Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens

I’d heard good things about this book for some time, and looked forward to reading it.

The short version is, I love the way Owens writes, but didn’t much believe in this novel’scrawdads plot.

The book is about Kya, a girl who raises herself when her mother leaves an abusive husband and one by one the other kids head out from the swampland to make their own lives. Kya doesn’t starve and sorta makes peace with her dad, until he dies, by which time she can more or less cook and make a few dimes here and there with assorted activities.

The local boys know there’s a marsh girl so there’s a few hide and seek scenes, but the nicest and smartest of the boys befriends her, falls in love with her, teaches her to read, and then abandons her in college because he thinks she won’t fit in. But the star athlete at the high school decides to take her on, and she gets taken in.

Kya starts writing books and illustrating them, she gets a little respect, some money, fixes her house, etc. Star athlete winds up dead, Kya gets blamed, she finally gets found innocent. She marries the nice guy who realizes how much he’s misjudged her.

And then years later he learns the truth about whether or not she killed the usurious high school athlete. Not gonna spoil that for you.

The writing is beautiful. The plot is rather Hallmarkian? A 14-year-old boy teaches a wild child to read, and she becomes a published author who goes from selling shells to drawing them and the toast of the academic world of marshes. Okay. Feel-good plot, fine. But I like character-driven books and this one turns on types and tropes.

This book was made to be a movie, so just wait for it. It might even be better as a film, being a very cinematographic plot.

That said (“I didn’t much care for this book”) I will say I’m going to hunt down some of Owens’ other works. She writes so well, maybe some of the other plots are less hokey.

A mixed thumb up/thumb down, in essence, for this bestseller. Lots of people loved it, and it’s really just that I like books where character drives plot. This isn’t one.

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Monday Book – The Rituals of Dinner – Margaret Visser

Jack gets to review the Monday book this week –

dinner

This book is both fascinating and frustrating.

Visser chose a strange way to progress her story, not chronologically as might be expected, but by topics. This results in a good deal of repetition – revisiting the Greeks, Romans, medieval Europeans etc in every chapter. Other reviewers have suggested the book could have been a good deal shorter and more readable and I’m inclined to agree.

On the other hand I found it hard to put down because of all the really interesting stuff scattered throughout. Although her specialty is literature, she is clearly a fine anthropologist as well. There are a good few references to folk motifs that I’m familiar with and was a bit surprised to find in a book about table manners. In fact, although the title suggests a fairly narrow focus, Visser ranges pretty widely around the central subject.

You could be forgiven for expecting this book to be about table manners and how to behave at the dinner table. It actually starts with cannibalism, goes through the development of tables and chairs, covers the invention of forks and spoons, deals with social attitudes in different cultures and a host of other loosely food related matters.

I think what was perhaps a bit startling for me was recognizing familiar dinner table and restaurant situations and for the first time understanding what lay behind them – everything from the placing of a knife (blade towards you and not your neighbor) to signaling the time to change courses.

The final chapter examines present day mores including the fast food culture – reflecting another book – ‘The MacDonaldization of Society’ by George Ritzer, but that’s another story – –

I have some reservations about Visser’s book, but if you don’t mind skimming here and there, it’s still fascinating stuff!

 

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The Monday Book: THE PEARL THAT BROKE ITS SHELL by Nadia Hashimi

pearlIt’s been awhile since I devoured a novel so thoroughly as this one. Hashimi writes in a simple, straightforward way. (And be warned, a couple of times the point of view shifts because the copy editor didn’t catch it.)

The book follows two women, Rahima the young daughter of a drug addict, and her great-aunt Shekiba (maybe a few greats in there) a century earlier. Rahima has only sisters, so by Afghani law she can be turned into a son until she is “too old.” That time comes all too quickly for Rahima, who like two of her sisters is married off to sons of the warlord her father serves (and owes for his opium).

Rahima tries to draw strength from Shekiba’s story, told by her unmarried aunt, who grows increasingly impation with Rahima’s mother when she follows her husband into opium despair. But that’s after several more tragedies pretty much rip out her heart.

Told with not as much sentiment as one might expect, and showing the unique ways in which women can find power in the strangest places, the story parallels Rahima’s brief life as a schoolboy and Shekiba’s man-guarding of the palace harem. (The king couldn’t trust men there, so he got ugly women to do it. Shekiba had been harmed by a fire, before the plague carried off her family. She managed to live independently for a bit, too, before her father’s brothers figured out the land was available. Nothing goes too well after that.)

Although the book is intense in its depictions of violence and toxic masculinity, it also shows the ways in which women work together or gang up against each other to work their will. And it is a gripping read, moving quickly through the action with just the right amount of characterization. Dressed in period clothing and speaking Afghani to one another, you still feel like you know these people. Nothing new here, just the usual family jealousy and economic troubles revealing what’s in people’s hearts.

Hashimi combines words in an interesting way, unique almost. Prosaic yet lyrical, as in this quote: “The human spirit, you know what they say about the human spirit? Is is harder than a rock and more delicate than a flower petal.” And for all the cultural awareness of the work, there are some lovely character moments that transcend setting, as in when someone tells Rashima she must accept her destiny, or naseeb: “The hell with naseeb. Naseeb is what people blame for every thing they can’t fix.”

Heartily recommended.

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The Monday Book: The Last Days of the Sioux Nation.

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Last Days of the Sioux Nation – Robert M. Utley

sioux nation

My interest in this subject was sparked by a song. My old singing friend John Watt and I, both from the same small town in Scotland, knew that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show had played there during its final European tour. He was intrigued enough to do a lot of research and wrote the song.

He discovered that among the performers was a group of Sioux who had been ‘paroled’ from a South Dakota reservation by Cody. I started singing the song a few years ago and when Wendy and I decided to plan a road trip we wanted to include the Black Hills and the Badlands. On that trip we also took in Wounded Knee and the Crazy Horse monument.

More recently we repeated the journey with a couple of Scottish friends and this time added in a visit to Little Big Horn. Along the way, on both trips, we naturally picked up a good few books that filled out our knowledge. In addition, I found an excellent book by the Scottish writer James Hunter called Glencoe and the Indians that added another layer of fascinating hidden history.

Utley’s book is probably the best I’ve come across covering this whole sad period. The period he covers is about ten years around 1890 and takes us from Little Big Horn to after Wounded Knee. His excellent research describes the tensions within the different Sioux sub-divisions as well as the rivalries between the US army and the Department of the Interior. The Sioux were reeling from the many broken promises, particularly around their sacred Black Hills and Badlands. Their final attempt to revive their lost way of life was to embrace the ‘Ghost Dance’ and this was grossly misunderstood by the Federal authorities and particularly the army.

Utley includes a collection of photographs from the period including the main actors as well as notable places such as Wounded Knee creek.

In Hunter’s book he points up the similarities between the experiences of the Sioux and those of the Highlanders who were cleared off their Scottish land. The real irony is that some of those Scots ended up in America and took a leading part in the Sioux clearances!

There’s a well known story that a few of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Sioux left his show in Glasgow and settled there. What we do know is that a popular Glasgow museum recently returned a ghost shirt to the US that they had had in their collection for over one hundred years.

I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this dreadfully sorry period in US history – five stars!

 

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Which Side are You On

Jack scrapes over the wire with the Wednesday post – – –

I’m a week or so late in acknowledging Labor Day I know, but –

On our kitchen wall we have a tea towel with a print of a certificate by the house decorators and painters union dating from the mid 1800s.

towel

It fascinates me for two reasons. It reminds me of a famous book – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – that describes the working conditions of a group of house painters in England in the early 1900s. The other reason is because I served a six year apprenticeship learning all the skills depicted in that certificate.

The scenes illustrated clearly display great pride in the variety of specialisms involved –

The simple yet carefully prescribed way of painting a paneled door.

The use of color to enhance a classical Greek style cornice.

A cherub studying design and another one lettering a signboard.

A collection of regular paintbrushes and tools and another collection of tools for applying goldleaf.

In the center is a scene showing why the union was so important – a sick painter (maybe suffering from lead poisoning) is being attended by a doctor while his wife and son look on.

In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the main character is a young man, newly finished his apprenticeship who has a particular talent for design. He spends a lot of his own time, unpaid, making wonderful designs to be used later as part of his work. This reminds me very much of my father who served his time back in the 1920s when the system still included attendance at art college. Truly a marrying of art and craft and the legacy of people like William Morris.

My apprenticeship was served under my Dad in his painting business and I was ‘indentured’. That means that, like all his apprentices, we both signed a legal document that was then torn irregularly in half. At the end of my six years I received his half, which when matched to my half showed I was legally a time-served craftsman (indentured actually means ‘patterned like teeth’).

Everything has changed now. In Scotland there are still apprenticeships but they last just three years and don’t cover the same breadth of skills. Indenturing no longer takes place and DIY has blossomed with the introduction of easier to use materials and tools.

But I learned a lot – not just about craft skills, but also social skills. Not only that but it was the gateway to my college career, so a very good start to my working life.

Finally – I’m a big believer in unions!

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The Monday Book: EDUCATED by Tara Westover

This week’s Monday book comes courtesy of Paul Garrett. Thanks Paul!

educated             Tara Westover’s memoir about growing into adulthood as the daughter of a Mormon fundamentalist is at times remarkable, at times horrifying, and in the end, bittersweet.

Growing up in Idaho one of seven children, her father was a prepper. Along with God, and Joseph Smith, his other hero was Randy Weaver whom he believed (wrongly) was murdered by federal agents at Ruby Ridge. Suspicious of the government and the Illuminati, whom he believes controls the world, he refused to allow his children to have any interaction with the outside. This meant no school, no birth certificates, no immunizations and no doctors, even when his wife and children suffered life threatening injuries working in and around the family scrap yard.

As his paranoia grew, he became more isolated and created vast stockpiles of food, weapons and gasoline in readiness for the apocalypse which he believed was always just around the corner. Of the seven children three, including Tara gathered the courage to seek a college education.

When Tara entered Brigham Young University with little knowledge of the world outside her cloistered circle, it was like landing on another planet. She recounts the time in one of her freshman classes when she raised her hand and innocently asked what the word “holocaust“ meant. She had never heard of it. The other students seemed like aliens. They drank diet soda, wore makeup and tight-fitting clothes, things her father warned were of the devil. They even insisted she wash her hands after going to the bathroom.

The decade she spent pursuing her undergraduate degree at Brigham Young and her graduate studies  (at Harvard and Cambridge) kept her suspended between two worlds; the world of civilization and that of her sadomasochistic tribe of a family that tried incessantly to pull her back into their orbit, where she was gaslit and frequently brutalized by her siblings, and where life threatening injuries, whether severe head trauma or near fatal immolation were welcomed as a gift from God. The cognitive dissonance between her new reality and her old one nearly drove her insane.

The billionaire H.L. Hunt once said of being successful; “Decide what you want, decide what you’ll give up to get it, then get to work.” Tara Westover knew what she wanted and set out to get it. By the end of the book, the cost of what she gave up was still being calculated.

Educated: A memoir by Tara Westover, Random House, NY, 2018

 

 

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The Monday Podcast

conservative liberal bookstoreSorry, team, that the blog has been so lagging of late. I’m on a heavy crochet schedule, and have two book proposals in. (More on those later, no ink on signature lines yet.)

Meanwhile, because down time is precious, my reading has been confined to after I’m in bed, and more often than not the book hits me in the face to signal nighty-night.

While crocheting, however, there is only so many streamed TV shows and movies one can watch before one feels brain cells dying, so I turned in desperation to “Best Podcasts of 2019.” And found a gem.

EMBEDDED is in-depth reporting on specific issues of timeliness. Police shootings, Trump stories (some of which are hysterical – check out the one about his golf courses), and a five-part, amazingly even-keeled examination of Mitch McConnell’s political career. The dry humor, unwillingness to express opinions, and the timelag (they recorded some information as far back as 2012) make for great deep dives. Those who want to find bias probably can, but since it could cut in any direction, I’m thinking there’s not a lot of it.

Although individual programs can be as insightful as they are diverse (the one on Inuit suicide rates in Greenland, for example) EMBEDDED does its best work in serializing. Someone on that team is doing some great advising, because the sensitivity of the four-part series on Coal in Appalachia was amazingly accurate. I felt seen. That is very unusual for a network known for elitist urban attitudes. Their coverage of “Trump County” was also even-handed, in-depth, and devoid of cheap shots.

EMBEDDED makes me feel informed, and wiser, and it delivers both with a fair sense of humor. While it won’t take sides, it does deliver jokes. No small feat in a program working not to politicize its own programming.

Highly recommended, whether you think NPR is a liberal bastion of condescension or the last remaining news source of integrity in America. I never felt condescended to in their coverage of rural – and they actually covered rural blight with equal dignity to stories of urban school closures.

Two big crocheting thumbs up for EMBEDDED; I finished an entire afghan and am moving on to the Christmas snowflakes. Heh heh. No pun intended.

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