and then the coming together again, that we find our own identity and define our relationships.

Except that I had never broken from Rose. I had never judged her or wanted her to be different, never wished myself free from her for a single day.


Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals – Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is inspiring. She’s overcome her own challenges as an autistic person and is working to improve the lives of farm animals through her unique insights into how animal’s view and react to the world.

That said, the woman needs an editor, not to change her voice, but to clean up the work a bit. There were a great number of times when I would read a sentence, go two or three sentences further, then read the same sentence again, almost word for word. It wasn’t just a repetition of a point for emphasis, but literally the exact same sentence. A good editor could help clean the manuscript up a lot without doing any damage to the message or Temple’s unique way of giving it.

Honestly, the main title made me think the book was something it isn’t, something more about our relationships with animals and the ways they impact our humanity. It was much more focused on the subtitle, dealing with Grandin’s insights into the natural history of various animal species and the ways we can improve their lives, whether as pets in our homes, or as livestock in our food-producing farms. It was an interesting read, but it was an unexpected angle. I almost wonder if she had something else in mind with the title, but then decided to go another direction.

At any rate, there was a lot of interesting information and theory in the book, and it is a worthwhile read. The chapter on dogs was, I think, the best of the bunch, with a lot of insights I hadn’t heard before. Many of her suggestions are based on her discussion of a “new” (to me) theory that natural wolf packs aren’t made up with an alpha male and female at all. Instead, what were thought to be the alpha male and female before are actually the mother and father of the pack. The other pack members are children, both pups and grown, with sometimes an aunt thrown into the mix. Only the mother and father breed because the rest of the pack are siblings.

She contends that dogs, through their domestication, stop maturing earlier than their wolf ancestors do and are basically juvenile wolves their whole lives. In wolf pups, aggressive behaviors develop first so the pups can compete for food with their siblings, with more submissive behaviors developing later as a way to keep the older animals from getting into fights that become much more dangerous as they grow up.

Grandin points to studies that have shown that the more puppy-looking purebred dogs, like toy breeds and cocker spaniels, tend to have the early aggressive behaviors but fewer, if any, of the submissive behaviors. This can cause problems with the ability of the “forced packs” living in our homes to create dominance hierarchies, particularly if there are multiple puppy-like dogs in the household. She has found that “wolfier” dogs, like huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, have developed more of the submissive behaviors and do better in these forced packs.

Looking at dogs as perpetual teenagers, as well as taking into account the mother and father dynamic of a natural wolf pack, Grandin thinks that, rather than a human taking the role as an alpha dog, perhaps what is really going on is that humans are taking on the parent role.

I liked the way this chapter went into a lot of detail about the natural history of dogs with their roots in wolf packs, and kept making links between that legacy and the behavioral needs of domestic dogs today.

Maybe it’s partially because I am more familiar with cat behavior and natural history already, but the chapter on cats that followed didn’t seem as robust. There was a lot less of that linking back to wild ancestors, and lot more of a reliance on anecdotes of examples of cat behaviors and what might be going on. Perhaps it’s because cats are still so close to their wild relations that there is less of a need to make a backward connection. Or maybe it’s because, as Grandin admits, relatively little is known about the mental and emotional worlds of cats. But it felt much more minimal to me.

That’s certainly not to say that there wasn’t interesting content in it. Grandin goes into a fair amount of detail about the intensity of a cat’s seeking drive and how to use it to clicker train a cat in order to improve their mental stimulation. Jonas is a cat who I think could really benefit from such efforts, and this chapter made me think seriously about giving it a try. I will need to re-read that section of the book when I decide to start in earnest.

There were subsequent chapters on cows, horses, pigs, chickens, and zoo animals, all of which had the same strength of insight and weaknesses of repetition and inconsistent detail.

All in all, a worthwhile read for anyone seeking to better understand animals and how to make their lives fuller and more meaningful, but the writing is problematic and needs serious editing.

Wings of Fire – Jonathan Strahan. This is a collection of short stories about dragons, supposedly carefully selected to be only the best. Meh.

I chose this book because, as mentioned in the beginning, I was going to be traveling for a conference and I thought a collection of short stories would allow for more discrete reading opportunities as time allowed. I wound up putting this book down about halfway through because I found I just wasn’t enjoying many of the stories included. I may return to it in a while to read the others, but I needed a break. Of the 14 stories I read, I “liked” 6 of them, but in varying degrees. Not a great ratio, and reading two or three lackluster ones in a row put an end to it for me. There’s just so much else to read!

Some of the stories were just not my cup of tea, but there were also some that I was enjoying, but then they seemed to end way too abruptly, seemingly without the full story being told, and certainly with no resolution. Perhaps I just prefer the novel form to short stories, but I know I’ve read good short stories before that work as self-contained stand-alone entities.

The stories I read and liked, even if they seemed to end unfinished were:
The Ice Dragon – George RR Martin. A promising start to the book, I did like this one. Based on the author, I should have expected that not everyone would come through it cleanly or intact, though.
The Laily Worm – Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Ahh. A wicked stepmother tale!
The Bully and the Beast – Orson Scott Card. An engaging read, but I found it a bit dissatisfying in the end.
The Miracle Aquilina – Margo Lanagan. I was really enjoying this one, but it just ended without the main character having any kind of growth or resolution or anything. It could be so good, but there needs to be so much more.
Orm the Beautiful – Elizabeth Bear. Just kind of a neat take on the nature of dragons in death.
Weyr Search – Anne McCaffrey. The original 1967 short story that later became Dragonflight. Of course I liked this one. There were enough subtle differences that it was interesting to read the original, but I don’t know how much I would have noticed the differences if I hadn’t just re-read the full book.

Bill Bryson’s African Diary – Bill Bryson. It was the end of the month, and I wanted a quick read that I could finish within the confines of May. As a print book, this is only 50 pages long, so it definitely fit the bill. Bryson visited Kenya in 2002 at the invitation of CARE International, then wrote this brief piece about his visit with the royalties and profits going to the charity.

There are moments of hilarity as Bryson relates their actual travels in the country, including a single engine airplane and the notoriously dangerous Kenya Railways. His visits to slums and refugee camps are, obviously, not high humor and that is as it should be. Perhaps there wasn’t a better way for him to relate the stories of those he visited. Perhaps framing those moments with humor was the best that could be managed. But I found his tales of these visits to be almost bland recitations. There was too much daily diary and not enough journal to this book.

Still since he was traveling with people and with purpose, it was a far more enjoyable read than the last Bryson book I read, Notes from a Small Island.

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.04 (A Month of McCaffrey)

My reading selections in April were very targeted, consisting of the first two Pern trilogies. My niece has been plowing through various book series, and my sister-in-law has been struggling to keep her in reading material. I started reading the Pern books in sixth grade and remember them very fondly. I had suggested them to my SIL, particularly since there are so many books in the overall series to occupy a voracious reader, and was contemplating sending these first six books to my niece for her birthday. However, since it has been almost 30 years since I read them, I thought I should read them again myself and be sure they were as good as I remembered and appropriate.

Dragonriders of Pern (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon) and Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, Dragondrums) – Anne McCaffrey. I very much enjoyed reading the books again, and they are as good as I remembered. I fell in love all over again with the dragons who are completely charming as basically big cats that can talk to their people telepathically. But the question of appropriateness for a sixth grader remains enough in question that I decided to wait at least another year, and have a talk with my SIL, before gifting them to my niece.

The thing is, although there is nothing explicit in the books, there are fairly adult sexual themes running throughout the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy. Dragons and their riders share an incredible mental bond and, when it’s time for a golden queen dragon to mate, her rider, along with the riders of the pursuing bronze male dragons get, shall we say, swept up in the moment. The presence of this concept in and of itself, is very subtle in the first book, Dragonflight, but it comes a bit more to the forefront in the second book, Dragonquest, in that one of the queen riders is, frankly, a slut, and her promiscuity plays a big role in the story with very definite consequences to her actions. The concept of abortion is also brought up on two occasions in this book.

The trilogy ends with The White Dragon, which is primarily a fairly mild coming of age story of a teenage boy, set against the backdrop of the continuing stories of the characters introduced in the earlier books. Although the sexual themes are much less prevalent than in Dragonquest, this is the book in which homosexuality makes an appearance. It’s incredibly subtle and only a mature, careful reader would get the implication, but apparently this concept comes out a little bit more in another book in the overall Pern series that I haven’t read yet. Anticipating that my niece may want to continue reading this series, it would only be a matter of time before she came across the relevant scene in that book. You see, women are the riders of the golden queen dragons, and men ride the rest of the dragons. The bronze, brown, and blue dragons are male, while the green dragons are female. Their riders are also swept up in the moment when the greens mate with the, typically, brown or blue male dragons (the bronzes mate with the golden queens).

In tandem with the Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, I also read the Harper Hall trilogy, which starts chronologically about halfway through Dragonquest and ends a few chapters into The White Dragon. This series is much more “young adult” and is really quite charming. The first two books follow the teenage Menolly, a very musically-talented, but totally unappreciated-at-home girl, on her path towards becoming a Harper. On Pern, Harpers are equal parts musicians, historians, teachers, record keepers, lobbyists, influencers of public opinion, and secret information gatherers – obviously, too important a position for any female to imagine possible for herself (see notes below regarding the role of women in Pern society). Menolly’s talent and grace prevail, with a little help from some more progressive mentors among the harpers and dragonriders. Menolly’s empathy also allows her to Impress several fire lizards, a lesser but similar telepathic bond to that seen in their distant cousins, the dragons.

My niece’s interest in animals, music, and performance make these books perfect. However, I again have the concern that she would want to read the rest of the Pern books, plus I really think you get a lot more of the context in the Harper Hall trilogy books by having started with Dragonflight and working your way through the sets in order.

Now, I have no problem with any of the themes covered. In fact, I admire McCaffrey’s use of these concepts in books written in the 1960s. My SIL is also pretty liberal. However, I’m not too sure at what point she’d want such themes, however subtle, to enter her daughter’s reading material.

As I said, I started reading these books when I was my niece’s age, and I don’t think I caught most of the sexual subtext in these books. I certainly wasn’t scandalized by it and I turned out okay, but that is, perhaps, arguable. : )

I really like my sister-in-law and my niece, and I don’t want to do anything to estrange that relationship, so I plan to talk with my SIL the next time I see her and determine if she would be okay with this series or if she would rather hold off. I know “kids these days” are exposed to things much earlier than “back in my day”, but I’m not the parent, and my niece still just seems so wee. : )

One thing about the book series that is a bit disconcerting is the overall role of women in Pern society. Now, the main characters are primarily strong, capable women and I have no quibbles there. It’s really no different from reading historical fiction where the strong female characters are making their way in a world where stereotypical female genders roles are pervasive. But the odd thing is that the world of Pern is basically a societal devolution. The basic premise is that space-faring human colonists came to Pern many years ago. A variety of factors contributed to the people losing most of their scientific knowledge and progress (the pastoral setting, a deadly threat, the loss of communication with their home planet, etc.) All that’s well and good. But I know from another book in the series that I read long ago, and set much earlier in the Pern chronology, that women were important colonists and scientists. I’ll obviously need to read all of the books again to see how the progression comes about, but I find it unfortunate that the vision of this world is one in which, as knowledge is lost, women, by default, find themselves thrust back into such a submissive “traditional” role in society.

I was also frankly astounded by the vocabulary level in the books and wonder just how much of text I understood when I was reading it back in the day, or if I was just following the gist of the story through context. I made frequent use of my Kindle’s built-in dictionary to confirm my understanding of some of the words. I mean, I’d never heard the term “swivet” before. I could get the idea when the sentence had to do with someone who was anxious “being in a swivet”, but it was nice to look it up and know for sure.

Another thing that amused me as I was reading the final books of both trilogies is that I’m not certain I ever finished either on the first go-round. The first two books in both trilogies focus on strong female characters. These characters are still strong and woven into the continuing story, but the main characters in the final books of both trilogies are male. I remember being disappointed in this when reading both books as a kid, and the endings of each were so unfamiliar, not coming back to me at all as my memory was jogged, that I wonder if I gave up on both of them and moved on to other books in the series that were more female-focused.

I’ll be taking a break from Pern in May to enjoy some reading variety, but I know I’ll be coming back periodically throughout the year to make my way through the whole series.

Cider Summit SF – The Ho-ening Continues

Once again, on the fourth Saturday in April, the chant of “Cider Summit! Cider Summit! Cider Summit!” could be heard ringing through the Barker-Shaw abode. I had been excitedly awaiting the arrival of Cider Summit SF for several weeks, looking forward to trying a number of different ciders and enjoying a sunny afternoon at the Presidio.

With 55 tables and an average of 3-4 ciders on sample at each of them, I spent a fair amount of time making an action plan this year. As you may recall, while in line last year to purchase take-home bottles, Steve and I bonded with two women over their serious cider selection discussions and my list, printed from the Cider Summit SF web site, on which Steve and I had made notes throughout the day. This year, I took a bit of extra time with my preparations and created a spreadsheet listing each cider available at the summit, and seeking out a description of the beverage from the brewers’ web site or from a review tool. I then went through the list to mark those I was particularly interested in trying as well as those I thought I’d rather skip.

Not only did my list make our progress through the tables go more smoothly, but it also paid dividends as we again stood in line to make our take-home purchases. “Where did you get that list?” was asked by several people also in line, who were trying to remember what they had liked based upon the haphazard photos of the bottles they’d taken with their phones. Proper levels of respectful awe were displayed when they were informed that I had made it in advance.

Next year I may need to try my hand at creating an app for people to use as they taste throughout the day. Definitely worth considering, especially since there seemed to be a bit less of the uninformed hipster vibe that had appeared later in the afternoon last year. Rather than seeing the summit as a place to get drunk and seem cool, more of those present seemed to be interested in the cider itself.

We had a particularly great time this year as we were accompanied by a friend who is always keen to share cider with us. Marie-Noelle stepped up as the raccoon foster care team leader last year, and we have frequently shared a pint, a laugh, and our frustrations throughout the year. Not only did she make use of my cider list as well, but having a third person with whom to share the event also meant that we could all sample many more cider options than we otherwise could have if we were limited to our own drink tickets.

Marie, Anne, and Steve at SF Cider Summit 2016

Knowing how crowded the tables get as the afternoon wears on, all three of us also took advantage of the new VIP ticket option which afforded us entry a full hour before the riff raff was admitted. The extra time was definitely worthwhile as we were still debating our last two tastings each as the cries of “last call” began to ring through the air close to 5:00.

All told, I felt I could “claim” 18 new ciders on the Untappd app during the day, but I was able to take a sip of several more with a little help from my friends, quickly discerning those which might be worth the use of a drink ticket from those which were not to my liking. I didn’t think I had drunk enough of these additional samples to claim them on the app, but those I did were more than enough to “earn” me the “Take It Easy” badge, or as I’ve been calling it the “Bulk Drinking” badge, for drinking 12 beers in a day (or in this case before we paused for a meal in the middle of the afternoon).

As with last year, I’ll list the ciders I tried below, particularly calling out those that were delightful enough for us to purchase (or attempt to purchase as some were sold out) at the end of the day.

We all had a wonderful day at Cider Summit SF 2016 and I am already looking forward to the 2017 summit!

Marie, Anne, and Steve at SF Cider Summit 2016

• Apricot Toasted Coconut (Apple Outlaw Cider) – I couldn’t taste much apricot or coconut over the slightly bitter cider, but Marie swore she could.
• The Dude’s Rug (B. Nektar Meadery) – Apple cider and Chai tea. Very interesting. Although I had a full sample glass, I think I need to try it again to get a better sense of what’s going on with it.
• Necromangocon (B. Nektar Meadery) – Mango and black pepper. I was highly skeptical, but Steve and Marie wanted to try it. I took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t claim this one on Untappd, but we bought a bottle for later consumption, so I’ll do it then.
• Hard Apricot Cider (Atlas Cider Company) – Both of the Atlas ciders smelled highly of their fruit blends, but neither tasted that strongly of them, so I wasn’t too thrilled by them.
• Hard Blackberry Cider (Atlas Cider Company)
• William Tell Mango Muscat (Cider Brothers) – Super sweet and yummy. Good mango flavor and blended with a bit of Muscat wine. We bought a couple of these as well.
• Perry (Dragon’s Head Cider) – I only had a sip of this one, so didn’t claim it on Untappd. As I said slyly at the time, “This one is tarter than your average pear.” 😉
• BlackBerry Sangria (Common Cider Company) – Tart, not overly sweet.
• Orleans Herbal (Eden Ice Cider Company) – The “herbal” in this is a blend of basil and anise. Surprisingly good, but I don’t think I’d drink a full pint at a sitting. Maybe more of an Old Fashioned glass. I only had a quick sip of this one, but we bought a bottle for later.
• Heirloom Blend (Calville Blend) (Eden Ice Cider Company) – A very nice ice wine, but the Orelans Herbal was a pretty expensive bottle, so we declined to buy this one as well since it was about the same price.
• Cherry Bomb (Golden State Cider) – As Marie said, “not much cherry to this bomb.”
• Honey Meadow (Finnriver Cidery) – The three of us joked that it was like walking through a spring meadow holding hands with a bear, but it was really super nice, almost grassy. We bought a couple bottles of this one for later tasting and claiming.
• Heritage (Gowans Orchards) – Super rich and yummy. It’s a new cider and wasn’t for sale yet, but all three of us complimented it highly to the company reps and indicated a desire to buy it, so maybe it will be available sometime.
• 1876 Heirloom (Gowans Orchards) – A lighter version of the Heritage. Since we couldn’t bring the Heritage home, we decided to get a bottle of this instead.
Hemly Cider – A lovely perry. I only took a quick sip of Marie’s, but liked its strong pear flavor and complexity, so we bought a bottle for later enjoyment.
• Strawberry (Humboldt Cider Company) – Harsh and not particularly strawberry-tasting.
• Apricot (Indigeny Reserve) – Apple cider mixed with apricot puree. Very smooth and sweet. Maybe not one I’d drink a pint at a time of, but another that would be wonderfully refreshing in an Old Fashioned glass. I do admit that the cider flavor gets a little lost behind the apricot, but it was tasty.
• Blackberry Hard Apple Cider (Indigeny Reserve) – Absolutely lovey and brimming with blackberry flavor. We really wanted to buy a bottle of this one, but it was sold out when we were doing our purchasing.
• Strawperry (Mission Trail Cider Co.) – I had so liked their plum cider, tasted a few months ago on a trip to Upcider, but wasn’t too excited by this one. It was tart like a strawberry, but lacked a good strawberry flavor. It was their entry to the Fruit Cider Challenge, though, in which cideries pilot new brews specifically for the event, so it’s possible they just need more time to refine it.
• Cactus Red (101 Cider House) – Strongly flavored of Thai basil, a bit dry and bitter. This wasn’t a favorite.
• Dewbees (Reef Points) – All of the Reef Points offerings were way too dry and bitter for me, but the folks at the booth were so nice about offering a sampling flight of their three ciders on offer, that we went ahead and used a drink ticket to get a glass of this one. The others we sipped were Kid Neptune and Soundings. Just not my style.
• Spice Route Cider (Tieton Cider Works) – I wanted to like this one, but I found it a bit souring to the stomach.
• LumberJack (Schilling Cider) – A rhubarb perry, I found it light, tart, and refreshing. I liked it quite well.
• Apple Pie Mead (The San Francisco Mead Company) – Sweet and strong, perhaps too harsh for this late in the afternoon.
• Peach (Red Branch Cider Company) – A relatively local cidery with a tasting room, we’re planning another trip down there in the near future. So, although I got a full tasting of this one, I’m waiting to claim it on Untappd. It was one of the last ciders I had in a long day, so I didn’t feel I could judge it particularly well in this instance.

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.03

A month wherein my tastes in reading ran as wide a gamut as my music collection set to unrestrained random shuffle. . .

The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Genetic Mystery, a Lethal Cancer, and the Improbable Invention of a Lifesaving Treatment – Jessica Wapner. I kind of read this for work, not assigned but as related to this new knowledge area. Since starting at the new job, I’ve had to come up to speed quickly on various aspects of biotechnology, and I thought this might be a good way to get a focused history of one drug born from the evolution of gene-based research and therapies, presented in a narrative, non-textbook way. And the book was very good for me in this regard.

Was it well-written for the type of information it was trying to impart to lay-people? Hard to say. There were more “characters” throughout the book than there are in a Game of Thrones novel, and Wapner did a good job of repeating the contributory discovery each person had made whenever she went over the next step in the research trail. This repetition was helpful to keep in mind the progression of scientific discoveries over the 40 years recounted in the book. However, Wapner was also prone to repetition on a wider scale, frequently saying the exact same thing in two concurrent sentences, with only slight structural and vocabulary changes. While I understand the need to possibly describe a scientific concept in various ways to make sure the audience gets it, there were multiple instances in which this repetition had nothing to do with explaining science. I think a good deal of these sentences could have been edited out of the book without having any impact on the scientific descriptions. Conversely, there were also sections of a more scientific nature that really would have benefited from an attempt to re-phrase a sentence, but these were perversely missing.

Having learned so much over the last few months, I’m certain I was able to follow the descriptions of the various scientific discoveries better than I would have before. Even so, Wapner did a reasonable job of presenting the information for a general audience. I can’t say I’d recommend this specific book to anyone for pure enjoyment reading, but I think the background it provides will benefit me as I continue working in the biotech industry. There are several other books of a similar nature on my to-read list, but I see no need to go from one to the next without a little break in between. And so, . . .

Outlander – Diana Gabaldon. Let’s call this dessert following a vegetable-heavy dinner. I had been thinking about trying out the first book in this series following the grand convergence of recommendations and our trip to Scotland last fall. As I mentioned way back in January, for many years my primary opportunity for reading was the time spent on airplanes, for which light entertainment that lasts for hours was the perfect prescription. Faced with a lengthy flight for a weekend trip this month, I decided to allow my grey matter to have a little fun.

Boy has it been a long time since I’ve read an honest to god romance novel. I used to read them with wild abandon back in high school, but they trailed off along with the rest of my reading over time. There was substantially more character growth, not all of it pleasant, in this book than in other romances I’ve read.

Other than one episode in the middle of the book where Claire goes disappointingly off the rails with a wildly out-of-nowhere incorrect assumption, it was nice that the main characters didn’t suffer much from the misunderstandings and miscommunications that usually plague couples in this genre. It was also in the middle of the book that the story took an unpleasant turn toward a punishment and ownership motif that I could have done without. Fortunately, it was short-lived and moved on to a better direction.

While I don’t think the idea of an historical romance in which a 20th-century woman is cast back in time would normally be my cup of tea, I quite enjoyed the story and didn’t find it strained my ability to suspend disbelief. The writing seemed a bit stilted for the first several chapters, but I either got used to it, or Gabaldon had a better flow once Claire ended up in the 18th century.

What did cause a wee bit of disbelief on my end was when Claire allowed Randall to get the upper hand in a particularly crucial scene near the end. She had kept her wits about her so well throughout the entire book that the idea that she wouldn’t at least grab a weapon and stand guard over the unconscious villain was almost cripplingly inconsistent, particularly given the extremely high stakes in this moment. Her lack of awareness of the need to give Randall another tap on the head as he started to rouse is much to blame for the suffering borne in the next chapters.

While not necessary for enjoyment of the story, I was still glad to have read it after having learned some of Scotland’s history and geography on our trip last fall as it gave me a better connection to some of the finer details.

All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot. An absolutely charming read, as generations of other readers have already found. It’s actually very surprising that I’ve never read the series before, but as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m making up for lost reading time in this new era of commuting-by-bus. I watched and loved the old BBC series when I was a kid and found much familiarity in the first book. While I know Steve will always think of Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor, he will always be Tristan to me. I don’t recall the TV version of Siegfried being quite such the charming ladies’ man, but it has been many years since I watched it. I have the series on DVD and may need to pop it in soon to re-visit it.

One thing I did need to get used to was the exceedingly minimal through-line of the book. This is basically a loose collection of independent stories from Herriot’s first two years as a country vet. Other than the changing of the season, there is very little to suggest any kind of chronology to the events. Each story stands on its own without much, if any, link among them. Once Herriot meets Helen about halfway through the book, there are Helen courting-related stories scattered among the remaining chapters that greatly help to push the book into a cohesive work.

The collected stories feel makes this an excellent book for bedtime reading, where you may want to read one chapter without getting wrapped up in a series of cliff-hanger chapters. I generally prefer a little more progression in my reading materials, but this certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book once I stopped trying to find something that was pushing the story forward.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War – Max Brooks. Let me start by just saying that the book is nothing like the movie; to say the movie was based on the book is just to say that they are both about a world overrun by zombies. Other than the detail of Israel building a protective wall, I can think of nothing else that’s the same between the two creative entities. The zombies in the book don’t reanimate in 12 seconds, they don’t ignore sick people, and there is no epidemiological race to find a vaccine. The zombies aren’t fast and they don’t build ant-like ramps to overtop walls. In fact, I almost think I can pinpoint where in the book that movie notion might have come from, and it was when someone was talking about hearing that the swarm was approaching fast and worrying about them literally ramping up, but it turned out the fast-moving swarm was a group of desperate humans trying to crash the compound gates. All that’s to say, that there is no comparison – is the book or the movie better – unless you look at them as completely different entries in the zombie oeuvre.

The book is a series of interviews with survivors of the zombie apocalypse after humanity has beaten back the ravaging tide and is starting to rebuild lives, communities, and nations. The interviewer is virtually non-existent in the text, letting the interviewees tell their stories with little direction. It’s actually a bid odd that I read this directly after All Creatures Great and Small because this book, too, could almost be seen as being a compilation of completely separate, individual stories. I say “almost” though, because Brooks does a good job of creating a through-line and linking the stories together even though they are seemingly unrelated.

And it’s not just that the collection of interviews follow a chronological timeline starting from the early days of infection, through the days of refugees and military defeats, finishing as the active fighting has wound down. Brooks binds the stories together through little details. A Chinese interviewee talks about the collapse of a dam being a turning point in that country’s approach to managing the crisis and, in the next interview, the commander of the International Space Station mentions watching the dam collapse from orbit, or seeing the legendary Indian general’s famous battle (mentioned several interviews earlier) via satellite feed. Details like these are enough to create a satisfactory link among the interviews with dozens of otherwise unrelated individuals.

It was also a very neat exercise that Brooks took in examining how the zombie apocalypse could play out in just about every nation or human circumstance you could imagine: from South Africa to the U.S., from the wartime economic rise of Cuba to the horrors of the catacombs in Paris, from the ISS to a submarine to a refugee camp in northern Canada. The book presents a series of hyper-local, very personal experiences that tie together to explore something close to the entirety of the human experience in the case of a zombie apocalypse (or other catastrophic pandemic or societal crisis/failure if you’re not into the zombie thing).

It’s not a particularly scary read; perhaps that’s strange for a zombie novel, but the fact is that the interviewees all survived. There is no immediate danger, you know they get out. Their comrades might not have, but the speaker always did. If you are looking for a heart-pounding thrill that makes you jump when the house creaks, this won’t be it. But as a pseudo-documentary exploration of global politics and civilization, it’s a very enjoyable read.

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.02

I renewed my public library card this month! With my limited reading time over the past few years, I had let the poor thing lapse. While I know there are issues with e-book licensing, I now have access to a ton of books for my Kindle! While I have a lot of classics loaded already, it sure is nice to be able to throw in the occasional newer book, particularly since “newer” extends back to the early 20th century if you’re talking about not-free non-public domain books. Public Domain Day in the United States is an embarrassment. Even The Great Gatsby, written in 1925 isn’t in the public domain in America yet, and won’t be until 2021, assuming copyright terms aren’t extended again.

But I digress. As mentioned, I had previously been loading free classics onto my Kindle, supplementing occasionally with the purchase of a book that I was either ready to read based upon recommendations, or that I wanted to read, though perhaps not with any urgency, and which were on Amazon’s daily deal email for a couple of dollars.

With my shiny new library card, I review the daily deal emails and check to see if a book is available from the library before making a purchase (there are exceptions where I buy the book anyway). If it is available at the library, I add it to my also-brand-new Goodreads account where I keep a running list of books I want to read, which I’ll later go about checking out.

Three of the five books I read in February were library loans. Huzzah!

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson. This was a disappointing read and I almost didn’t finish it, but then Bryson finally made it into Scotland and I was curious to hear his descriptions of the places we’d been and others where we still want to go. I had so much enjoyed other Bill Bryson books, including A Walk in the Woods read years ago. But this book seemed unpleasantly like a series of ill-tempered travel complaints. And he never stayed long in any one place. An overnight in Inverness? Really? How could you possibly formulate any kind of an opinion arriving one afternoon and rushing off to the train out of town the next morning?

I found more enjoyable the few chapters in which he was traveling with someone. Perhaps that’s what his books really need. A Walk in the Woods had Stephen Katz. Maybe Bryson just needs a travel buddy. Playing off other people does seem to do good things for his writing.

Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut. Another author I was embarrassed I had never read before. Honestly, the synopsis of the book didn’t sound appealing at all, but I remembered friends from college speaking so highly of Vonnegut that I decided to give it a go. It was really good! Don’t let the totally absurd-sounding synopsis throw you off; it’s a really well-written story. Remember what I said about Brave New World, that I am able to accept details of an unrealistic story as long as the dialog and character development is there? Here’s a case in point.

The Martian – Andy Weir. This was a really enjoyable book. I saw and enjoyed the movie when it came out last fall and didn’t really plan to read the book. I’m a bit of a contrarian (shocker, I know) and I don’t tend to read books just because they’re popular when a movie comes out, simply because they’re popular when a movie comes out and I’m not a band-wagon person.

Yes, I know this may seem like a bald-faced lie since I started last month by admitting that most of my recent reading involved Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones. However, the key is the personal recommendation. I generally turn my nose up at the popular made-into-a-movie book unless they are highly recommended to me by someone whose opinion I trust. For the above it was my sister-in-law, my mother, my sister-in-law again, and half the known Facebook universe.

The Martian was recommended post-movie viewing by a friend with impeccable film, popular culture, sci fi, and geek credentials, so I added it to my list.

The old adage is that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s hard to say for sure here since I saw the movie first and that can influence the analysis, but I think it’s a pretty tight race in this instance. All of the great Watney humor was present in the movie, perhaps a little less focus on bodily functions and resultant waste, but that was obviously there, too. Most of the major plot points were present, and those that were glossed over made sense. Yes, the movie passed over the sand storm during the long-haul road trip, but it wasn’t like it was a wind-whipping, swallowing storm like in The Mummy. It was a more subtle potential disaster and, honestly, by that point in the book, the endless minute descriptions of going into the HAB/Rover and attaching cable X to valve Y was starting to wear just a little bit. The movie really benefitted a bit by the inclusion of the Sports Training Montage.

I also think my understanding of some of the scientific descriptions benefitted from seeing the movie first. While Weir did a very good job of making the science accessible, I think seeing, for example, the set-up used to convert hydrazine into water made it much easier for me to follow the scientific details in the book. I just don’t think I would have been able to visualize it as well on my own.

I did prefer the ending of the movie to that of the book. The extra couple of wrap-up scenes in the movie do a good job of, well, wrapping up the story in a way that “this is the happiest day of my life” just didn’t do for me. After all the time invested in Watney, it was nice to have just a little bit of a sense of his post-Mars experience to bring closure to the story.

Restoree – Anne McCaffrey. McCaffrey was my favorite author from 6th grade through early high school. At the time, I quickly read through the Crystal Singer trilogy and the voluminous Pern series, but never did read every single thing she wrote. My recently revived “to read” list includes a re-visit to McCaffrey’s universe of books. Restoree was one I hadn’t read previously; my public library has very slim pickings when it comes to McCaffrey e-books, so I snapped this one up when it appeared in a Kindle Daily Deal email.

Restoree is essentially a romance novel, bearing all the typical romance plot points, but set on another planet and involving a human encounter with a humanoid alien species. McCaffrey’s first published novel (1967), it’s extremely dense reading, and probably could have used a good whittling down. But it also contains the hallmarks of McCaffrey’s other novels, including a smart, strong, resourceful female main character. It’s not the best romance novel I’ve ever read, nor the best sci-fi, but it was enjoyable and it held my interest. Certainly a solid first effort. Not really recommended on its own, but worth reading as part of the broader McCaffrey oeuvre.

The Whistling Season – Ivan Doig. Earlier I mentioned the importance of personal recommendations in my book selection habits. This book was recommended by a friend just after my first Book Blather was published. I had literally just finished Restoree that morning, and this book was available from the library, so I started it that very evening on the commute home. I LOVED about 90% of this book. Like, “grinning stupidly on the bus to work” loved this book. It was so well written, with such a love of language embedded into the very fabric of the narrative, that it pretty much dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s for me. One reviewer summed it up perfectly:

Doig’s use of language is thoughtful and clever. Sly, quiet jokes are tucked into the text here and there and if you read too fast, you might read right past a good laugh.

I particularly loved the copious use of “metaphor by down-home wisdom” in the book. A couple that spring to mind include “proud as a kitten with its first mouse” and being given “a look that would put a blind person on notice”, but there were dozens more throughout the book, all of which brought that same goofy grin to my face. They reminded me of the type of sayings my Grandpa Barker was known for, although his were apparently a bit more off-color.

Why did I only love about 90% of this book? The coming of age story at the book’s core is embedded within a shell of the now-adult main character revisiting his old stomping grounds as he prepares to deliver unwelcome news, news with which he personally disagrees, in his capacity as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. I didn’t really think the story benefited from these interludes, and I would have rather just kept living where the majority of the book dwelt than be drawn into these more reflective musings.

Also, things kind of fell apart for me near the end. There is a plot twist that just comes on too suddenly and is dealt with too quickly for a book that otherwise spends time luxuriating in description and character. It kind of felt like watching one of those television shows that gets about 50 minutes in and you know it’s not a two-parter. You’re sitting there wondering how they can possibly wrap the story up in the time remaining; they barely manage it and you’re left feeling like there’s a big hole in the resolution.

So, not a perfect book, but so damn close I’ve added all of Doig’s other books to my to-read list.

Back to Junior High with a Birthday Party at the Roller Rink

Over Valentine’s Day weekend, a huge gaggle of WildCare folks ventured into the City for an exciting evening of roller skating in honor of Melanie’s birthday.

group photo

Even Steve came out this time and seemed to have a good time rolling around the floor of the Church of 8 Wheels.

Steve roller skating

I did a little better this time, although I had conveniently forgotten the horrible shin pain that persists throughout the first half hour or so of roller skating. Fortunately, it does start to subside if you are able to push through it.

Anne roller skating

I only fell once the whole night. About halfway through the evening, the DJ made everyone stop and turn around to skate in the other direction for a while. Although I don’t remember this happening my first time at the Church, Melanie told me they usually do it. I’m not sure of the reason.

Without having the experience on the previous night, I was completely unprepared and unaware of what was happening when the DJ firmly announced that everyone had to stop skating that very second. He was very serious about it and, having seen a few colossal crashes during the evening, I was convinced there was some kind of skating emergency in progress. And it must be bad if it actually made it to the point of making everyone stop, given the lack of response at the other wipe-outs.

My current method of stopping involves a minor collision with the wall, and there were none in easy reach at the time, so I slid to a halt by the DJ table, falling on my butt, whereupon I proceeded to entangle my wheels in the DJ’s many cords and cables. Fortunately, I was able to free myself without taking out the whole sound system, but it was a questionable moment to say the least.

Otherwise, the evening passed without incident for our happy group of revelers.

friends in skates

Alison and Mary skating

group photo

Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.01

I changed jobs at the end of last September and suddenly find myself with a vastly different commute than the one I’d been plodding along for the last decade. Although the amount of time spent on the road is about the same, I am now putting my body into the hands of a bus driver. This has freed up my mind for other endeavors. I spent most of the first few months with this new commute situation going through the several thousand photos Steve and I took on our trip to Scotland, narrowing it down to, literally, the best thousand or so. With that large task finally behind me, I have started reading again!

For many years, the only time I found to read novels was on airplanes. My selections have mainly focused on the big series that run amuck in the popular imagination. Having traveled over the last several years with Harry Potter, Lisbeth Salander, and Katniss Everdeen, at the end of 2015 I also found myself current in the lives of the Starks and Lannisters.

So, I have been trolling through the many classics I had previously loaded onto my Kindle, as well as lists of “should really read or re-read someday”, and garnering suggestions from friends for what to start next. I don’t think I want to post an individual review of every book I read this year, but I think perhaps a monthly summary might be a worthwhile task. So, here are the books I read in January.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway. One of the themes in my recent reading selections has been “authors I feel like I should have read something by already”. For all of my familiarity with his cats, I am at a loss to remember having ever read anything by Hemingway. So this was my first foray. It’s an odd book – part travel diary, part ennui. Brett seems like a selfish bitch most of the time. Jake seems mainly along for the ride. Perhaps the latter is the point. I can’t say I feel particularly edified by this one, but I will read more Hemingway novels before coming to any kind of conclusion.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. Okay, I know I read it in high school, but it’s been ages and I have fond memories of this, Animal Farm, and 1984. Ah, the disenchantment of adolescence. What I didn’t remember was how ridiculous this book is. I get that it’s a warning of a dystopian future, concerned with the industrialization of the time. I could take the “Oh my Ford/Freud” conceit. But the intellectual debates between John and Mustapha Mond were just too much. That John, who had grown up among illiterate, alcoholic “savages” with no one to discuss his intellectual pursuits with, could engage in such lively philosophical discussions based solely on the fact that he had read the works of Shakespeare didn’t just strain credulity, which I’m generally open to having strained; it also made the dialog and character development unbelievable and pedantic, which I’m not so much down with. An important book, very much of its place and time, but one of the 100 greatest novels of all time? Not a chance.

I imagine Huxley would very much appreciate the resurgence of artisan cheese, bread, door knockers, and holes in the ground that the hipsters are bringing back, but be dismayed by their endless stream of i-products.

I still plan to re-visit Animal Farm and 1984 and hope they will be closer to my memories.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. From one dystopian future to the next. Another fondly-remembered book from my youth, this one more than met my expectations. Yes, it spoke to the worried, indignant feminist in me, both then and now. In the super crazy election campaign we are experiencing in the U.S., it even seems that a similar coup is more realistic now than it was a quarter century ago.

But what really struck me was the language. It was beautiful. I went out to look for a couple of reviews out of curiosity and found one contemporary to the book which wasn’t very complimentary, but which in part referred to it as “a poet’s novel”. I revel in language and am a slow reader precisely because I will re-read sentences multiple times if they are particularly striking to me. The metaphors throughout this book were, indeed, pure poetry.

And much of it was poetry that I’m certain I didn’t fully understand back in the day. Just one of the passages that struck me was this one about Offred’s sexuality and sexual utilitarianism/possession:

Can I be blamed for wanting a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disembodied. I can listen to my own heartbeat against the bedsprings, I can stroke myself, under the dry white sheets, in the dark, but I too am dry and white, hard, granular; it’s like running my hand over a plateful of dried rice; it’s like snow. There’s something dead about it, something deserted. I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor.

Really captivating imagery to me. I also remember being downright offended when I first read this by the abrupt change in the last chapter where all that came before is being discussed as historical primary documentation. I remember being particularly upset that the academics seemed to be calling into question Offred’s veracity. While a part of me still feels like I would have rather had a different ending – perhaps even as open-ended as just leaving off that final chapter – it no longer struck me as quite so dismissive of Offred and it didn’t detract so much from the novel as it did in my younger years.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen. Have I read this one before? I really don’t know. I’m virtually certain I read some Jane Austen book, and it seems like this would have been the one, but upon reading it, it was a bit too unfamiliar. I’ll be reading others, so perhaps one of those will be the one I recall. Maybe it was Sense and Sensibility. Regardless, I really enjoyed this book. It wasn’t always easy reading – some words were jarring as having clearly different meanings now than they did then – but it was also beautiful language. Of course, I can always appreciate a strong-willed, intelligent woman who can hold her own, particularly in a time when she shouldn’t be able to. And I’m not above a little romance.

Mind you, once he got over being an elitist prick, Darcy was a little too perfect. He may be the original Jake Ryan, ruining 19th century women for all other men with his exceeding charm, wealth, generosity, and overall hottiness.

I was surprised by just how risqué the novel got when young Lydia ran off to live with Wickham for two weeks without the benefit of marriage. Truly scandalous for the time! Also, balls on Monday? Weddings on Thursday? The life of the well-to-do was certainly unconstrained by the idea of a work week.

Elsa’s Legacy on the Giving Tree Continues

Elsa I still miss Elsa. I love Fergus, Jonas, and HB, and Missy in her time as well, but their existence is separate, not a replacement. Which is, I suppose, as it should be when remembering family members. Of course, I miss Ezra and Cassady, too, but there’s something about Elsa. Perhaps it was the way she died, of cancer so well before of time. At any rate, I continue to miss her.

Shortly after she died, Steve and I started talking about making a donation to the Marin Humane Society to get a commemorative leaf on their Giving Tree. But we got held up trying to encapsulate our feelings in the limited number of characters available on a leaf, so we let it sit a while. We came back to it at the end of last year and, with a little distance, were finally able to settle on appropriate wording.

I received an email last week that the leaf had been installed, so we stopped by this weekend to take a look.

Elsa's Leaf on the tree

Elsa's Leaf up close

The tree is, of course, placed right in the middle of the adoption center, so we had to take a minute to look at the adoptable felines. And, once again, I did what I always do – fall in love – proving once again that I would be completely unable to volunteer at a shelter. I couldn’t make it out of there without losing my emotional balance over a cat looking for a new home.

Jill is available for adoption! I have a very strong sense of fairness and injustice, and this cat’s circumstances were simply unfair. Jill is an 8-year-old cat who had been happily living her life companionably with other felines. All was right in her world. Then her family decided they wanted a puppy. Jill was afraid of the dog and started showing her increased stress level in the usual ways. So, the puppy got to stay and Jill was removed from the only home she’d ever known and brought to the shelter.

Such a douche move. I hope Grandma and Grandpa are taking notice of the ease with which older family members are sent to a “home”.

Anyway, we simply can’t adopt another kitty right now; HB is so much happier since Missy passed and she deserves to have as peaceful an old age as she can with Jonas and Fergus running around and, sometimes, over her. So, we did the next best thing and sponsored Jill so her adoption fees are pre-paid for anyone who wants to adopt her. I do hope she gets a fantastic new home very soon with someone in it for the long haul. She deserves it. And Elsa’s memory keeps making a difference for other kitties in need.