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18th-Feb-2018 03:09 pm(no subject)
soul of a rose
The Inviting Garden: Gardening for the Senses, Mind, and Spirit, by Allen Lacy. Henry Hold and Company, 1998

This is a lovely and inspiring book by the late Mr. Lacy, one that made me long for spring so that I can work in the garden. The first part is built around the five senses, one chapter per- tasting herbs and vegetables; listening to fountains, wind chimes and birds; feeling soft lamb’s ears and soft earth; smelling roses, lilies, and mock orange; and of course viewing the many flowers and leaves that the garden offers us. For the mind section he ventures into botanical nomenclature; how much there is to know about even one plant and how it works (especially if you get into the biome in which it grows, including insects and soil critters); the history of plant discoveries; floral legends; and how the American yard turned out like it has- mostly lawn and open to view. Spirit is basically that gardening is not a hobby, but a way of being that absorbs one.

This is not a coffee table book, but it contains a lot of gorgeous photographs. All make you long to step into them and enjoy the garden portrayed. His writing wanders at times; when he describes a plant we are apt to learn about its history and uses as well as how it looks. It’s rather like being in the garden and talking with a very educated plantsman. Five stars.
18th-Feb-2018 12:59 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
Patriot Number One, by Lauren Hilgers. Crown, 2018

The author spent six years in China, and had been back in America two years when a contact from her expatriate time phoned her suddenly, saying he would see her soon in New York. This was totally unexpected, although she knew that Zhuang Liehong and his wife, Little Yan, were hoping to escape from China and seek political asylum in the United States. Zhuang was a political activist, seeking to reform the local system in Wukan, the village where he lived. Corruption was rife, and he wanted justice for his fellow villagers.

Escape was amazingly easy- they managed to get visas to take a tour of some US cities, under the auspices of a tour guide. The hang up was that they had to leave their infant son behind, to make it look like they were coming back. But they hoped to get asylum right away and be able to send for him. They left him with family.

New life in the US was not so easy, though. Zhuang did not speak any English, and what English Little Yan knew was rusty. Hilgers went to where she had her laundry done; the woman there gave her some contacts and hints. Soon enough, the couple found that being granted asylum was neither easy nor fast. Without asylum and green cards, they cannot get above-board jobs, so making a living is difficult. Plus, at first Zhuang insists that Little Yan must work at the same place he does, so he can keep an eye on her. And when he gets over that, he goes back to political activism, which eats up a lot of his time. This story alternates with backstory, telling us how and why Zhuang became a man the government of China wanted to keep an eye on.

There are some many people that Zhuang and Little Yan interacted with that you practically need a cast of characters. The story can be confusing at times; non-fiction is rarely as smooth and even as novels are. I found the story fascinating; those of us born in the US can barely grasp what difficulties immigrants face when they come here, particularly ones seeking political asylum. Zhuang and Little Yan were lucky because they knew someone in New York, an American who could speak their language, who was willing to devote time to helping them. I recommend this book a lot; it’s highly illuminating of problems both here and in China. Four and a half stars.
14th-Feb-2018 03:27 pm(no subject)
Kwan Yin
Rainbirds, by Clarissa Goenawan. Soho Press, 2018

Just when Ren Ishida is finishing grad school, his older sister Keiko is murdered. They haven’t seen each other in a long time, but they talk on the phone every week. She has been living in a small town for years and he knows little of her life there. Ren goes to the town to arrange her funeral and take care of her unfinished business. Their parents do not show up; they have been absent as parents for most of Ren’s life, with Keiko pretty much raising him as she went through school.

The police have no leads; indeed, the police play little part in the story. This is Ren’s exploration of his late sister’s life- he immerses himself in her life, taking over her job as an English instructor at a cram school, and renting her old room in a politician’s house. He learns something about how her life was led by performing the same functions as she did. He also finds little clues in odd places, as well as having dreams about a small child who wants him to figure out who she is.

The story has a blue mood cast over everything, even in more upbeat moments. The writing reminds me of Haruki Murakami, with bits of magical realism thrown into Ren’s voyage of discovery about both his sister and himself. Despite the down mood, I couldn’t put the book down. There are some things that could have been better, but it’s the author’s first novel. Four and a half stars.
14th-Feb-2018 11:59 am(no subject)
tracks through time
All the Beautiful Girls, by Elizabeth J. Church. Ballantine Books, 2018

Lily Decker is only 8 when an auto accident takes the lives of her parents and her sister. Her own survival with no injuries in nearly miraculous. She is sent to live with her aunt, who has no idea how to deal with a child or show affection, and an uncle who sexually abuses her from day one. Her only solace is dance, and a ‘mysterious benefactor’ – who she realizes right away is the man in the other car at the accident, a military pilot she refers to always as The Aviator. As soon as she turns 18, she heads off to the place her dance instructor recommends: Las Vegas. With an intent to be a troupe dancer, she is startled and disheartened to discover what dancing means in Vegas. But a new friend convinces her it’s a good way to make a living, so she bites the bullet, takes off her clothes, and it’s living the good life, and money to put in the bank.

All is not good, though; her previous sex abuse has scarred her badly, there’s a lot of temptations in 1960s Vegas, and she must work her way through her problems. And while she is very lucky, there are people who will take advantage of beautiful girls- especially when they are making good money. When she literally drops into the arms of handsome and charming Javier, she thinks she’s found true love.

I enjoyed the book but I wasn’t thrilled with it. Ruby is a good character, with good points and flaws, and I was really rooting for her, but somehow she never got under my skin the way truly great characters do. The other characters are a bit flat, sadly. The descriptions of Vegas in the 60s were great fun. But the book just lacked… something… to make it all come to life. Four stars out of five.
4th-Feb-2018 03:16 pm(no subject)
skull on books
The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, by Mallory Ortberg. Holt, 2018

This is a collection of retold fairy tales. Some of the stories are some of the better of this genre, in the vein of Angela Carter. Others left me just puzzled. The author lists her influences in the back of the book, which I liked because I wasn’t sure about some of them. She didn’t just work from the brothers Grimm; she also has Biblical influences, Shakespeare, the Wind in the Willows, and even does a riff on the Velveteen Rabbit (which I thought was a really creepy tale).

These are not pretty tales; they are all on the dark side. The ‘Wind in the Willows’ one, “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” is about as dark as you can get, seeing how far people can go in the name of ‘helping’ others. One really different aspect to these stories is how Ortberg puts a spin on gender and terminology; princesses can be male or female, as can wives and husbands or sons and daughters. I liked the idea of ‘wife’ being a job description rather than a term fixed by one’s genitals! The author also has a wicked sense of humor that comes out at times. Four stars.
31st-Jan-2018 03:12 pm(no subject)
reading, books
Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life, by Laura James. Seal Press, 2018

After wondering all her life why she seemed different from other people, in her mid-forties Laura James was diagnosed with both Ehlers-Danlos and Asperger’s (and I suspect she may have synesthesia, too, although she doesn’t say so). Over the course of a year, she learns all she can about these disorders, and things start making sense to her- and to her husband. It’s not that she’s been a failure- she was highly successful, with four children and a career as a journalist. But there had always been situations that caused extreme discomfort, sometimes even leading to a meltdown. Crowds, uncomfortable clothing, sensory overload- even some colors- are all things she tries to avoid.

Highly intelligent, she and her second husband created a life that allowed her to succeed and still be protected from things that stressed her. Getting her diagnosis explained so much about her, but she’d already gone a long way towards accommodating her problem. The diagnosis meant she could find out how other people dealt with having autism and allowed her to be in contact with people who faced the same problems.

The book follows her over a little over a year’s time, with sections of current time alternating with her past. It’s a really interesting read, but I could never quite get invested in her story. There is a dryness to her prose that seemed somehow stand-offish, even though she talks about some really painful events. Perhaps part of being autistic, perhaps part of being a journalist, used to presenting facts. A four star read; I recommend it to anyone with a person with autism in their circle, because it might really help them to understand that person.
30th-Jan-2018 01:29 pm(no subject)
lisa books
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. Houghton Mifflin, 1940

This is a book I picked up because it is considered a classic of modern literature, and I felt I should be acquainted with such. I ended up not being able to put it down.

There is not a lot of plot; the story is almost completely character driven. It takes place in a small southern town during the Depression. The pivotal figure is John Singer, a deaf mute who, along with knowing ASL (American Sign Language) can read lips very well. His best friend, the only other person in town who knows ASL, is a man with mental illness that gets worse in the very first part of the book, so that his cousin puts him in a mental hospital. This leaves Singer essentially alone; he knows what others say, but cannot express himself to them. His own thoughts and opinions are trapped inside. But he makes a great ‘listener’ and four people find themselves irresistibly drawn to him.

All around Singer, other plot lines play out for different characters. Mick, a thirteen year old girl both eager and reluctant to grow up; Dr. Copeland, who reveres and promotes education, is greatly respected by the Black population of the county but treated like dirt by most whites; Jake Blount is an alcoholic union organizer; while Biff Brannon, widowed during the course of the novel, owns the town’s café where everyone comes but no one talks to him. Each of these characters is multidimensional and deep; each of these people face loneliness and isolation in the midst of other people. The man who cannot say anything is ironically named “singer’.

The book is incredibly rich with characters and interactions and even political statements; the fact that the book was McCullers’ first novel amazes me. It’s about racism, classism, capitalism, coming of age, the hazards of giving loaded guns to 7 year olds, and so much more. 5 stars!
17th-Jan-2018 03:21 pm(no subject)
chef
Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef & the Rise of the Leisure Class, by Luke Barr. Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2018

Cesar Ritz started his career as a waiter in Parisian restaurants. He worked his way up to better and better eateries, and finally made the step to being a hotel manager. He had an eye for improving things and a memory for what guests liked and didn’t like.

Auguste Escoffier was a brilliant chef, with equal skills in creating food and managing kitchens. When he started, kitchens were mad houses filled with yelling, drunkenness, food that arrived with some bits already cold and some hot, and very slow service. He and Ritz would find they worked together like a fine machine. When they took over the Savoy in London, the world of hotels and restaurants changed. They brought the running of hotels and restaurant kitchens to the level of fine art.

Before Ritz took over the Savoy, even expensive hotels had one communal bathroom per floor; he instituted en suite bathrooms. He insisted on modern plumbing and electric lighting (a new thing, just coming into use) and adopted the telephone for business use immediately. He filled the rooms and common areas with plants and flowers. He allowed anyone into the restaurant to dine, not just the aristocracy- unescorted women, actors, Jews, the nouveau riche, even ladies of dubious morals; basically, anyone who could afford evening dress. He and Escoffier worked together to produce over the top parties for people like the Prince of Wales, Escoffier producing new dishes for the guests of honor. Escoffier kept meticulous records of every menu and every recipe, eventually producing a massive cookbook that was the gold standard of French cooking for decades.

Eventually, however, the fact that they worked without close supervision caught up with them. They were accused by the hotel stockholders and owners of charging personal goods to the hotel, taking kickbacks from suppliers, and other monetary malfeasance. They were both fired promptly. It didn’t hurt for long, however- they went on to open the original Ritz hotel, the first hotel under his name.

It’s a fascinating look at social history at the turn of the 20th century, a time of huge changes in both technology and social ways. Americans were marrying into the British aristocracy, new millionaires were appearing all over, people in the theater were becoming acceptable, and the British aristocracy was at the peak of their popularity. There are several menus from special events reproduced, but I would have liked to have seen some photos included in the book, and maybe a couple of recipes. There is very little given about the personal lives of the two men. Four and a half stars.
15th-Jan-2018 03:48 pm(no subject)
Grumpy cat
All My Patients are Under the Bed, by Dr. Louis Camuti. Fireside, 1980

In the same vein as “All Creatures Great and Small”, this is a vet’s memoir. Instead of the English countryside, though, Camuti works in New York City, doing house calls. He found that a routine of starting his rounds in late afternoon and finishing around midnight worked best for his clients. His wife drove him around, and stayed in the car while he treated his patients. Some of his clients were show business folks; some were even famous. But fame doesn’t mean anything to Camuti; he judges his clients on how much they love their cats.

The book intersperses the doctor’s biography (he was born in 1893, so we get a lot of stories from the early parts of the century) with stories about this clients, both human and fuzzy. While some of his advice is out of date (book was written in 1980), the book is primarily enjoyable for the cat anecdotes. Five stars.
13th-Jan-2018 01:47 pm(no subject)
Hecate animated
The Night Child, by Anna Quinn. Blackstone Publishing, 2018

Nora is a high school teacher with a knack for connecting with at risk students. She’s also the mother of a 5 year old daughter, and has a husband who is cheating on her, a fact which she is aware of but not wanting to deal with. One afternoon, sitting in her classroom after school, she sees a vision of a young girl with blue eyes. It leaves her rattled and confused. Then, a day later, she sees the face again, and this time it speaks, telling her to remember the Valentine’s dress.

Her husband is dismissive and doesn’t really want to hear about it. Nora goes to doctors; when they find nothing physically wrong, she sees a psychiatrist. During the session, she suddenly starts speaking in a little girl voice, and says she is Margaret. This is when stuff gets really serious. Nora’s –Margaret’s- past starts coming back to her, and it’s not pretty. Not only is it ugly, but she begins to see how it’s affected her entire adult life.

When I requested this book from Net Galley, I thought it was a supernatural horror story rather than what it is. This is kind of a hard book to read because of what Nora went through as a child. People who have undergone sexual abuse may find it very triggering. But for all the bad, there is signs of growth and renewal. This is a very well written book, but not one I would have picked up knowing what it was about. Most of the characters aren’t very well developed; they are very secondary to Nora and Margaret and what they are going through. Four and a half stars.
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