Category Archives: writing

The Monday Book: THE LEISURE SEEKER by Michael Zadoorian

leisureTwo senior citizens hit the road for a last hurrah. She has cancer. He has Alzheimer’s. They’ve been married almost sixty years. They’re sharing a Leisure Seeker Van, and a lot of memories.

She packed the slide carousels featuring their lives, and a gun. He didn’t pack enough clean underwear, because he doesn’t care about hygiene much anymore. In fact, he’s having a hard time remembering her name, although he always calls her the love of his life.

This book made me laugh and cry. There is little dignity in American aging, but then again, dignity is where you find it. Like when a flat tire strands our two seniors alongside a deserted road, and the two men who approach them with a tire iron aren’t there to help. That’s when Ella gets her purse out of the camper and her gun out of the purse, and threatens to blow the boys away if they don’t leave them alone.

That kind of dignity.

Also, there’s the dark humor that Ella can’t drive their 1978 camper, so her dementia-driven husband does. When she forgets to take the keys, he drives away.

Zadoorian writes snappy dialogue and sarcastic sentences with style. They’re short, they’re smart, they’re fun. Sometimes you go from sob to laugh halfway through one.

And there’s the lovely symbolism running through the book of Route 66 versus the highway, and how they choose convenience or high life, or adventure over convenience, as we have all been doing all of our lives.

The ending is inevitable. Trigger warnings may apply. If you live life on your terms, that includes how you decide to go out. Disneyland may be a good destination, but it’s not the final one.

Highly recommended – these characters aren’t just driving the plot; the plot is driving. I loved this book. (Do yourself a favor and DO NOT watch the film. Trust me on this.)

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The Monday Book: The Story of the Tweed

Jack gets to do the book review this week –

The Story Of the Tweed by Herbert Maxwell

I’m not usually all that keen on travel books, but this one intrigued me as it’s about a part of Scotland with which I’m familiar. In fact I was there in June this year with my tour group, as I have been every other year for the last fourteen.

This is a facsimile reprint of a book first published in 1909, but it holds up well and could easily have been written more recently.

Maxwell traces the journey of the river Tweed from its source near Moffat to the North Sea at Berwick. But he takes a good few side turnings to explore the countryside, adjacent towns and other smaller rivers that feed into the Tweed.

river_tweed

The Tweed with the Eildon Hills in the background

Of course this is ‘ballad country’, and Maxwell was clearly well acquainted with many of them – many are quoted, including ‘The Dowie Dens o Yarrow’, ‘True Thomas’, ‘Johnnie Armstrong’ and more. Walter Scott’s famous ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ is the definitive collection and it would seem Maxwell had his own copy!

The writing is excellent, descriptive and humorous. Much of Scotland’s history was played out in this ‘debatable land’ covering the much disputed border with England. Again the author proves himself well up to the task of dissecting and explaining the history as he leads us along. Like most of my generation my schooling included very little Scottish history so it’s through books like this that I’ve had to re-educate myself.

Maxwell is clearly a big fan of Walter Scott, who lived the last part of his life in his mansion beside the Tweed. It’s clear also that he, like Scott was a big supporter of the union of Scotland and England. However I think the reason was more to do with the ending of cross border raids and the establishment of peace than for the economic reasons Scott espoused.

If you can find a copy then I highly recommend this to anyone with connections to the area or with an interest in Scottish history and balladry. Fans of Outlander will also recognize some familiar themes!

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The Monday Book: THEIR HOUSES by Meredith Sue Willis

their housesI got sent this book as I was leaving the Book Editor position for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. It was a wild ride (the book, although so was being editor).

Wells sets up a bizarre but plausible set of circumstances, and rides the wild waves from there: an old guy who struck it rich as a conspiracy theory revolutionary wants to reconnect to sisters he knew in childhood. All of them had weird childhoods, in the Jeanette Walls sense. The girls used to build little matchbox houses for their toys and called them “safe houses,” and kept them in a trunk–the same trunk where the younger sister hid drug money she stole from her older sister when she started running them….

That’s partly how the old rich guy got rich, and partly why he has a panic room. And partly why he loves the sisters, particularly the older one, so much. She turns in later years to religion and marries a preacher with a shady past that reaches into the present every now and again, with no complaints from him. (Every character in this novel is complicated, but not deep, is the best way to put it?)

Each chapter in the novel features one of the six main characters, and you will find this featured in the book group questions at its end: how do these different perspectives give the reader any sense of what’s going on inside all this chaos?

Good question. This book is chock full of things that don’t make sense, except, well, contextually they do. If you like Vonnegut, you’ll like Wells. Anything goes. Including the rather satisfying ending.

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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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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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