More travel, this time to New York to enjoy family and friends and to bury my mom in Northern New Jersey, beside my father. I’d been dreading the burial — another round of public grieving — but the day was unexpectedly joyous.

I stayed on in New York to see family and friends, see art, go to a show, walk, eat well.

Of course I read: on planes, on the Path train to Newark, on the subway, late at night in my chic little room within my sister’s glamorous loft. (Thank you, Mary Beth.)

First, books I enjoyed:

You Must Change Your Life, the Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett 

Two of my favorite artists’ lives in one book? Yes, please. Rodin was studying forms instead of school books from early childhood and never stopped looking, drawing, sculpting, destroying. His motto: toujours travailler. Adopting the same ethos was Rilke, who came to Paris as a young man to write about Rodin, and stayed on to become the sculptor’s secretary and and on and off life long friend. Corbett seamlessly weaves their work, lives, loves into a smart read. 

A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr 

Ah, Aristotle’s unity of time, place, action: that is this slender book, set in summer, in a Yorkshire village, where a psychically wounded World War 1 veteran has arrived to work uncovering a medieval mural within a church (he’s so poor he sleeps in its bell tower). Yup, he’s restored by work, nature, people. It reads like a gentler Hardy, a sharper Trollope. I didn’t want this story to end. 

Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata 

This is another short read, delightfully subversive. Keiko has been working in a convenience store since she was a teenager; she’s an odd duck, but very good at her job. Now in her early 30’s, her family wants her to move forward in life, to find a man to marry, to have children. (If they knew her thoughts on punishing childish behavior, they’d think again.) Enter a ne’er do well employed at, then fired from, the convenience store. His slovenly ways repulse Keiko — the two hate each other — but they end up living together in her apartment. Rumors of Keiko’s relationship with a man delight her family. But this is no love affair; memorably, he sleeps in the bathtub to avoid Keiko. I read a lot of Japanese literature in translation; it’s a hoot to read fiction about conventions up ended. 

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner 

I don’t even like prison stories and yet this is my new favorite read. Kushner is so steady in her telling of the tragic life of Romy Leslie Hall, California state inmate W314159. It’s never in doubt what she did — clubbed to death her stalker — but we root for her, because she’s smart and spirited and was a loving mother to her young son. She makes a life for herself even with a life sentence. Another memorable character is Gordon Hauser, a Berkely graduate who teaches literature within the prison. This is not a preachy read but one comes away knowing that many women are imprisoned because of abusive men, or the poverty endured once they become mothers. The ending was not unexpected but how it played out broke my heart.

In New York, I enjoyed morning walks to the Christopher Street pier (thank you, Annabella) and also to the High Line. They’re magical any time of day but early is best to beat the heat and crowds.

My sister and I sought out Calatrava’s Oculus, a marvelous structure that looks like a giant bird or the bones of a whale, which holds a train hub in lower Manhattan. Beside it are the 9/11 memorial pools, appropriately dark and solemn, their falling water cooling the air. We wanted to eat French food — Les Halles had closed! its gate a tribute to the late great Anthony Bourdain — so we wandered back to her neighborhood to Le Midi, where we were happy to eat and drink well, at the bar. 

I took myself to Newark, via the Path train (clean, easy) and had a delicious Portuguese lunch in the Ironside neighborhood (thank you, Dave Brooks).

I took a crowd to the SoHo Playhouse for TJ & Dave’s  long-form improv show (wonderful, and completely made up!) We’d dined first at Tamarind,  a high-end Indian restaurant in Tribeca: divine food and service. Another night we saw the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel (1945, but oddly current, especially with black actor/singer Joshua Henry playing Billy Bigelow). What a production!  Dancing, staging, and –indelibly — the opera star Renee Fleming singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, a once-in-a-lifetime event which I’ve likened to seeing Baryshnikov dance, Michael Jordan play basketball, John Malkovich act. Worth braving the 42nd Street crowds, which are as thick as protest marches. We had another good meal at Marseille,  a haven of civility and good French food within that neighborhood.

My last day we went to the Morgan Library to see the Wayne Thiebaud exhibit (so much more than pie paintings!) and the Monsters and Manuscripts show. A beheaded saint continuing his good works? More images of St. George and the Dragon? Yes, yes, yes. Finally, a short L ride to Bushwick to see my son’s photography and Solarium Swim design studio and dinner at Faro,  a Michelin starred spot. Inventive pastas, yes, but so much more, especially excellent service. 

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We read to learn, we read for pleasure, we read to escape. I found it hard to read anything other than newspapers in the days after my mother’s death. After a week or so, while I was still out in sunny hot Scottsdale, I got back to books. Here’s some I enjoyed: they took me away from my grief for a bit, they made me think. 

My favorite read last year was Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) so I picked up one of his earlier novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). Now I’m going to read all his work, because his storytelling is engaging and his topics are universal: his well drawn characters embody the world’s troubles. In Exit West, a young couple’s nightmarish emigration journey is at the same time magical, because each time they leave a place it’s through a door. There’s no magic realism in the earlier work: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story of disillusion. Changez is a Princeton graduate snapped up by a New York valuation firm; he’s in love with Erica, a beautiful but troubled girl with a social ease in the city. After 9/11, Changez’s world view shifts; he gives up on the West and returns to his family in Lahore, becoming the book’s title. 

II have a love-hate relationship with novels by Ian McEwan. Loved Nutshell (2016) loved The Children Act (2015) loved Solar (2011). Threw Atonement (2003) across the room: there’s no atoning that act! Didn’t like the excerpt of On Chesil Beach (2008) I read in The New Yorker, found the terror in Saturday (2006) not believable. But McEwan is always worth a try, and often wickedly funny (see: Solar.) I opened up his Enduring Love (1998) — and right away fell for his characters and their plight. Joe Rose, a science journalist, is picnicking with wife Clarissa, a scholar, when a hot air balloon holding a boy comes loose. Men, including Rose, rush to hold down the balloon, but it sails off, with the boy in the basket and one dangling man, who falls to his death. From that incident, Rose becomes linked to Jed Parry, one of the men from the ballon tragedy. Parry declares his love for Rose, he stalks Rose. Parry’s insistent — enduring — love drives Rose and his wife apart, and causes Rose to question his profession, his faith, his sanity. Is Parry real? Imagined? This one is filed in my McEwan “love” stack. 

It was kismet to be reading The New Farm, by Brent Preston while living with my sister for three weeks; she insists on organic only, grass-fed food and drink. That’s Preston’s story: in 2003, he and his wife and two small children chuck city life in Toronto to create a hundred-acre organic farm in Ontario. The book is their journey, and it’s well worth a read. How do you learn to farm? How to sell? How to scale? What works, what fails? How do you make organics affordable to all? Will their marriage survive? This is both an intimate story — one farm, one family — and a global salvo to get chemicals out of our food system. 

For years I’d been following the news about an on online marketplace for illegal anything — drugs, cash, poison, guns, fake passports — and the search for its architect and operator. American Kingpin, by Nick Bolton, is the story of that person and the empire he built: Ross Ulbricht, aka the Dread Pirate Roberts, believed in libertarianism and decided to create a marketplace for the unregulated sale of anything. It grew big, fast —$1.2 billion in sales — which set off a two-year hunt by a variety of federal agents. This is a smart, thrilling, thorough, un-put-downable read. I even gobbled up the endnotes.

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Spring break led us to the American Southwest, where we walked beneath giant palms, savored mid-century architecture, lounged by a pool, hiked the massive rocks of Joshua Tree National Park, and slept in an outdoor bed. Such beauty, natural and man made! Why hadn’t we visited before?

Here’s how the trip came about: our college-age daughter had two weeks off in March and wanted to visit her grandmother (my mom) in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’d spent a few weeks in Scottsdale in January helping my mom after knee surgery; I was happy to return but wanted to tack on an adventure.

We started in Palm Springs, California, where we rented a small home in a close-to-town neighborhood. I love architecture and had always wanted to see Palm Spring’s collection of mid-century homes, commercial buildings, hotels and motels. And art: we spent a morning at the Palm Springs Art Museum, touring its wondrous permanent collection and an Andy Warhol retrospective. My husband and daughter indulged me, but wanted to experience the area’s outdoors.

Can do! We drove to Palm Desert and hopped on the Hike to the Cross trail, an easy three-mile round-trip up to a lit cross. The next day we set off on a six-mile round-trip adventure on the Palm Canyon Trail to Stone Pools (moderately difficult). We never found the stone pools but we were thrilled to walk beneath giant palms, scramble up and down rock walls, and hike to plateaus that provided long, wide views of Mount San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa mountains. We were alone together for hours in this desert landscape, probably because we’d set out early.

From there we set up a base for ourselves in a stylish private lodge  just outside the gates of Joshua Tree National Park. Otherworldly is the only word to describe the rock formations within the park. We hiked there two full days; our favorite was the seven-mile round-trip Willow Hole Trail, which had few people on it and had us walking through stone canyons until we reached a pond and its willows. The park is an understandably popular place 130 miles east of Los Angeles; if you’re like us and want to be alone in nature, choose hikes that are more than one mile.

On to Scottsdale! We drove five hours through the mountains of Southern California, a place for which I have a newfound appreciation after years of thinking the whole place was traffic and smog. In Scottsdale we settled in at my mom’s beautiful home and kept up the hiking, because Scottsdale — known for its resort hotels and golf courses — has the 35,000 acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve, the largest urban landscape in the U.S. There we hiked Tom’s Thumb Trail, a five-mile round-trip, steep but do-able.

With my vibrant 88 year old mom, we enjoyed less taxing pleasures in Scottsdale: a leisurely lunch outdoors, shopping glamorous Kierland Commons, a family meal under the stars. And I, a fish, tucked in a long lap swim at my mom’s club after ten days as a happy goat, my eyes newly opened to our nation’s beauty.

I’m glad we made that trip in March. Unexpectedly, my mom died April 7, following emergency surgery. She died peacefully at home, my sisters and me by her side.


Hola! It’s been awhile since I posted. I’ve been reading, as always, but I’ve also been traveling and haven’t had the chance, ’til now, to sit down and share my thoughts. As a reminder, I review books I’ve enjoyed. Here goes:

Janesville, An American Story. (2017) By Amy Goldstein. If you liked and learned something about American economic despair from J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, this is a read for you. Goldstein is a longtime journalist at the Washington Post and a Pulitzer Prize winner for national reporting. In this marvelous book, she turns her eye to a region of southeast Wisconsin where factory workers (General Motors and its auto parts suppliers, also the Parker Pen Co.) suffer mightily when those plants close. Goldstein gives us the big picture — the 2008 economic crisis — and takes us into the homes and lives of once comfortably middle-class people now out of work; we see them retrain, find work out of town, go to college, accept donated groceries. To pay the mortgage, teenagers quit sports and clubs to work after school and on weekends. These people aren’t bitter: they’re stunned at how swiftly their lives change, going from high-paying ($28 per hour) factory jobs to $12 hour retail jobs they’re grateful to get. This is a smart page turner, thanks to Goldstein’s storytelling.

Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday. This is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. (Her first: incredible!) It’s two novellas, Folly and Madness, both set in the early days of the Iraq War. First, a pretty bookish woman in Manhattan, in her 20’s, is pursued by and falls in love with a Philip Roth-like famous writer in his 70’s. Theirs is not a creepy relationship; it’s delightful and wise. The two share a love of foods, baseball, sex, literature. Also jokes. “You’re velcome.” She brings him jam (which he pays for), he buys her an air conditioner and pays off her college debt. When he invites her to his summer home, she must assume an alias. Yes, theirs is an imbalanced relationship — that’s what Halliday explores, with grace and humor. I didn’t want their story to end. Second is the story of Amar, an economist raised in Brooklyn, detained at Heathrow as he tries to return to Iraq to visit his brother Sami, a physician who had decided his work is more valuable in Kurdistan. Hours pass as Amar is held; we learn of his family and the heartbreaking reality of staying in Iraq.

Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. 2014 Winner, International Prize for Arabic Fiction and France’s Grand Prize for Fantasy. In U.S. occupied Baghdad, a scavenger picks up blown-to-pieces body parts and stitches them into a being. A neighbor clings to her home, believing her long-lost son will come home. When the creature is complete, and comes to life, the neighbor houses and clothes him. The creature metes revenge on those who killed a part of him; once accomplished, that body part dies off. The creature needs new body parts — and begins to kill to keep himself alive. The city is terrorized anew; is the creature real or imagined? A great read about everyday life in Baghdad.

Other books I read and liked: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House. Okay, I loved this one. Wolff has a singular way of telling a story we already know. It’s delicious. Another I liked is Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, about four siblings whose fates may be determined by their death dates, which they learn from a neighborhood psychic. I loved two of the four life stories (gay Simon who flees his family for San Fransisco and Klara, who becomes a Las Vegas magician); the other two were not as lovable. Still, this is a beautifully written and engrossing read. Finally, a shout out for Paul Bowles’ 1952 novel Let it Come Down, which perfectly captures a young New York man’s post-war ennui, mishaps, misbehavior, obsessions and death wish in Tangier. Mmmm.

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I ate and drank and traveled and read my way through December and early January. Here’s what I enjoyed:

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid, which turned out to be my favorite read of the year. It’s about young lovers in an unnamed country that falls into civil war. The two must flee, leaving family behind, first to Greece, then England and finally, the United States. It’s a harrowing journey, of course, but the magic of this book is their passage, through doors that lead them to their next stop. I loved this read because it was both intimate — we see the two grow and change and part — and universal, a story of migration.

I’m a fan of Edward St. Aubyn, especially his Patrick Melrose novels which, if you’ve never read, you must: they’re disturbing (as a boy, he’s repeatedly raped by his father, and later he’s a drug addict) but they’re deliriously funny and beautifully written. (Thank you, Georgia Dent, for recommending them.) St. Aubyn’s latest work is Dunbar, a modern retelling of King Lear. I liked it a lot but was oddly unmoved, given that the play leaves me in tears. Dunbar is a corporate titan shelved by his daughters in a rural sanitarium so they can take over his empire. Along with a comic drunk and an “inmate” who has cash, Dunbar escapes the place. But Dunbar is separated from the others and wanders the English countryside, close to freezing. Dunbar’s ravings and paranoia and the true peril he faces in the outdoors made for good reading; the reunion with the one faithful daughter is thin. Even so, no one writes like St. Aubyn: his story never lags and his sentences are a marvel.

I tried to read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing but got bored after a few chapters. Same with Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which I put down after a few pages because I hated all the characters. Frustrated with fiction, I picked up Reckless Daughter, a biography of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe. What a great read! I’ve always loved her music, but I didn’t know anything about her life, about contracting and recovering from polio as a child, her disinterest in school, a terrible early marriage. I knew she’d given up a child; I didn’t know the extreme poverty she was in at the time and the shame she thought an out-of-wedlock birth would bring upon her parents. I didn’t know that she doesn’t read music, that she tunes instruments in a way that no one else does, that she’s a genius. Yaffe is a smart, sympathetic biographer. A wonderful read.

Just after New Year’s I traveled with my daughter to Hanover, New Hampshire, where she was starting her second term at Dartmouth College. It was supposed to be a quick trip for me but the cyclonebomb storm on the East Coast kept me in Hanover an extra day. The snow there, though constant, was pleasant and pretty: a winter wonderland.

Again, I stayed at the Hanover Inn, a perfectly run hotel opposite the college. It’s my third or fourth visit; I’m always pleased by its quiet, its clean and attractive rooms and bathrooms and lobby, the excellence of all staff, from the valets to the front desk. The servers in their Pine restaurant are especially thoughtful to weary travelers.

Hanover is a compact town, about two blocks long, with many dining options.

Most mornings I had a double latte and house-made croissant (as good as any I’ve had in Paris) at Dirt Cowboy. One afternoon we were especially cold and stopped in for chai tea, cafe au lait and cookies. Everything we’ve tried on their vast menu — they serve breakfast and lunch and dozens of drinks — is delicious.

We went to the industrial chic Market Place for an excellent dinner (pasta ragu, vegetarian curry) and the next morning for scrambled eggs sided with smoked salmon and frothy lattes.

For lunch one day (before the storm) I drove about 15 miles to White River Junction, where I met my childhood friend LGD, who made the drive from her home in Burlington. That’s a good friend. We ate at Tuckerbox, a glassy, sun-filled spot that serves mostly Mediterranean food.  Yum! And so reasonably priced. We shared chai tea, a meze platter, lentil soup, baklava. All for $40.

Other spots we enjoyed in Hanover: The Canoe Club, for its supper club vibe, good service and pleasing food. Also Murphy’s on the Green, a book-lined pub that’s rightfully known for its burgers. We planned to have lunch (soup, salad, sandwiches) at King Arthur Bakery & Cafe in Norwich, but the snow kept us in Hanover.


Of course I’ve been reading. Newly published books left me frustrated — nicely written but tedious — so I turned to my daughter’s college humanities list and my own stacks of old books I haven’t read yet. Here goes:

Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. Did I want to be in the mind of a serial killer? Not especially, given our culture of mass slayings. But I’d read that Hughes’ 1947 novel was a noir masterpiece. It is. Set in post-war Los Angeles, we’re instantly absorbed in the doings of Dix Steele, a former fighter pilot, who is in the city to write a detective novel. He’s a prowler, but he’s also a dandy, dressing for dinner and reacquainting himself with a friend from the military, who has become an L.A. detective. In desolate places, at night, women are strangled: the killer is in their midst. A beautiful, suspenseful read about a flawed man made understandable.

Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter (also from 1947). I’d loved Larkin’s Jill so reading the poet’s only other novel was a natural; he’d conceived of them as a series. The story concerns a young foreign woman in provincial England; she works, unhappily, at a library. It is winter, during World War 2. Years earlier, she had come to England at the invitation of a pen pal. Most of the book is those few weeks in summer, when she and her teenage host tour the countryside and Oxford and sort of fall in love. Will they reunite? That is the book’s tension. I earmarked a dozen pages: this is how a character wakes up in a strange home, this is what it is to be a teenager in love, this is a city street on a winter day, this is the only way this can end.

From the Dartmouth College humanities reading list — the theme was the other, the outsider — I plucked a few classics I didn’t know.

Francoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747) tells the story of an Inca Virgin of the Sun, kidnapped by the Spanish Conquistadors, rescued by a nobleman who brings her to France. Throughout, she longs to be reunited with her beloved, and it is her letters to him that form the novel. I loved this story for her descriptions of things she’d never seen: a carriage is a box on wheels drawn by horses, a ship is a floating house, her reflection in a mirror is a friend. All is alien in this new world. De Graffigny used this exotic tale to comment on French society, culture, and the role of women.

Another: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the the North is set in the 1960s, along the Nile, in Sudan. A scholar returns home, hoping to make a contribution to this postcolonial place. There he befriends a stranger who has also made the place his home. The stranger is Mustafa Sa’eed; the story within the story is Mustafa’s years in London, where he was an educated economist entangled with women who loved him for his exoticism, the color of his skin, the smell they decided was him. Those loves ended badly, in suicide and death. These men are not at home in Europe, they’re not at home along the Nile. “Help, help!” is the last line. This is a good one for understanding that part of the world.

And finally, Lazarillo de Tormes, a novella from 1552 anonymously published and banned for its mockery of Spanish clergy and aristocracy. It’s the story of a boy made to earn his living serving others: a blind man, a squire, a thief, a cardinal. He must steal to survive. It’s picaresque, a boy’s adventure; from him we get Huck Finn, we get Donna Tartt’s Theo Decker, we get the children in The Florida Project film, a sad must see..

I’m reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine (see above, mass slayings) on the advice of a journalist friend, and I’m advising all to see the movie Lady Bird, because it’s sweet and funny and its situation real, it’s beautifully filmed and performed, it was written and directed by a woman.



I spent the end of August and into early September on the East Coast. First stop, beautiful Hanover, New Hampshire, where my youngest child and only daughter is a freshman at Dartmouth College. (Beginnings for all of us!)

From there I spent a few days with dear friends at their summer house on Lake Champlain.

Still more: up to Quebec for a week at our summer home on Lac Pythonga. Everywhere I walked, ran, swam, toured, read, ate well, laughed. With my eldest, I played a Civil War board game that was more interesting than I expected (the North prevailed.) I spoke a lot of French, piloted a big-ass Dodge Durango, and felt like I’d been away forever.IMG_8193.JPG


This is what I read:

I’ve inhaled everything Tom Perrotta has written (and own a first edition Little Children with its controversial Goldfish cover)  and was recently besotted with The Leftovers, both the book and the tv series. So it was a given to pre-order his latest, Mrs. Fletcher. I love Perrotta’s fiction (he also writes about sports) because it is clearly written (that is, words don’t get in the way of the story) and well plotted, surprising, relatable. Even the worst of his characters gets his, and our, empathy.
Unknown-1Mrs. Fletcher is sweet, a little raunchy, and less dark than his earlier works. It tells the story of divorced middle-age Eve, who runs a community center for seniors, whose only child leaves for college. It starts with a literal bang: while Eve packs the mini van, Brendan gets a farewell blow job from his high school girl. Brendan is off to the bro life of a good looking athlete, replete with booze and girls, while lonely Eve comes home to binge Facebook and make lists to improve her dreary life. Oh, how the tables turn.
It’s not a short book at 307 pages, but I read it in a day. So did my sister Liza. It’s that kind of tale: engaging, funny, real. I didn’t want it to end.


Mid 20th century Japan is an interest of mine since I studied it at Columbia University with Donald Keene, who translated ancient to modern Japanese Unknownliterature. Since college, I’ve been happily making my way through the work of Junichiro Tanizaki, who writes about post-war Japan and its cultural changes. Some of his, like Naomi, are erotic high comedy. The Makioka Sisters, a favorite of mine, is the story of a family, where nothing and everything happens. The Maids, which I just read, is a companion piece to Sisters, and brings us into the lives of the family’s servants. I liked it for the descriptions of everyday life (fashion, footwear, cuisine) and the weird intimacy that forms between these girls and the man of the house; they’re more than help, they’re chaste companions, shown off for their beauty and poise. These girls serve ten years or more, and form bonds with the family; some are married from the home.


I turned to the shelves in Pythonga for two great reads. One is Michael Lewis’s Flash Flash Boys pbk mech.inddBoys, which explains the machinations of high frequency trading and the “fair” stock market established because of it. A must read. I also picked up and enjoyed Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, which chronicles the building of his writer’s studio. So much to love: the shack’s design and siting, the architect’s thinking, Pollan’s change from befuddled to adept, the step by step beauty of custom-made windows. A gem.


Finally, back at home I picked from my piles Ali Smith’s Autumn. I’m glad I did. It’s a strange read, an elegy of England as it leaves the EU, a treatise on art and artists, and the story of an everlasting friendship between an old man and a young girl that turns to love as they age. Beautiful.

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IMG_7925Bliss: three weeks off the grid at our home within Club Lac Pythonga in Quebec. Few bugs, hot sun, lake water the perfect temperature for swimming. I kayaked, practiced yoga outdoors, gazed at stars, visited with friends. So much time and quiet, a good place to write and read.

I finished the fourth and last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of the UnknownLost Child. If you haven’t read this series, I urge you to: it’s rare to read the lives of women, of a long friendship, careers, children, love and loss. The personal is the political: always the violent workings of Naples, and Italy, is present in these books. I didn’t especially like the first in the series, My Brilliant Friend, but everything that follows hangs on it. I’m glad I kept reading: such drama!

Always I bring a classic for my summer reads and this year I chose Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. I’d read his The Scarlet Letter (again: Unknown-1who assigns this to a 14 year old?) a few years ago, also Melville’s Moby Dick, and with both I was enthralled by story and language. No wonder they’re classics! Well, all classics need not be read, including The House of the Seven Gables. It’s the overwrought !!! tale of the cursed family Pyncheon. If you ever feel the need to read it, think: Anne did it for me.

World War 1 and its poets have always interested me. Testament of Youth, by Vera Unknown-2Brittain is a memoir of that time and those people. Brittain worked as a nurse at the French front and in London hospitals; her poet fiancé, her brother and their best friend die over the course of the war. I wept more than once over her losses, and later for her awkward re entry into every day life post war. This is a big story, beautifully told.

My “beach read” this summer was Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown. I was engaged throughout, didn’t guess its conclusion until the last page and didn’t feel the need to shower after reading because of hateful non-sensible characters (Gillian Unknown-3Flynn’s Gone Girl). Brown’s characters are mostly believable and I felt for them. Here’s the story: Bille Flanagan disappears hiking in the California wilderness, but her body is never found. Dead or alive? Teenage daughter Olive has visions of her mom and follows her commands. Husband Jonathan is writing a memoir of Billie and discovers a whole life he’d never know about his wife. A quick, engrossing read.

My on-her-way-to-college daughter pressed two books on me.

Unknown-4Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson tells the true stories of men on death row and Stevenson’s efforts to free them. One of those reads I’ll never forget.

The other is a political satire that everyone in her freshman class was asked to read. The book is A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe, first Unknown-5published in 1966. It’s set in an unnamed African country run by a dictator; I’d say the corruption, thievery, betrayals, grandstanding, double talk and misogyny in the book boggles the mind, but with Trump in power it feels like our everyday.

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Our place in Quebec is my place to read, on the dock, in the boat, in our newly furnished living space, in a big oversized chair and ottoman in the reading loft designed for me. Unbroken hours, and quiet. No tv, no telephone, no cell, no Internet. Someone else does the cooking. Bliss.
There I inhaled Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a magnificent work of reporting and analysis that began as a New Yorker article. Mayer details the chilling history of the Koch family, imagesindustrialists (read: polluters) bent on dismantling regulatory government. After failing to win people over to libertarianism, the family (and others attracted to their cause) put their fortunes into think tanks, universities, and political campaigns. If they couldn’t change thinking, they’d buy it. And they have. I didn’t understand, once Trump took office, why the EPA was targeted to be dismantled. Now I know. A propulsive read.
Next I turned to the third (of four) Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. They’re so rich I had to take a break; I’d read the second last summer. Such satisfying fiction! The women, images-2whom we’ve known since childhood, are in their twenties. It’s the late 1960s and Italy is roiled by demands for workers’, students’, women’s rights. Lina works in a meat processing factory. Elena is celebrated for her racy first novel. This being Naples, there’s head-turning violence and twisted devotion. (As my friend Debbie said about these books, appreciatively and with her hands, “They’re sooooo Italian.”) Studying code, Lina and her lover make a better life for themselves; Elena abandons her young daughters. There’s drama on every page.
I was eager to read China Mieville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. Mieville is a gifted writer; I kept earmarking pages to look up words I didn’t know. Mieville is celebrated for his post-modern fantasy and science fiction so I’d hoped for a images-3compelling read; reviewers called it a “dazzling” retelling. It’s not; it’s a slog. Mieville recounts every meeting, every vote, every slight. His commentary made me smile, but the whole read I can’t recommend.
Earlier in Chicago I picked up a slim book from my piles to stick in my purse. Such a pretty book, too, with its pale pink cover: Junichiro Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight. I’m a fan of Tanizaki, a mid-century Japanese author (1886 – 1965) whose novels detail everyday lives that go off the rails, typically because of an obsession. I loved The images-1Makioka Sisters, Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles. He has more, and I’ll read them all. Devils in Daylight is 87 pages, a novella. This is the story: A tired writer is awakened by his louche friend, who insists he join him to witness a murder foretold by a code in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold-Bug. (A nod to Poe will always get my attention.) The writer and friend, after a few mishaps, come upon the aftermath of the murder of a gentleman, by a beautiful woman and her servant, who are preparing the dead man’s chemical extinction. Shocking. It gets better: the friend becomes involved with the murderous woman, and asks the writer not to interfere in his certain death. Weirdly wonderful.


I read all the time, but I read most during the summer: beside the pool, on the dock, in my leafy green Chicago back yard. Here’s some recent reads I enjoyed. Ah, summer.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan
I live beside Lake Michigan and the sight of its limitless waters astonishes me still, even after 30 years living in Chicago. I’d read about invaders to this chain of great lakes, the world’s largest unfrozen freshwater system, caused by man-made shipping channels that link to the Atlantic Ocean, though never in one sitting. (Lamprey sea eels decimated native fish, zebra and quagga mussels choke off water-intake pipes.) Egan traces this sad history: lakes once thick with fish and plankton are so clear today you can spot deep water shipwrecks. Egan is a master storyteller, and this reads like a thriller: will the lakes and its tributaries survive?


Locking Up our Own: Crime  and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman, Jr.
A neighbor dropped this book through my mail slot with a note, “I think you’ll find this interesting.” I did. I carried this book around day and night, leaving her book spotted with sunscreen, nail polish, a splat of red wine, a smear of avocado. (I replaced it with a fresh copy.) That I left so much of my life on its pages says it all: this is a compelling and necessary read for anyone interested in the roots and reality of black incarceration and gun violence.


Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey
I get bad dreams reading dystopian fiction, but sometimes I’m sucked in and keep going. (I consumed Station Eleven, for example.) Afterlife is set in urban beauty Chicago, where a serial killer is at work. Tracking him is the city’s FBI director and her top daredevil agent, who are lovers. Ensnared, the two are killed ….but live on and work smartly
in an eerie “echo” of Chicago populated by the dead, controlled by ancient gods. This is a love story, a thriller, a mind bender.

Girls, by Kate Moore
In the 1920s, young women were employed in factories to paint numbers on timepieces with a glow-in-the dark substance that contained radium. To paint precisely, the girls were instructed to wet the brush with their tongues. Radium dust clung to their clothes and for fun, they’d coat their eyelids or nails with radium. (At the time, radium was thought to be a wonder drug, safe to ingest.) Not all and not at the same time, these working girls fell ill: their teeth fell out, their jaws disintegrated, tumors grew from legs or arms, they became feeble, they couldn’t get pregnant or miscarried. Gruesome, yes. The heroes of this story are the poisoned women who brought suit against the dial companies (and won) and the men (fathers, brothers, husbands) who loved and cared for these women.


The Full  English, by Bull Garlington
This fellow Chicago writer asked me to read his travel memoir and supply a blurb. What a fun read! Garlington is a wise, grumpy humorist in the style of Bill Bryson; his tru-isms about travel made me stop and think and his humor about life in general made me laugh out loud. He and his wife, teens and Southern mother embark on a “lullabus” tour of the United Kingdom. He’s the star: a fat man trapped on a tour. Indigestion, outrage, discomfort, deep sleep, discovery, wonder, kindness ensue. I’d follow him anywhere.


One of the Boys, by Daniel Magariel
I have piles of books in my office and sometimes I pick up a slim volume because I’m tired of carrying around heavy books. This in one of those, at 167 pages, though its subject is not light. A boy self inflicts bruises with the help of his father and brother so that the father can win custody of the boys. The father is a monstrous charmer; he persuades the boys to run off to Albuquerque with him. It’s hopeful at first, with sunshine, a new school, basketball. The father is a junky and a bully; their lives devolve into violence, terror, poverty. Beautifully told.


Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag
This is another small book I could tuck in my bag, a memorable 118 pages. How did he pack so much drama into so few pages? Shanbhag is an Indian writer, and this is one of his few works translated into English. It tells the story of an impoverished family whose fortunes change when an uncle starts a successful spice company. Ghachar ghochar is a phrase that means a hopelessly tangled mess; with new wealth that’s what becomes of this family. Marriages, especially, fray beyond repair. I loved this read for the glimpse it gave me of contemporary life in India.







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