Got Milk?

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I was planning to see old friends in California and attend the annual Literary Conference to meet authors and pick up ideas.  My airline ticket is still outstanding and I won’t be using it because the conference will be virtual this year.  I do plan to log on but it will not be the same.

Reading is not the same.  When I can muster the motivation to open a book, it’s more likely a sequel to the  Bridgerton saga or the wonderful fable by Jane Smiley – Perestroika in Paris – recommended by my good friend.  And I read much more slowly, but perhaps the story of the horse, the dog, the raven, the rat, and a couple of ducks in Paris – and the map inside the cover – was one I was reluctant to see end.  How else could I vicariously be in Paris, and will I ever be there in person again?

The newsletter announcing the virtual literary conference had a few recommendations for books, and one title inspired me to look for it in Libby.  Neil Gaiman, author of so many of my favorites – The Good Omen, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – delivered another gem in 2013 I missed – Fortunately, the Milk.

The story is simple: Dad goes out to get some milk for his kids, taking a long time,  but eventually returning with a carton. When asked why he took so long, he tells them a fantastical tale involving a spaceship of green globby aliens.   But it was the first paragraph that grabbed me – possibly because buying cartons of milk has become the bane of my existence these days when I fully expect to meet virus laden aliens in the grocery store.  It could be my story.

“There was only orange juice in the fridge.  Nothing else that you could put on cereal, unless you think that ketchup or mayonnaise or pickle juice would be nice on your Toasties, which I do not, and neither did my little sister, although she has eaten some pretty weird things in her day, like mushrooms in chocolate…”

Maybe I’ll read a little Gaiman today and pretend it’s green globby aliens who’ve taken over the world.  Oh wait, they have.

Circe – A Witchy Goddess for Our Times

Image of Circe Book Cover

🏺The Greeks attributed both good times and misfortune to the whims of the gods.  With the world still in turmoil, we are all hoping the gods get tired soon of tormenting us poor humans – enough already.  We need some good times. Reading Madeleine Miller’s Circe has me wishing for some spells or maybe an errant lightning bolt.

If you are a fan of Greek mythology as I am, having D’Aulaire’s children’s book as one of my most treasured still on my shelf, you will enjoy the retelling of how the world was once occupied by goddesses and nymphs, with unusual powers.  Although a minor character in Greek storytelling, Circe is the focus of Miller’s story, as she interacts with her father, the Sun, and Odysseus on his travels.  Miller cleverly weaves in other gods – Hermes, Athena, the Titans – as well as lesser known humans with skills – Daedalus, the architect and father of Icarus, as they interact with the main character.  The minotaur makes a brief appearance as Circe’s nephew, and Medea as her niece.

Impatient for a resolution to some of the teasing narrative, I often flipped to google to remind myself how the story progresses in the famous Greek poems. Why was Athena so worried about Circe’s son?  How was the famously beautiful Helen related?  Whatever happened to poor Prometheus and his liver? Who was Achilles’ lover?

But Miller has her own agenda for retelling the old tales with Circe as the heroine, “ a reclamation of one of myth’s reviled women.” as noted by author Clare Messud in her review of the book. Annalisa Quinn for NPR says: “{Circe is } a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it.”

Though most readers may recall Circe from her dealings in the Odyssey,  Miller extrapolates a world from the few short lines from Homer’s poem to create more of her life, from her lonely childhood with Helios, the sun, as her scorching father, her first romance with a human and later a true love with Odysseus. Circe’s discovery and development of her magical powers gives her the well earned accolade of witch and her heritage makes her a goddess.

I downloaded Circe to my phone in 2018, when it was first published, but have not felt the urge to read it until now.  I’m glad I did.  The story was entertaining and flowed easily.  I knew how the story ended, but I persisted to finish.  From the pages, I noted a few lines relevant to me today I might not have appreciated two years ago:

“Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things, is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

 

“…the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood grew overnight. In the pantry jars of oil and wine, bowls of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”  A dream come true.

 

“Your wife sounds like a clever woman {says Circe to Odysseus}. {He answers} – She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.”

 

“What was the fight over? Let me see if I can remember the list.  He ticked his fingers. Vengeance, Lust, Hubris, Greed, Power.  What have I forgotten? Ah yes, vanity and pique.”

 

 

 

Library Books to Start the New Year

Libby, the email librarian, has been offering me “skip-the-line” books lately, with a seven day deadline to finish.  Ready to meet the challenge, I finished two books in record time, while ignoring others under the usual three week time frame.  The pressure to finish before Libby surreptitiously swallows my book back into the void is a challenge I cannot ignore.

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half did not tempt me when it was first published, despite accolades from Barack Obama, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, and others.  I usually buy a book immediately – hardback, if I can wait a few days,  or ebook, if I need it now  – sometimes even preordering, when a new book is one I want to read and review immediately.  When I order from the library, I  expect I will have forgotten why I did by the time it appears six months later on my screen, but Libby’s “skip-the-line” brought The Vanishing Half forward sooner than expected.

Mirroring the theme from the film Imitation of Life, with a black woman passing as white, Bennett creates a novel about twin sisters, one choosing to live her adult life as a black woman and the other as a wealthy white woman. Desiree returns to her mother’s house in the small Southern town where she grew up, while Stella moves on to the big city to marry a white man who knows nothing about her background.  Their lives grow predictably different, with one struggling through poverty and the other eventually becoming a college professor.  Their daughters meet as adults, with one in medical school in love with a transgender and the other a struggling blond actress.

A Local book club picked this book for a future zoom discussion and questions rifle through the story as well as in the ending. Looking beyond the issues of race, this all white female book group might consider Libby’s pointed analysis of the book: “how a person’s past shapes decisions, desires, and expectations, and explore… {how some} feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Eighty year old author and former member of Parliament, Jeffrey Archer, is still writing compelling stories with delicious hanging threads at the end to tease readers into the next novel with his characters continuing their adventures.  Hidden in Plain Sight is the second book featuring Detective William Warwick. As with the Clifton Chronicles, the Warwick novels create a family saga, as the novels follow William through his career, his loves, and his family.  Using his trademark twists, Archer chronicles the characters’ triumphs and tragedies,   This one was easy to finish quickly, and a nice distraction from the present day world.

 

 

Review of the Year That Shall Not be Named – in Books

With the end of a year like no other, I am again looking back to list the twelve books, one for each month, I especially loved reading.  This year, however, is tinged with the evolution of 2020 from high expectations at January to slow disintegration as the months wore on.

One of my favorite authors, humorist Dave Barry, offered his observations in his Year in Review 2020 – giving a few laugh out loud moments in following his monthly reminder of a year gone awry.  He inspired me to think about how my reading morphed with my own view of the world as history marched through a challenging year.

Here is my list of twelve books read and reviewed (click on the title to read the review) throughout the year.  My favorite has a star.

January:  What better way to start than a book with January in the title and doors magically opening to new worlds- Alix Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January

February: The world news was getting a little scary, so I kept escaping to fantasy land with A.J. Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten

March: The world was really looking grim by now, so I turned to Jose Saramago’s story of how it all could be worse in Blindness

April: Spring didn’t really look like a flowery bower, so I buried myself in Eric Larson’s epic observation of Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile

May: As the pandemic raged on, many of us wondered what life would have been like if 2016 had brought a different president; Curtis Sittenfeld filled the void with Rodham

June: By now, I was looking for a fictional world I did not live in; thankfully, Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, came through with a delightful The Redhead by the Side of the Road  *

July:  We all knew the pandemic was real when we heard beloved actor Tom Hanks had it in March, but his recovery led to his role in the movie adaptation of Paulette Jiles’ News of the World in July.  In July, I enjoyed Jiles’ new book Simon the Fiddler 

August:  By now it was clear my European travels were going to be curtailed for a while, but my dreams of Paris were fed vicariously by Liam Callanan’s Paris By the Book

September: Although I couldn’t visit my Los Angeles family, I could revisit favorite landmarks in Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

October: Graphic novels with short but philosophical views of life are hard to find these days. Calvin and Hobbes is in retirement, but Allie Brosh has her own brand of art and humor, easy to read and fun to explore, in Solutions and Other Problems

November: By now I was watching more TV than reading, and Netflix lured me into a series called “The Undoing.”  When I discovered it was based on a book, I had to reread Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known

December: The year is finally coming to an end, and I have been drinking a lot of coffee to wash down all the cookies, but none taking me back into the past like the Japanese translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold

* Although I am still careful to drink up all my coffee before it gets cold, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road was my year’s favorite.

What books do you remember from this year?  Any favorites to recommend?

The Children’s Bible

Despite the virus plaguing the globe, the climate disintegrating, and politics continuing to stress our boundaries, we all hope this is really not the beginning of the end of the world.  Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible offers a strong vision cautioning it may be, but also offering hope for the future with the next generation.

As the book opens with privileged children and the worst wealthy parents ever imagined on a holiday, I wondered if Millet was offering a treatise on spoiled brats and irresponsible adults.  Jack, one of the young children, is enamored with his illustrated book of Bible tales, and Millet uses them to cleverly lull the reader into a strong message about what will happen if we all don’t shape up soon.

In his review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says:

“A Children’s Bible” is ready to rain down God’s wrath on these hapless families. When a tremendous hurricane moves up the coast, their Gilded Age mansion is smashed by falling trees and then surrounded by polluted floodwaters. The adults panic. Confronted with gaping holes in the roof, a rising tide in the basement and no electricity, they get high, have sex, break down in fits of crying and fantasize about incremental steps they can take to fix everything. (To their credit, none of them thinks it’s a Chinese hoax.)

Amazingly, the book becomes a prophecy with stories becoming reality. Evie is the narrator (her name should offer a clue), and she tells the story with audacious humor and vicious asides. Through a flood (of biblical proportions) caused by climate change, pretty much everything in the area where the families have relocated for the summer is destroyed. To complement the Noah reference, the children save small animals in an arc. As the disintegration continues, a baby is born in a barn, a modern day crucifixion with a staple gun and a savior with a SWAT team in a rescue helicopter are among the many other biblical references.   The children morph into responsible beings as the adults continue to sabotage what world is left.

Just in case the reader has not yet connected to the message, Jack notes:

“God” is a code word. When the people in the book say God, they mean nature. What’s more, if God equals nature, then Jesus equals science. Jack makes a chart for comparison between Jesus and science: heals the sick — check; makes blind people see — check; “turns hardly any food into lots” …

“And the proof is, there’s lots the same with Jesus and science,” Jack says. “Like, for science to save us we have to believe in it.

In these days when wearing a mask can be controversial and the President of the United States claims science doesn’t always know (what causes climate change), Millet’s message could not be more timely.  And not by accident: Millet has a degree in environmental policy, and works for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity.

The Children’s Bible is shorter than I had anticipated – under 300 pages.  I’m glad Libby challenged me into reading it before my short library loan called it back, and now I understand its accolades as finalist for the 2020 National Book Award, one of New York Times’ ten best books of the year, one of Time’s ten best novels of 2020, and a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of 2020.

It’s not too late for activism or a return to science – or is it?