Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: NIGHT JOURNEY by Kathryn Lasky

It stands to reason that, having cleaned out the children’s room, I would have picked up a book or two to read for fun.

What’s really cool is when you start reading, and suddenly you remember a line from the book just before you read it, and you quote it as you read along. Which is how I found out I’d read this book a long, long time ago.

I picked up The Night Journey not because I remembered reading it, but mostly because it had a Samovar on front, and because Trina Schart Hyman illustrated it. She’s one of my two most favorite children’s book illustrators. LOVE her work.

Journey describes a great-grandmother and grandchild reconstructing the elder woman’s escape from pogrom-filled Russia when she was the age of the child to whom she is now telling the story. Filled with finely-drawn characters like Aunt Ghisa (a little bitterness from the unmarried sister who still loves her niece) and Wolf, the tormented loner who escaped an earlier Cossack raid at a cost higher than life. When Rache is first told her great-grandmother’s story, so intense is Wolf’s part in it that she writes it in a letter to be opened on Rache’s eighteenth birthday. The letter being opened is the culmination of the story, and it is intensely bittersweet.

Children’s books aren’t so layered and deep these day, methinks. The dismantling of the Samovar so the family can sneak it out with then, and the protection of the gold coins the family carries, run through the larger historic story like gold threads. It is a very satisfying read.

And fast. Which is fun sometimes, when you just want to spend two nights living someone else’s life from the safety of your pillow.

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The Monday Book: MWF SEEKS BFF by Rachel Bertsche

The trouble with writing a high-concept memoir is that you have to let someone else inside something pretty esoteric without scaring them through detail or boring them with the obvious. They’re hard to write.

Rachel Bertsche, newly moved to Chicago, wants to make friends. And she finally decides to go about it the same way she did dating: literal girl-dates, 52 in a year, to see who she can find out there. She meets a lot of people. She describes meeting a lot of people. Some of the descriptions are interesting, some repetitive. Sometimes it feels like she’s caught in the mechanics of her writing. (She promised to write up every single date.)

And sometimes it’s really funny. Occasionally insightful. What I find most interesting about the book is how much the reader can project into it. “That person she’s talking to now is me.” Or “that’s how I would have reacted to that person,” etc.

Bertsche’s writing is very journalistic, combining pop psych with lived experience. It’s not my favorite style, but she gives it her all and it’s compelling. If you’ve wondered how to meet people, or why people are drawn to each other, you’ll enjoy this book.

Perhaps the thing that frustrated me the most about her memoir is how many women were in Chicago for the same reason as Bertsche, and who met with Bertsche because of it, but never discussed why: they followed their guy to his career-launching jobs, and then had to fend for themselves. In a book full of women self-empowering themselves on relationships, nobody really talked about this. Hmmm…..

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Nicely, nicely does it – – –

Jack’s guest post a combination of the Monday Book and his usual Wednesday one –

This isn’t about a particular book, or even a specific range of books – it’s about how I was introduced to books and how they’ve played into my view of the world.

When I was attending high school and college to gain my basic English literature qualification I was following a curriculum that had a clear direction with no place whatsoever for Scottish authors, poets or playwrights. We had to study Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens, although Walter Scott was allowed. I think Scott was OK because he more or less invented the notion of a romantic ‘previous’ Scotland that no longer existed and that was acceptable.

What’s strange about this is that the Scottish education system has always (since 1707 and the union of parliaments) been completely independent from the English system. My guess is that the UK government always made sure that they had folk in positions of authority in place to make sure we toed the line. Not surprisingly I found all this a bit confusing.

But I had a wonderful English teacher at high school called John (Baldy) Forrest who had little interest in set curricula and a great love for the works of Damon Runyon. Baldy would stride around the classroom on a Friday afternoon (the fact that we were the ‘no hopers’ and it was Friday afternoon probably emboldened him) wearing his required academic gown and read sections of Runyon’s short stories aloud in a convincing New York accent – a bizarre sight indeed. He had sewn a block of wood into the side panel of his gown and would whack inattentive pupils on the back of the head which only endeared me to him more! The fact that I can picture him and recall his name is a great testament to his teaching abilities and ongoing legacy. If he’s still alive he must be well into his nineties but I doubt he is – RIP Baldy.

Later I attended evening classes in the local college I ended up working in for over twenty years and once again (no longer a ‘no hoper’) attempted to gain my Higher English qualification. We were a mixture of ages, and beneficiaries of the excellent Scottish system that left doors open for late learners. I am mortified to say that I can’t remember the name of the young teacher but he re-introduced me to Shakespeare and specifically Macbeth. I can still recite lines from ‘the Scottish play’ and it got me interested in Scottish history (something else we weren’t taught in school). But he also introduced us to ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. These are American classics that both link to poems by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns.

Now I can appreciate Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Dickens because I’ve read Burns, Grassic Gibbon, Runyon and Hemingway.

What have I learned from all this? The best teachers don’t slavishly follow laid down curricula and learning doesn’t have to only take place in the classroom or lecture hall.

BTW – Scott wrote bodice rippers and fake ballads!

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The Farmer Feeds us All

The Monday book (on Tuesday) isn’t a book – it’s a recording – –

Jack is standing in for Wendy as she is ‘on the road’.

Into the Purple Valley – Ry Cooder

I got this back in the early 1970s when it first appeared as an LP and was completely blown away. We all have certain albums that constitute ‘milestones’ in our musical lives and this is definitely one of mine. I had never heard of Ry Cooder until a friend who already had this played it for me. I immediately got a copy of my own, I still have it and I still listen to it from time to time. But nothing can re-capture hearing it for the first time.

purple valley

The singing has a world-weary quality that perfectly suits the songs and the choice of songs conjures up rural America dealing with hard times. They come from a wide variety of sources ranging from Woody Guthrie to Leadbelly and Joseph Spence and all have been performed and recorded by lots of other people.  However, Ry Cooder through this wonderful album established ‘ownership’ of all these songs.

In the end, though it’s not the singing that makes this such a stand-out – it’s the arrangements and Cooder’s fabulous guitar playing.

My favorite tracks are Vigilante Man, The Farmer Feeds us All and Denomination Blues, but that’s just me – there’s not a dud on here!

Of course other albums followed this and there are great performances from concerts and TV shows on YouTube, but this was the beginning.

To get the full experience you should search out the original LP in good condition but failing that it’s been re-issued as a CD.

(Wendy will be surprised at my choice as the next Ry Cooder album after this has an Airstream on the cover!).

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The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM (Ferris and Dexter, eds)

So this isn’t really a book you LIKE. It’s a book I personally read to see how writers handled the subject (a point in your life about which you are ashamed). I wanted to study them, from style to emotion to word choice.

Some of them handled it very well, and others left me feeling like the story they had to tell wasn’t the one they were telling.

This book is a collection of short stories/essays by women who have felt shame for something, ranging from divorce to making fun of people to being bad in school. The stories tend to focus on women who have influence and affluence (discovering her husband was having an affair, one writer lobbied his Emmy at his head, if that gives you an idea).  They’re not “on the ground” stories of not being able to provide, etc.

They’re also not as no-holds-barred as I was expecting as a whole, although in some cases they’re so intense that much is demanded of the reader. I read this book because Seal Press, who published it, have a great reputation for women authors with meat on their wordy skeletons. These women have things to say, and because I was dealing with a point in my own writing where shame came up, I wanted to see how they could do it graciously, conversationally, without justification or haranguing.

Well, some did and some didn’t, but when one reads for instruction and edification, one gets those things. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a sit-down and feel-good book. In fact, at the risk of sounding demeaning or facile, this is the kind of book one keeps in the smallest room in the house, and ponders piece by piece. To do otherwise might be overwhelming. I found that reading a chapter a night dragged me down, whereas a bit here, a bit there, with time to ponder and piece together ideas and smell the flowers between, was better for my mental health.

So this is less half-hearted endorsement than an upfront admission that I read this for personal reasons, to gain insight into good writers talking about bad stuff, and I got what I came for. If you’re not interested in how shame holds us, or you’re more interested in the inspirational side a la Brene Brown, you may not like this book. But it certainly got interesting.

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The Monday Bo0k: 29 GIFTS by Cami Walker

Walker’s memoir tells her story of being diagnosed with MS about 15 years after she could have been, and what changes it brought to her life. She had a medical emergency that became her diagnosis just a month after getting married.

This book first lays the groundwork for the 29 days: her spiritual advisor suggested she take this giving approach and talked her through some of the dos and don’ts – like giving out of abundance mentally and emotionally, not out of desperation. The groundwork is pretty interesting.

Then she goes day by day through the gifts, from a quarter for a parking meter to flowers for strangers on the street to seashells on the seashore. The gifts don’t tend to be large, but her analysis of what they did for her, what’s going on around her that day, etc. fall into something of a pattern.

This makes the book good for bedside reading, or casual dipping in and out. The gifts and the interactions with people around her are charming, and insightful in some cases. Those with MS or dealing with any loved one learning new lifestyle limitations due to illness, will probably see deeper meanings than casual readers.

Those looking for a feel-good gift for someone coping with a new diagnosis, or just a book for your bedside table to satisfy casual evening reading, would find that 29-gifts29 Gifts is a good choice.

 

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