Life during pandemic, reading and streaming

by anneMoore on September 1, 2020

 

This has been a summer like no other. There’s been no trips to our summer place in Quebec, no Bastille Day party with dear friends in Michigan. No outings to movie theaters. Instead, I’ve been walking our beautiful lakefront, parks, and historic neighborhoods. I’ve been swimming laps at our recently re-opened health club. (Bliss, even indoors.) Streaming movies and tv series. When I read, I’m in my urban back yard, listening to the chatter of birds, the bells of St. Michael’s. For this, I’m grateful.

Here are the books I recommend: 

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. By Joyce Carol Oates. This book is more than 800 pages, and I didn’t want it to end. It tells the story of the McClaren family. (The title is from a Walt Whitman poem.) Patriarch Whitey (no joke) is grievously wounded when he interferes in a police attack on a man of color. As Whitey fades, then dies, we come to know his wife and adult children, all of whom have been damaged, in some way, by Whitey’s standards. His wife, whose aching grief is beautifully and deeply explored, eventually becomes involved with an artist of Hispanic heritage. (The daughters think he’s out for their mother’s money.) Son Thom seeks justice for his father’s death but bungles a workplace situation and beats (to death? We don’t know) one of the cops. Daughter Beverly is an unbearable busybody until we’re in her head during Thanksgiving dinner, where, for a late night course she’ll serve her husband divorce papers. Or will she? Her sister Lorene is a high school principal undone by outrageous misdeeds. (I love a train wreck.) A New York Times reviewer said it best: this is a book “in conversation with this moment.” I loved it. 

Hamnet, A Novel of the Plague, by Maggie O’Farrell. Did I need to read a book set during a 16th century plague? Yes, as per my friend Jennifer, who said its ending astonished her. I’m glad I took her advice, though it’s a hard read to describe. Here goes: We are in the household of William Shakespeare, his parents, his siblings, his wife and their three children. We are most often in the company of his wife Agnes, a healer most comfortable in the woods. When their daughter Judith in near death, they send for Shakespeare. By the time he arrives, from London, Judith has recovered but her twin Hamnet has died, age 8. This is the story of the family’s grief, and how that grief made its way into the making of “Hamlet”. It’s an intimate telling of a family, a marriage, the healing arts, twinship. And Jennifer was right: the ending astonishes. 

What Happens at Night, by Peter Cameron. A New York couple gets off a train in a snowy landscape and makes their way to a grand, faded hotel in an unnamed foreign city. The wife is exhausted by the journey and heads to bed; her husband goes to the hotel bar. There, things are weird. Or is it jet lag? Are the patrons there to help or harm? In the morning, the couple sets out for the orphanage, where they’ll meet the baby they’ve come to adopt. But the taxi takes them to the home of a famous healer. The wife, who’s suffering from terminal cancer, declares herself healed in the man’s presence, and won’t leave. Her intransigence presents a problem: both parents must be present to “take possession” of the baby. (Cue the bar patrons.) This is a dreamy novel that took me far, far away. (It’s also very funny.) It’s a testament to Cameron’s skill  that I cared deeply for the man, the woman, and their marriage during their odd journey.

I love me a tv series I can watch every night, ‘cuz there’s no place to go during this pandemic. Among the ones we’ve enjoyed, and highly recommend: Mrs. America, which chronicles the fight for, and against, the Equal Rights Amendment, in the 1970s. What a cast! Cate Blanchett plays Phylis Schlafly, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem, Tracy Ullman is Betty Friedan. John Slattery, Sarah Paulson, James Marsden and others bring this era to life. We also loved Unorthodox, the true story of an Orthodox girl who flees an arranged marriage. It’s a present-day period-piece thriller. Dr. Thorne, a 2016 series (three episodes) is a bon bon. Another we liked is Immigration Nation, which is hard to watch, but necessary. Finally, check out Zero Zero Zero. It’s a violent tale about the global drug trade. Each episode was as rich as full-length movie.

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Black Lives Matter, recent reads

by anneMoore on July 2, 2020

Black lives matter. These are among my favorite reads — novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction — about Black lives in America and overseas. Each is illuminating, infuriating, heartbreaking. 

Native Son, by Richard Wrignt (1940)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The Street, by Ann Petry (1946)  

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) 

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (1976)

Harlem, by Langston Hughes (1951)

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih (1966), which ends, “Help! Help!”

During this pandemic and rightful unrest, I read books that made me think about oppression, migration, motherhood and creativity, and showing up for those we love. I am so much at home, still. I read in my city garden, on my sunny deck, and in a favorite spot beside some open windows. 

Here’s what I can recommend: 

 

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a young Muslim woman on her way to a better life than her indigent parents. She is educated, speaks English, works retail. After hours she unwinds with a cigarette — such a luxury — in a Kolkata public square. There she witnesses a train bombing, which kills nearly 100. Police do nothing to help its victims, trapped by flames. Later that night, Jivan posts on Facebook the notion that government, in its inaction, is equal to the terrorists. 

Swiftly, Jivan is jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death. 

Hers is one of three stories in this quickly paced tale. PT Sir is a phys ed teacher at the school Jivan attended. He’s annoyed that she dropped out, after he’d been kind and encouraging. PT Sir, also upwardly mobile, does favors for a political party and rises in its ranks, eventually allowing him to leave teaching. In his new post, can he save Jivan?

There’s Lovely, a hijara, who dreams of a film career. Jivan had tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely — a man who presents as a woman — testifies on her behalf. As Lovely’s star rises, will she save Jivan?

This read took me deep into a world I barely knew. I loved the story, and admired its telling. 

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman

I admit to picking this up because a reviewer said it contained one of the best sex scenes ever written. Half way in — the story concerns sailors attached to a ship that’s not seaworthy, docked in a Brooklyn port — I thought, did I get this right? There’s a sex scene? And then our hero, Esteban, dreams of his dead novia, La Marta. Wowza. It’s only a page or two but rivals Joyce’s Molly soliloquy.

That said, this book is so much more than a great sex scene. Esteban and his mates, all from South America, are marooned. (The ship’s owners visit, bring food, assure them that once the ship is repaired, they’ll be on their way.) These seamen have no rights, they speak no English. When they venture off the boat, they are robbed and beaten. 

Interwoven stories of the ship’s owners — yes, you’ll want to strangle them — and a Ship’s Visitor liven the read. 

Eventually, Esteban dares to leave the boat alone, at night. In a neighborhood of immigrants, he finds kindness, love, friendship, hope. 

A great read, published in 1997. 

The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty

Mid-career women artists, poets, writers, scholars were invited, in 1960, to apply for  paid fellowships at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. (A kind of “room of own’s own,” with others.) 

The Institute for Independent Study was the brainchild of Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, who felt that the U.S. asked little of its women outside the home. It was “a climate of unexpectation,” at a time when women in the Soviet Union were 30 percent of its engineers and 75 percent of its doctors. The U.S., she declared, was wasting a precious resource: educated women.

With the Institute, Bunting sought to kick start the careers of scholars and artists who had been sidelined by motherhood. Most fellows had advanced degrees; if not, they were deigned “equivalent.” 

Among its first class was a group whose lives and work would thereafter be entwined: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, artist Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda. 

Doherty captures the time and place, the personalities, the work, the place of women in society and education. She explores the competing desires of motherhood and creativity. This is nonfiction at its finest. Bravo, Maggie Doherty.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver.

I’m a fan of her work because no matter the subject, Shriver provides a fluid read, typically about intelligent people doing questionable and sometimes awful things. This book is not as searing as, say, We Need to Talk about Kevin, but this is still a Shriver.

Serenata (ugh, that name) is the book’s unsympathetic narrator. (That’s a skill, to get and keep a reader invested in an unlikeable person.) Her recently retired husband Remington decides to train for a marathon. Wait: extreme exercise has always been her thing! Remington hires a sexy trainer and joins a group with the same goal. With her bad knees, Serenata is sidelined, reduced to spectator and provider of snacks. Also in the mix: the couple’s newly evangelical daughter and her many children. Also their drug dealer son. 

This is delicious satire. It’s fun to see this couple fall apart and find each other again. It’s set in beautiful Duchess County, New York, an area I know and love. 

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During lockdown, reading and watching

by anneMoore on May 27, 2020

Lockdown continues. Me and mine are safe and well, so no complaining allowed. Here’s what — and where — I’ve been reading and watching.

Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli. When this novel was first published I didn’t want to read it because it sounded too “of the moment” — a family travels to the Southwest and becomes involved in the child migration crisis. But I read it after a recommendation from my son (who had worried about the same.) I’m glad I did. This is an assured work of fiction. The author gives us a cobbled family: a man and his son, his newish wife and her daughter. The couple met documenting sound in New York City. (That alone grabbed me.) The husband has a grant to document sound at the graves and lands of Native Americans. The wife, the boy, the girl travel with him, by car, from New York to Arizona. This is a richly told story of a family and children lost, found, lost. It’s trippy in parts because the narrative is woven into texts about child migration. I loved this read.

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. How did I miss this one? A true heir(ess) to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Smith gives us the lush English countryside between the Wars and a once prosperous family in financial ruin. (First published in 1948.) How bad? They have no furniture left to sell, their clothes are ragged, they go to bed hungry. Our narrator is Cassandra, 17, who “captures” the story in her journal. (Much of the book is about writing.) Beautiful older sister Rose says she will do anything to improve their lot. The story takes off when two American men, heirs to the castle, arrive. I was smitten from Page One, and didn’t want this tale to end. And what an ending. 

Hidden Valley Road, Inside the Mind of An American Family, by Robert Kolker. Six schizophrenics in one family? Sounds like a nightmare, and it is. But this story is so much more. We learn the theories (nurture) and science (nature) of the disease. (Of course it’s the mother’s fault.) I’m half way through but confident this is a worthwhile read about an American family, an ambitious couple, their 12 children. The well ones suffer, too, especially the girls. This is narrative nonfiction at its best. Very impressive.

Speaking of schizophrenia, I’m watching I Know this Much is True on HBO. It’s the story of twin brothers, one of whom is schizophrenic. Mark Ruffalo plays both parts. The story is obvious and treacly at times but the acting! Oh my. Juliette Lewis steals the show playing a snobby academic who turns into a sad flirt. Kathryn Hahn is luminous as a grieving mother. Rosie O’Donnell — have I ever liked her in anything?— is solid as an administrator/advocate. Archie Panjabi plays a smart, calm psychiatrist. Mmm. 

I also liked Run on HBO, about college lovers who reunite. We’re watching Grant on the History channel. Also, classics I’ve never seen: What’s Up Doc? And All about Eve.

Isolation is hard, but it’s imperative to limit contact. My friend is an anesthesiologist in Chicago. She says that she and her colleagues are physically and emotionally exhausted — and still show up every day. Do your part to lighten their load. 

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Stay at home: reading and life

by anneMoore on April 6, 2020

Greetings from my stay-in-place perch. I’ve always worked from a home office, so that part of lockdown hasn’t been a change. I dress in the morning, eat breakfast, read the newspapers, walk, practice piano and French, and get to my desk by nine. I write until noon, have lunch, run errands — well, no more errands, because stores are closed. I go to the grocery store for dinner supplies. With a new puppy I’m enjoying long walks in my beautiful neighborhood. I used to enjoy long walks on the lakefront path, but it’s closed. I admit to a deep funk the day the city’s parks and walking trails were closed. That said, I admire our political leaders for the steps they’ve taken to mitigate transmission. 

I haven’t been reading as much — distracted by the virus? (Check out my new reading spot by the windows in my kitchen.) That said, I recommend Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. As a granddaughter of Irish Republicans, I thought I’d read everything about the paramilitary IRA and its terror campaign to rid the island of British occupation. Turns out I hadn’t. Keefe is nimble in his telling of a generation of warriors who terrorized the British, “disappeared” its own, starved themselves. A sobering, thrilling read. 

I also enjoyed My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell. The story is told by Vanessa as a fifteen-year-old “willing” victim of a teacher’s advances, and by Vanessa as an adult struggling to make sense of that relationship, especially as it continues. When we first meet Vanessa, her former teacher has been accused of “sexual grooming” by several students; it’s all over the news, and reporters are reaching out for Vanessa’s story. But theirs was a different relationship, Vanessa believes. Theirs was love. At times, this reader wanted to shake Vanessa: wake up! But her story is believable and compelling. Will Vanessa understand what he did to her? Even if you get frustrated with this character — and you will — read to the end. It’s satisfying. 

I’ve begun Lily King’s Writers & Lovers. I’m hooked, though it’s unnecessarily confusing in the beginning. I loved her Euphoria, a love triangle set in the 1930’s among anthropologists. Teed up: Temporary, by Hilary Leichter, Circe, by Madeline Miller, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, by Conor Dougherty. 

If you’d like to help independent booksellers closed because of the virus, order from bookshop.org. Stores receive 30 percent of each sale. 

To fill an empty hour of each weekday (not having lunch with friends, or a manicure, or or or) I draw and do watercolors. I’m focusing on “doors of Chicago.” I’m learning what’s visually important and how to employ color. 

Stay home, be well, pray the end of lockdown is near. 

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Long winter weekend in Quebec, recent reads

by anneMoore on February 11, 2020

A holiday weekend made for a get-out-of-the city escape to a winter wonderland in Quebec. In mid January, we spent four days at Chateau Montebello, a Fairmont resort that’s a 90 minute drive from Montreal’s international airport. Truth is, we “had to” go there: it was the annual meeting of Club Lac Pythonga, where we spend summers. 

What a place to land! (Thank you, Marie Hélène Sevigney and Becca Baughman.) Chateau Montebello, built in 1930, is the largest log structure in the world. Every time I walked into its lobby, I gasped. It’s tall and spacious, warm and inviting. A perfect place for families and friends to gather and talk on their way to or from an adventure. Let me count them: swimming, spa-ing, squash, hiking, snow-shoeing, skating, sledding, cross-country skiing, dog sledding. Equipment — even outerwear — was lent, free of charge.

I can’t remember the last time I went to resort and didn’t want to leave.

On to books. I had four days to read at Montebello. Nothing to recommend.

Back at home, I was happy to receive a story collection by Alice Adams. I’m not a fan of short fiction because — I want more! Not so with Alice Adams. The blurb on the front, from Joyce Caro Oates, captures the experience: each story is “like a watercolor perfectly executed.” Adams’ stories feel complete at 20 or so pages; they’re unique, and memorable.

At the same time, I was devouring the first half of a doorstopper, The Manor and The Estate, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Why is this not a mini series? It’s a delicious story, set in Poland during the latter half of the 19th century. There, a Count returns from Siberia, exiled for his part in a failed uprising against Russia. His son Lucian, also exiled, flees to Paris, but not before he lures a Jewish girl to go with him. (Squalor, illness, imprisonment follow.) That girl is one of four daughters of Calman Jacoby, a devout Jew who has taken possession of the Count’s manor and land. I loved this saga because it detailed the lives of European Jews (and Gentiles) at a turning point in history. Characters question the strictures of religion, marriage, manners, domesticity. I’m looking forward to reading part two, The Estate. 

In the meantime, I picked up Say Nothing, a True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe. I’m only a few pages in. It’s very good. 

Happy New Year, happy trails, happy reading. 

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The year’s best books, movies, tv, art, food, travel

by anneMoore on December 20, 2019

I have no books to recommend. I’ve been reading, of course. I admired but didn’t love Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here, which I thought would be about women’s friendships (if so, we’re doomed as a gender), but was really about neglect. Before that, I read What Maisie Knew, by Henry James, the mother of all reads about parents behaving badly. 

Enough of that sort! 

I loved two books published in the past year: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (fiction) and Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill (nonfiction. Each broke my heart. I’m savoring the reissued poetry of Douglas Crase, The Revisionist and The Astropastorals. (Thank you, Evan Dent.)

These are my must-see movies, every one a gem: Parasite, Pain & Glory, The Irishman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…, Booksmart. You can skip Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez is fabulous but the story is muddled: too much apologizing for bad-ass thinking and doing. The Souvenir was pretty but disturbing, Rocketman was thrilling and tiresome. The Joker is visually interesting but extremely violent. 

TV. Fleabag, seasons one and two. The Crown, season three. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, all seasons. Jane the Virgin, which I somehow missed and just starting.

Art. I’ve been twice to Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again. (I’d go again!) This is the most thoughtful, extensive exhibit of Warhol’s work I’ve ever experienced. I’d always been a fan; now I’m a disciple. At The Art Institute of Chicago, through January 26. In Paris, we caught a Francis Bacon period (1971 to 1992) show that focused on literature as a source for his work. Again, a deep, well curated show led me to a new appreciation of an artist. At Centre Pompidou, through January 20. Also in Paris, we visited the Musée Nissim de Camondo, an early 20th century mansion and its 18th century furnishings, on Parc Monceau. The house, its furnishings and the fate of its owners moved me to tears.

Cheering me: the reconstruction of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. 

Meals. In Paris we adored the cozy, authentic Le Bon Georges. We’re still talking about the brie and lardons at Restaurant Paul, on lovely Place Dauphine. We happily lunched at Le Cambodge. As always, we had dinner at Le Bistrot Paul Bert, breakfast or lunch at Comptoir Poilane. In London, we had an elegant Indian lunch at The Cinnamon Club, housed in the former Westminster Library. In New York, I’m a fan of Faro, in Bushwick, for their inventive pastas and excellent service. In Chicago, I’m in heaven with the reopening of Bad Hunter, where I can eat well without eating meat. Funkenhousen is another treat: beer is served in glass boots, German fare is light and inventive. (Surely an oxymoron.) Fat Rice, if you can score a reservation, is divine. I’m a regular for lunch or cocktails at Three Arts Club of Chicago, now taking reservations.

Dance. The Joffrey Ballet’s Jane Eyre was the most thrilling ballet I’ve seen in years. I’ve read the book, seen the movies: surely this is the sexiest, scariest version. Rochester is fully alive; his insane wife is wildly present.

Travel: Paris, yes yes yes and a delightful day trip to London. (Do able for now — post Brexit?) See my earlier post on Morocco. Then, go!

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Reading and watching

by anneMoore on October 30, 2019

Apologies for neglecting this site. I read all the time but recommend only what I like. I pile each “winner” on my desk until I get to three.

I’ll start with two non-fiction, which read like thrillers…

She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

I read three national papers daily. I’d read every thing out there — much of it written by Kantor and Twohey — about the investigation into predation by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and with it the swift fallout for other powerful men in media. As a victim of sexual assault and workplace stalking, each revelation — Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Les Moonves — felt like a win for women. 

Did I need to read the book? Yes. It’s the vital testament that sparked a movement.

Kantor and Twohey, who’d never worked together before, become a formidable team at The New York Times as they piece together a damning portrait of a serial predator protected — ironically — by settlement agreements he’d made with victims. It’s a comfort to know that these reporters were fully supported by colleagues and superiors at the Times, and appropriately lauded. The two shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with Ronan Farrow.

Catch and Kill, by Ronan Farrow 

This is a parallel investigation of predation by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, told by Hollywood royalty (Mia Farrow mother, Woody Allen father, Frank Sinatra may have fathered him). Kudos to Farrow, whose investigative work is questioned and held up repeatedly by NBC executives. Fascinating.

When NBC won’t run his piece — they say it’s not up to their standards — Farrow takes it to The New Yorker, where it’s eventually published. At the same time, Farrow and the women sharing their stories are stalked by Black Cube operatives (former Israeli intelligence agents) employed by Weinstein. Crazy.

Brooke Nevils’ account of workplace rape and sexual abuse by Matt Laurer broke my heart. 

On to fiction…

The Dutch House, by Ann Padgett

This is the story of Maeve and her brother Danny (the narrator), who live in the Dutch House, a magically beautiful manor in the Philadelphia suburbs. Their mother abandons them to do charity work in India; their attentive father and loving housekeepers raise them in understated luxury. Father remarries and dies; with that, their stepmother banishes the two. They’re smart, educated and resourceful, so the siblings eventually thrive. This book is a love letter to New York City, Columbia University, the Upper West Side, and the uniquely entrancing Dutch House. How this story wraps up is achingly sad, complex, and moving. I loved this read.

On to movies…

I knew I’d like Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory, and I did. The story flows, its colors — blue and red — inform and delight. This is the director’s life: poverty, creativity found and lost, sexuality, drug abuse, celebrity. A wonderful film. Rarely am I sympathetic to heroin users…

I didn’t think I’d like The Joker and mostly loved it. Again, the color! Joaquin Phoenix dancing on a Bronx stairway is an image I’ll never forget. The movie is violent, but the violence is understandable. 

Another film I deeply enjoyed, when I wasn’t sure I would, is Judy. What a life, and so much of it fraught. Renee Zellweger becomes Judy Garland. Hers is a knock-out performance. Too, I appreciated the film’s structure, which gave us Judy’s early days as a teen actress but mostly focuses on the last few months of her life, when she’s performing in London. 

Closing with mindless tv….

I blame Trump and all the shouting on television news for my consumption of Modern Love. They’re half hour vignettes based on The New York Times column. The best (People magazine ranked them differently) is “When the Doorman is Your Main Man”. Runner up is “Hers was a World of One,” about a gay couple who take in the homeless pregnant woman who will bear their child. Andrew Scott, aka the hot priest from Fleabag, plays the reluctant father to be.

And then there’s the critically damned Mrs. Fletcher. It’s a seven episode series based on the Tom Perrotta book, which I devoured. The series has been universally panned. No matter: for me, the first episode went down like warm soup on a cold day. I know that’s cliché. So is the show.

Thanks for reading…

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End-of-summer reads

by anneMoore on September 11, 2019

I wait all year for summer. I did as a child, growing up in suburban New Jersey. Summer meant freedom from coats and boots and car culture. I rode my bike to the pool, swam and raced all day, ate a deli-sandwich downtown. With my mom we bought peaches and tomatoes from the farm stand. 

Now that I live in Chicago I savor summer even more. Winters are hard, bitterly — often dangerously — cold. Summer provides early morning walks to the lake, outdoor yoga at the Zoo, lap swims in the sun, reading in my back yard. 

Too, summer is my time at Pythonga. Others enjoy spring fish and autumn hunting. For me, late July through Labor Day there is a time for sun, swims, saunas, walks, hikes. Always, Pythonga is a place for me to read, at length, uninterrupted.

I was in Pythonga over Labor Day for summer’s last blast. (As I write this it’s 85 degrees and humid in Chicago.) Our friends hosted a canoe race and beach picnic; we played Scrabble and Giant Jenga at night; we hosted a pizza and cocktail party. The water was too cold for long swims but when we were hot from a hike or the sauna it was fun to jump in — and out! 

Here’s what I read and enjoyed:

If This is a Man, The Truce, by Primo Levi.

As a young Jewish man in fascist Italy, Levi was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. These books are the story of his unlikely survival in the camp, as it was emptied, and during the journey home. It’s a classic (first published in 1958, recently reissued) because Levi takes us into every day life in the camp and elsewhere: how what when they ate, where they slept, how they bathed. We understand the labor, the cold, the ill-fitting shoes, the flimsy clothing. Illness is a ticket to the infirmary, its warmth, its clean sheeted beds — and survival, when others who are weak are sent to the gas chambers. 

Levi lives — how? The journey home is also fraught. Will he and his Italian mates ever return? 

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

My friend Deborah and I were returning to our Old Town neighborhood from a long lakefront walk. Deb lamented that “no one has yard sales anymore.” Just steps after she mentioned it, we came upon a yard sale in a garden on Wells Street. A young couple was ridding what they could: they were heading to London School of Economics. Among the dresses and wrapping paper and coasters, we found books. I grabbed A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr, for Deborah, who’d never read it. She pulled Zeitoun for me; I’d missed it. 

Glad I got to it. Eggers rarely disappoints and this one’s a doozy, deeply reported and fluidly told. It reads like a novel. It’s the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans. He’s married, a father, a painting contractor and owner of rental buildings. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelms the city, Zeitoun stays, sleeping on his garage roof, canoeing flooded streets so that he can help trapped residents and dogs. (His wife and children evacuated.) A Muslim, he sees this work as divine; he has been chosen. He won’t leave. Then he and his friends are arrested for looting, they’re jailed, and held — by whom? Do they think he’s a terrorist? Why can’t he make a phone call? 

The Stranger in the Woods, the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel

A Pythonga friend pressed this book in my husband’s hands. “There’s something about this that reminds me of you.” A hermit? Upon reading this entrancing tale, I know what she meant. That’s because FInkel explores the value and history of being alone as he tells the hermit’s fascinating tale.

For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived in the Maine woods. He stole all of his needs — food, clothing, batteries, booze — from nearby summer homes and camps. This book is the story of his capture and re entry into the every day world. 

I thought this would be a creepy read; it’s not. It’s enlightening. 

Ah, summer: I’ll miss your healing rays, your bounty.

 

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Reads in a favorite place

by anneMoore on August 28, 2019

We all have a favorite place to read. Mine is Pythonga, where there’s quiet and comfy chairs and few obligations. 

Here’s what I read last trip. 

Other Men’s Daughters, by Richard Stern

I’ve never read such a sympathetic story of a failed marriage. It broke my heart. 

This book is set in the 1960’s, in Cambridge. Our brainy narrator, Dr. Merriwether, describes “…the foam of the street…the kids, the young, girls, boys, the hippies, freaks, heads, the beauties and transfigured uglies from all over the world in every state of dress and undress…what is this terrific need to look special? Is it so hard to be anyone now? Why so much noise?” 

Yes, it is a summer like no other, and while Dr. Merriwether’s wife and children are away in Maine, he and a student fall in love. His marriage is already in shambles; his wife’s grievances are understandable. It’s the children he can’t give up— they’re all so well drawn that I didn’t want to give them up. These are smart, funny people caught in a sad situation.

 

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver 

How did I miss this one? Published in 1988, this is a saga about colonialism told by the wife of a Christian missionary and their four daughters. I came to it because it was chosen by the Columbia University book club, which I recently joined. What a choice!

It’s 1959. Preacher Nathan Price uproots his family from Georgia for the Belgian Congo. They bring with them cake mixes and pinking shears, things useless in the bush. The mother and girls (one is mute and crippled) learn to survive; the father is interested only in spreading salvation. They live in peril, but it’s not until one of the girls dies that mother and daughters flee.

The story could have ended there for me, but there’s decades more and much to learn about the history of the Congo, the hardship of war, the science behind the crippled daughter’s full recovery. It’s important to note that women tell this story.

 

Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner 

This is a laugh out loud read about excess in and around Manhattan. There we find Toby Fleishman, a newly separated doctor who has jumped back into sex: his phone is aglow. It’s a lot of smutty fun until his ex, a talent agent, drops out of sight after leaving their two children at his place. Where did she go?

Toby adores his little ones, and has always been the parent who shows up for school events, etc. Still, it’s summer, the kids are at loose ends, and they’re upset: where’s mom?

This tale is narrated by a female friend of Toby’s, who used to write for men’s magazines before chucking it all to raise her kids in New Jersey. It’s a clever device, because she can take us places other than Toby’s bitter mind. 

Toby’s dark world view can be funny but wears thin and his ex’s “woes of the working women” complaint is tired. Otherwise, this book kept me entertained.

 

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea, by Alyssa Mastromonaco

Okay, I didn’t read this in my favorite place. I read it while I was having minor surgery for skin cancer. That said, it kept me engaged over two stressful days. Thank you, Alyssa.

Here’s her charming story: an internship with Bernie Sanders leads to work for John Kerry — there’s soul sucking jobs in between — which leads to a job with Barack Obama, when he was a senator. From there she works on his campaign — the title of the book comes from an event she insisted he go to, when it was sleeting — and on to the White House. The pace is relentless and her stomach is in knots for a decade. She meets the Pope, the Queen of England, travels the world.

This is a coming of age story within an historic presidency. She has a bumpy but eventually happy ever after, which felt right after flying so high. Hers is a clear, distinctive voice; writers of memoirs should take a look. 

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Summer Reads

by anneMoore on July 15, 2019

Happy summer! I’ve been traveling, reading, watching tv, going to movies and plays. Here’s some I’ve enjoyed.

Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan. I’m that reader who always pre-orders McEwan. He provides an interesting read even if I don’t like or don’t believe in a character or situation. (i.e., Atonement, Saturday.) This newly published book may be his most daring. McEwan scrambles time: we’re in a future where one can buy a household robot and a past in which Alan Turing is alive and Margaret Thatcher is in power. It’s an “alternative 1980s London.” There, our main character Charlie, who has a history of poor financial decisions, has just blown the last of his inheritance on Adam, a male robot. Charlie programs him with the help of Miranda, Charlie’s upstairs neighbor and love interest. Where this goes is thoughtful, frightening, hilarious, rich and very, very moving. This was one of those reads I wasn’t sure I liked until I loved. 

Breaking and Entering, by Joy Williams. Published in 1988, this is a read that I often loved; passages broke my heart. Other riffs bored or irritated me. Like life? Here’s the story: Willie and Liberty, a young couple, break into vacation homes in the Florida Keys, stay awhile, move to the next. Liberty keeps rescue dog Clem with her always, and cares for Little Dot and Teddy, two young children ignored or abused by their parents. Children given up or away, or lost, is the sad through line of this book. Williams’ writing is a wonder: the dialogue is crisp, the action is both languid and fraught. 

The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux. When I head to our summer lake house I bring fat books I missed in the past. This is one of those, and oh, how glad I am to have taken a chance on this classic. (It was first published in 1981 and later made into a movie starring Harrison Ford.) Allie Fox is iconclast, inventor, husband, father. Disgusted by wasteful consumerism in the U.S., he moves his family (teenage Charlie, the narrator, and three younger sibilings) to Honduras. Allie is obnoxious, daring, funny, brilliant: often I found myself agreeing with him. When natives and missionaries put their faith in God, Allie says, “Man is God.” In the jungle, Allie builds a home for his family and invents an ice machine for the better good. To see this come undone, and understand the boys’ rebellion, makes for a sad and thrilling read. 

Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin. This is a book that lives up to its striking cover: blue skies and fluffy clouds, a rubber-gloved hand holding an ashy cigarette. Our weary housecleaner is Mona, a 23 year old college dropout working in Lowell, Massachusetts. There she falls into a charming affair with a 40ish man, Mr. Disgusting, who’s a suicidal drug addict. In his farewell note, he urges Mona to go the desert, start over, take photos, join a healthy cult, get a gura. Mona does all of these things, and in the (very loopy) process, saves herself. 

I also enjoyed Micheal Wolff’s The Seige. I know it’s depressing to read about the Trump presidency but Wollf clarifies recent events and makes me laugh. I loved his Fire and Fury. This is more of the same.

Episodic television is a lot like reading a long book. Lately I’ve devoured the four seasons of Catastrophe and the two seasons of Fleabag. Both shows — funny, foul, moving — left me with “tv grief.” I wanted more.

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