Category Archives: Review

Review: Grace (Eventually)

Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott
Grace (Eventually)
Anne Lamott

Title: Grace (Eventually)
Author: Anne Lamott
Published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59448-942-6
Publisher: Riverhead Books

If I listed every quote which resonated with me in this book, I would be quoting the entire thing.

Anne Lamott’s writing speaks to me.  Her complete honesty, no doubt.  The way she speaks her truth about her life.  The words she strings together to make me understand how she feels.  I recognize myself in some of what she writes about.

That scared, mixed up woman who can barely keep herself going, much less be expected to do anything else.  The woman who panics for what appears to be no good reason to others, but is a very good reason to her.  Like, “OHMYGAWD, I have no money, I can’t buy the groceries I want, I’m going to have to move my books to the underpass, I’m going to DIE.  The world is going to END!”  Yup, that’s me.

Of course, in my clearer moments I know being poor doesn’t mean the end of the world or anything dire.  It just means no money, and reminding myself that the universe is constantly taking care of me, even when it’s hard to see through the panicked fog.

Her junk food binges in the essay titled “The Muddling Glory of God?”  Frequent flyer here.  Her fraught and confusing relationship with her mother in “Dandelions?”  I still have the scars.

And while I teared up over Anne’s life and the way my heart hurt for both of us, I keep thinking, “She lived through it.  She got to a good place in her life where she can afford groceries and lives in a nice home and has a wonderful community around her.”  I can live through it too.

She makes me think.  And then she makes me giggle as I think about how I might also panic because my dog ran off out of sight on our walk.  Although I think I’d be more worried about the rattlesnakes.

And while I was reading, I was reminded how oddly grace works in my life.  How, really, it’s not so bad.  How when I’m not paying attention and wallowing around in my own mire, grace comes along and does something unexpected.  Then I feel all right and ready to keep going.

If I could ask Anne Lamott one thing, it would be if she would be my life sponsor.  One of my tribe to hold me when my face is red from crying and snot is running over my lips.  One who will take my hand, look me straight in the eye, and say, “You will get through this.”

Her books have literally been life changing for me.  bird by bird taught me about the discipline of writing, of being creative, every day.  Whether I want to or not.  Grace (Eventually) reminds me to wait patiently for the grace which envelops me and takes care of me.  Reading Anne Lamott is like meeting a new, old friend with whom I could share an afternoon talking about the deep things in life, while cracking each other up.

Review: Familiar Spirits

Familiar Spirts by Leonard Tourney
Familiar Spirits
Leonard Tourney

Title: Familiar Spirits
Author: Leonard Tourney
Series: Matthew and Joan Stock – #3
Published: 1984
ISBN: 0-345-34372-7
Publisher: Ballantine Books

New words:  Termagant, quiddity

New terms:  Geneva Bible, witch of Endor

Favorite Quote:

... his manhood celebrated by the monstrous codpiece he wore. (p. 12)

Nits:  As in Low Treason, Matthew Stock is described again as Argus of the hundred eyes.  Not only do I doubt the reference as one someone of Matthew Stock’s class would recognize, the use of that description in a second book makes me cringe a little.  It smacks of either laziness, or “aren’t I a clever writer?”  And why does the magistrate go nameless the entire book?

Matthew and Joan Stock are back on home turf in Familiar Spirits.  The town of Chelmsford is caught up in witch fever.  The opening chapter is a description of the hanging of three people, one of them a witch.  Tourney gets this atmosphere right, describing the delight of the spectators and the business-like demeanor of the gaolers and hangman.

Being accused of witchcraft was a nasty business, a veritable catch-22.  To prove you weren’t a witch you would have to go through trials which would surely kill you, if you survived then you were definitely a witch and would be hanged (or burned).  Horrible stuff.

And, as is usual in witchcraft trials, suspicion falls upon everyone associated with the witch.  Especially after Ursula’s master dies all of a sudden, after her ghost has been seen in the window by the master’s wife.

Then, the master’s wife’s sister and her family are accused.  A mob forms to drive the witches out, etc. etc. etc.

Matthew takes nothing at face value and is perplexed at the ghostly sightings of Ursula, the death, and the burning of the barn behind the master’s home where Ursula was purported to have conducted her tricks.

Superstitious townspeople are all calling for righteous living to be returned to with a speedy witch trial and hangings at the end.  Only Matthew is unconvinced.  Not because he doesn’t believe in witches, but rather, because the testimony given in Ursula’s trial makes no coherent sense.

Against the wishes of the townspeople, including the aldermen, Matthew continues to investigate.   What he turns up is more sinister than witchcraft, and does not come from Satan.  One man’s cover-up kills two more innocent people and nearly gets his wife and in-laws hanged.

Although Tourney’s pseudo-Elizabethan continues to bother me, and this is a fairly straightforward whodunnit, I am still charmed by Matthew Stock, and his wife Joan.  In addition, there is the kind and stubborn Jane Crispin who speaks up in court for herself.  Something no woman would have done, would be allowed.  In fact, she states that she is doomed either way, so why shouldn’t speak up and address the absurdities of the witch trial?  Especially, the “specialist” who brings his assistant along because the boy has himself once been possessed by demons and can point out those who are also possessed.

I suppose these absurdities are no more absurd than some of the political yammerings we suffer through today.

Review: Low Treason

LowTreason
Low Treason
Leonard Tourney

Title: Low Treason
Author: Leonard Tourney
Series: Matthew and Joan Stock – #2
Published: 1984
ISBN: 0704324334
Publisher: Quartet Books

100 Pages a Day:  Part OnePart Two

See also:
The Player’s Boy is Dead  – Review

High treason they call it in the law.  They would with more reason call it low treason, for a man must stoop low – indeed, must crawl upon his belly like a serpent – to practice it.
(Robert Cecil, p. 211)

Leonard Tourney’s Elizabethan mysteries featuring Matthew and Joan Stock of Chelmsford, England are slight books.  Of the two I’ve read, whodunit has been fairly obvious from early in the book, the protagonists must provide proof so justice can be served.

In Low Treason, the Stocks’ son-in-law tell them his brother has gone missing.  William Ingram has received a letter from Thomas’ employer, a jeweler in London, stating that Thomas has left for adventures on the sea.

Knowing this to be untrue, Matthew sets off to London to visit the jeweler and find out what’s really happened.  Shortly after he leaves Chelmsford, Joan answers her door and finds a filthy and nearly naked Thomas asking for Matthew.

After sorting out that Thomas’ life has been threatened and he was nearly killed, Joan packs her bags and heads for London to apprise Matthew of the new situation.

Once they are both in London, it becomes obvious that the plot against Thomas is based on the possibility of his having overheard something which puts the jeweler’s plot against England with Spain in jeopardy.  Because Matthew and Joan have also stumbled onto this information, their lives are in danger as well.

They are arrested on trumped up charges and sent to Newgate Prison, a horrible place which makes the American prison system seem fair and just in comparison.   During service in the prison chapel, an explosion goes off setting the chapel on fire and allowing the Stocks to escape, despite the intentions of their enemy and his bomb.

Matthew has a very powerful friend, Sir Robert Cecil, chief minister and spymaster for Queen Elizabeth I.  It is Cecil, working with Matthew and Joan, who puts plans in motion to catch the jeweler and prove he is plotting with Spain against England.

I enjoy reading these books as a break from some of the heavier fare in my stacks, but find Tourney’s pseudo-Elizabethan style uneven. and some of the plot devices annoyingly convenient.  Nonetheless, Matthew and Joan are sweet, lovely characters who stay true to their convictions and their love for each other.  They prove whodunit and go back to their simple lives in Chelmsford.

Reading Ovid: Metamorphoses – Review

Metamorphoses
Ovid
Translated by David Raeburn

Title: Metamorphoses
Author: Ovid, translated by Daniel Raeburn
Published: Reprint, 2004
ISBN-13: 978-0140447897
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Book OneBook TwoBook ThreeBook FourBook FiveBook SixBook SevenBook Eight Book Nine Book TenBook ElevenBook TwelveBook ThirteenBook FourteenBook Fifteen

Additional resources used while reading Metamorphoses:

When I write about books, I strive more for commentary than recap or review.  In the case of Metamorphoses, I am not qualified to give a close or technical read.  This is some heavy going and I could easily take several classes about Roman literature, Ovid and Metamorphoses itself, just to learn more about the time and context.  Not to mention the fun of taking art history and literature classes devoted to the impact Ovid had on Western art and literature.

Metamorphoses has been studied since first published in 8CE, just a few years before Ovid died.  The body of work devoted to this epic poem is prodigious.

It seems to me that reading it at least once is worthy of the effort, if only to be exposed to this grand writing, and learn the origin stories of things we already know in our contemporary lives.  Black ball, Midas touch, hyacinth and Pygmalion come to mind.

I encourage anyone who has wondered if they should read it, to give it a go.  My views on what people should or shouldn’t read are pretty clear; people should read what they want.

At the start of Metamorphoses, Ovid states his ambition; to tell the story of the founding of Rome from chaos to the present.  That is a lot of ground to cover.  When I first looked at the page count, 636, I thought it would just take a couple of weeks.  Hah!  Two months later.

Raeburn’s translation helped, as did the trick I finally figured out of reading to the punctuation instead of the meter.  I am horrible with meters and they just make the poem choppy and ugly to me.  But ignoring the meter and reading to the punctuation made things so much easier.

There’s so much going on in this work.  It is grand and sweeping, and sometimes choppy and even more difficult.  I would like to have a better grounding in the literature of the time so that I could understand the allusions and homages more easily.  Romans loved their blood and guts and adventure tales.

In fact, Metamorphoses is rife with violence, gruesome in its detail and astonishing in the litany of names of characters involved in all the “stabbity-stab-stab.”  Rape is another prevalent topic, as is punishment by the gods and goddesses.

This is not a nice, tidy look at the story of Rome, fiction or not.  There were numerous times when I had to stop and remind myself that Metamorphoses was written for an audience who had certain expectations for a great story, and for whom violence was nothing to be squeamish about.

The attitudes towards women are difficult, but again, this was written in first century CE, when the very idea of women speaking up for themselves and showing agency was frowned upon at best, punishable at worst.  Ancient Rome was a very stratified society, even wealthy women were held to be barely better than the slave class.  So it is no surprise this found its way into the literature.

There are very few happy endings in Metamorphoses.  Love goes unrequited, and is frequently punished with grim results.  Happy love stories are reserved for those who are pious in their thoughts and actions.  Even those end sadly, as the characters nearly always die.

The parts I most enjoyed were the personifications of emotions and dreams.  Envy, Rumour and Sleep are all represented here, imagined with entertaining lines.

I enjoyed reading the details of how Ulysses’s men turned into pigs on Circe’s island, from the point of view of one of the men.  And, although Polyphemus was a monster in all meanings of the word, it was fun to read how he tried to make himself into something Galatea could love.  Jove as a golden shower getting Danae pregnant is another favorite bit.

There’s so much to enjoy, and revile, in Metamorphoses, it’s impossible to recount them in any way that makes sense.  I could comb back through each book’s commentary and look for things to write about here.  But I won’t.

What I will say is that reading Metamorphoses was a journey worth taking. One which I am just as happy to have completed, leaving me to move on to less complicated books in my stacks.  One lasting effect I am sure of, nothing I see or read will ever be the same since reading it.

If you’re up for an adventure, and don’t mind working for your read, give Metamorphoses a try.  I can’t guarantee what you’ll get from it, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t get into it.  There are far too many books to be read; don’t read the ones you can’t get into.  As for me, I’m glad to have had the experience.

Book Review: People of Darkness

People of Darkness Tony Hillerman
People of Darkness
Tony Hillerman

Title: People of Darkness
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee (#4)
Published: 1982
ISBN: 038057778-x
Publisher: Avon

Part One Part Two

Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years.  I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school.  Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me.  Even though I lived along  north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply.  I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.

In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below.  The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s.  These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.

People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created.  Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people.  As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.

Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture.  Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues.  FBI or Navajo Police?  Sheriff or BIA?  Some combination of that or someone else?  In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.

What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs.  One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door.  One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.

Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well.  Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony.  A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony.  Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony.  It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.

People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin.  Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship.  She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American.  He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white.  It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.

Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages.  They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.

Review: Minions

The Minions Movie
The Minions Movie

I have loved the little yellow absurdities known as the Minions since Despicable Me.  I giggle at their antics and their lovable interactions with the three adopted girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes.

Are there problems with the movies?  Yes.  Sexist tropes by the handful, stupid scatological jokes, and mean parents, and violence to name a few.

And okay, I get that there are huge problems with the gender stereotyping in Minions.  My friend, Melissa, at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has a great article about the problems of gender in animated movies, in general, starting with specific issues with Minions.

When Melissa first brought this up on Facebook, I was a little chagrined that I hadn’t actually noticed.  Minions have always been genderless, or gender-fluid to me, so the fact the three main minions were named Kevin, Stuart and Bob just kinda flew by me.  Yeah, okay they’re male names but honestly, I didn’t see anything particularly male about them.  Except Bob.  Bob has always been a goofy little boy who flirts with yellow fire hydrants pretending to be a player and failing.  As the narrator says, “Bob’s an idiot.”  Bob has always been like that, in all three movies.

Kevin is the leader.  He’s the one who steps up to go on a quest to save the minions from the mind-numbing leaderless time they’re spending in ice caves.  Minions need someone to serve, and Kevin volunteers to lead the quest.  When he sees Scarlet Overkill, it is game over for him.  He falls in love with her, not because she is some ideal of feminine beauty but because she is the most evil villain in the world and he wants to work for her.

And loveable little Stuart hauls his eyeless, over loved teddy bear with him everywhere, adopting animals along the way, including a rat he names Butchie.  He’s afraid to enter the larger world and Kevin and Bob make sure he knows they’re right there for him.

I still think it’s brilliant that Scarlet Overkill is the evil villain.  She is so deliciously over the top and up to no good.  There’s even a little girl sitting in the audience when Scarlet makes her first overblown entrance who stands on her chair and excitedly proclaims, “I want to be just like Scarlet when I grow up.”

Scarlet’s dream doesn’t reach far enough.  She only wants to steal the Queen of England’s crown because she wants to be a princess, because, “everyone loves princesses.”  Scarlet clearly didn’t get enough love as a child and her stunted childhood dream is to be a princess so people will love her.  No super villain has come from a family where there was enough joy and love and support.  They wouldn’t be villains if they had.

I also thought it was brilliant that when the minions stole the crown, the Queen started hanging out at the pub drinking pints and telling jokes with the common man.  (And yes, they were all men.)

Things happen, Kevin is made king because he stole the crown and that makes Scarlet very angry.  But all Kevin wants to do is serve Scarlet, because that’s his purpose in life, to serve.  So he abdicates, and then her coronation day gets spoiled by another super villain.

Make no mistake, Scarlet turns into a whiny, petulant child when she doesn’t get her way.  She is stuck in a childhood dream which makes no sense.  She believes that she must be pretty and have a tiny waist to be adored.  And yes, that’s a big problem in terms of gender stereotypes.  There’s also a stereotypical gay hairdresser who doesn’t quite understand why his vision isn’t better than the childhood crayon drawing of a stick figure princess with “curly” hair.

At the end of the movie Gru arrives on the scene, uses his freeze ray gun and Kevin knows where the minions belong.  This is really the story that connects Despicable Me and the minions, it’s the story about how Gru and the minions found each other.

The biggest problems I had with the movie were not the gender stereotypes but the violence.    And the stupid jokes given to Bob who flirts with yellow fire hydrants and shows the audience his thong underwear.  That was just idiotic.

For all of that, I’m glad the conversation is ongoing about problems with representation of boys and girls in movies.  About how movies sell women and girls short on a regular basis and how men and boys are shortchanged on learning to be anything other than stoic, protective, fumble fingered with emotions, and yes, stupid.

Director Pierre Coffin didn’t help himself by saying he made the minions boys because “boys are stupid” and he couldn’t imagine girls being that stupid.  If what he meant to say was that little boys do goofy things because they’re little boys and little girls don’t tend to do the same goofy things, that’s a different story.  Saying girls are smarter than boys doesn’t help.

Yes, I see the point of the criticisms of Minions, and I’m glad Melissa’s post addresses some of the larger issues in cartoons and how girls/women are portrayed.  I do get it.

From a story-teller’s point of view, it’s the story of three yellow things (out of thousands) who go on a quest to find their purpose in life.  It’s the story of how the minions met Gru.  That’s the point of the story.  That one of the villains is a woman inspiring a little girl is something we should cheer for.  That the Queen became a “regular” person is something we should cheer for.  It’s a step forward.  A small one to be sure, but it is a step.  And that’s something to cheer for too.

Book Review: The Players’ Boy is Dead

The Players’ Boy is Dead
Leonard Tourney

… in the last few days she had found herself nearly overwhelmed with a sense of futility.  There was, she now accepted, no evidence for what she knew intuitively, and no safe way to bring the evildoer to justice even were there evidence to substantiate her intuition.
(pp 160-161)

Matthew Stock is a clothier with a bustling business in Chelmsford (32 miles away from London).  He is also the town constable and so is called on to solve crimes from time to time.

A troupe of players have arrived to perform at Sir Henry’s, the Magistrate, home.  But the young man who plays all the women’s parts in their entertainments has been found dead in the stable at the inn.

This sweet Elizabethan mystery features questions Matthew is quite shocked to have the answers to.  He and his adoring wife, Joan, solve the murders, which keep multiplying, together.

Fairly early on, the murderer/s are alluded to, but proving they did the deed is almost beyond the reach of Matthew because of class status.  In the end, justice will out with some help from a highly placed official in London.

Although there were rather abrupt changes in character and point of view with no indication the character had changed, I found The Players’ Boy is Dead to be engaging and entertaining.  A nice interlude from the heavier works I have been reading.

 

Book Review: My Friend the Fanatic

My Friend the Fanatic
Sadanand Dhume

Full disclosure: This was an ARC (Advanced Readers’ Copy) given to me through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers’ program. In exchange, I agreed to give an honest review.

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three

“Mosque is not a good word. It is like mosquito. It is taken from the Mexican language. You know we do not like mosquito. This is deeply propaganda …”
Herry Nurdi to Sadanand Dhume (p. 136)

It’s all too easy to point and laugh while dismissing the ignorance of people.  But we should take care because this sort of ignorance from religious extremists (not just Muslim) is what fuels the fires of intolerance.

Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend the Fanatic, is filled with examples of stubborn ignorance and hypocritical thinking.  It is also filled with examples of how this fuels the move against equal and civil rights in favor of sharia law.  So far, this could be the story of any nation struggling with identity politics.

But Dhume’s book is set in Indonesia and reflects what he encounters in his travels under the auspices of Herry Nurdi, editor of a Islamic fundamentalist magazine and fan of Osama bin Laden.

The extreme differences between secular life and religious ideology are most striking in the first section focusing on events in Java.  A pop star who has popularized a dance move called drilling (something akin to twerking), a Muslim televangelist, and what passes for literati are in stark contrast with those who live in abject poverty living in shacks with dirt floors begging to support their family.

It took over one hundred pages for My Friend the Fanatic to become cohesive.  Not only were the familiar stories of poverty, ignorance and zealotry told but so were the struggle for identity as a nation.  Although Dhume begins with the 2002 bombings in Bali, the story begins earlier in Indonesia’s history, with Indonesia winning independence from the Dutch in 1949.

Simplistically put, Indonesia’s problems can be seen as the growing pains of a young nation searching for identity.  What is it to be Indonesian?  I found My Friend the Fanatic to be an interesting look into these issues from the point of view of an atheist journalist from India seeking answers from Islamic fundamentalists fighting against secular values.

Dhume writes of the stark contrasts in Indonesia and the conflicts in politics and ideology.  His work has made me curious about Indonesia and its history.

 

Book Review: Adam + Evelyn by Ingo Schulze

Adam + Evelyn
Ingo Schulze

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart TwoPart Three

Another in the Canongate series, featuring global writers retelling myths.

Imagine what it would be like to leave a place where all your needs were met for a place in which you now have  freedom of movement but must scrabble to meet your needs?

Adam had everything he wanted:  a home, a thriving tailor business, food, a car that ran, women …

One day Evelyn quits her job waiting tables and comes home to find Adam having sex with one of his clients in the the bathtub.  Enough already, Evelyn decides, and leaves to take the vacation to Hungary she and Adam had planned together without him.

Adam cannot understand what has gotten into Evelyn.  He packs his car, including pet turtle, and heads off to follow her and friends, Simone and Michael, into Hungary.  Throughout most of the book, he simply does not comprehend why Evelyn is so angry with him.

There is bickering galore as Evelyn tries to tell Adam why she’s mad, why she’s sleeping with Michael, and why she’s decided not to go back to East Germany, but wants to head into the West to make her own way.

Set against the history of politics in Eastern Europe (there’s a chronology included) and the fall of borders and, eventually, the Berlin Wall, Adam + Evelyn is Ingo Schulze‘s (German) version of what happens to Adam & Eve after God expels them from Eden and they must make their own way in the world.

Book Review: The Hurricane Party

The Hurricane Party
Klas Ostergren

100 Pages a Day:
Part OnePart Two Part Three

Overall, the best part of The Hurricane Party, was the retelling of the Lokasenna, the banquet of the Norse gods featuring the trickster god, Loki, killing and insulting others. You know, causing trouble as trickster gods do.

This part was interesting and read smoothly, even when tangents were taken to explain the background story of Loki and some other character.

It was the foundation laying that was stilted and somewhat mundane.  It’s necessary to meet Hanck and learn his story, and for the scenery to be explained as classist, grey and toxic (literally) for the ordinary worker.

We learn many details about Hanck but it truly felt as though Ostergren had taken bullet points about Hanck’s life and then tried to flesh them out with some details.  Most of these details make little sense in the context of the story and add nothing to the plot of Hanck finding, losing, and learning about love.

That the innkeeper’s red-haired daughter was a virgin and her hair was perfect in the calibration of some obsolete gauge still has me wondering.

I often remind myself that I must meet the author where he is, not where I want him to be.  This could have been a more interesting story about a man living in 1984 like times who learns about love through the death of his son.  Ostergren’s way of telling this story wasn’t how I wanted it to read.  This is another case of author and reader being on different pages.