Reading Through the Noise

Sometimes the noise of politicians and news broadcasts can be overwhelming, and turning off the dial and turning into a book can be a salve.  A few books I’ve read lately:

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Halloween may be the same for those in denial, but for many who are cautiously protecting themselves and their loved ones, the old traditions of partying or trick-or-treat from house to house are over.  Witches prevail, however; they are everywhere, both good and bad, and Alice Hoffman reminds readers of their trickery and power as well as the history of their persecution in colonial Massachusetts and seventeenth century England.  In Magic Lessons, Hoffman focuses on the ancestors of the characters from Practical Magic, famously converted into a movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.  The story combines historical fact with fictional lives, complete with spells and potions, as well as romance, intrigue and betrayal.  If you are a fan of Hoffman’s other witching stories, you will find yourself happily submersed, as I did, in an old world with magical possibilities.

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by Sir David Attenborough

Writing a book at ninety-four years of age is in itself an accomplishment, but Attenborough’s short tale, complete with pictures, not only recalls the highlights of his amazing adventures through the lens of the tragedy facing the environment and the world, he also proposes a solution.  After chronicling how the world was and how it became desperately what it is today,  Attenborough leans into his own experiences to define the planet’s evolution within his lifetime.   I had expected a large heavy book, and was surprised when the small tome of under three hundred pages arrived.  Attenborough is his usual charming and succinct self, not wasting words or emotions, but calling attention to the world’s dilemma and what we can do to save it.

Leave It As It Is by David Gessner

I listened and watched a zoom discussion of Leave It As It Is sponsored by Powell Books with David Gessner in conversation with Teddy Roosevelt (played by an actor).  As they bantered about Roosevelt’s comment at the Grand Canyon (“leave it as it is”) that lead to creating national monuments throughout the West, they brought the discussion to the environment and the future of caring for the land.

Gessner mentioned the 1906 Antiquities Act,  used by Presidents to designate national monuments that reflect the full measure of the country’s history. President Theodore Roosevelt, who signed the Antiquities Act into law, created 18 monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Olympic National Park in Washington, totaling more than a million acres. Since then, sixteen presidents have used the act for preservation and protection.  The Trump administration is now trying to rescind Obama’s declaration of Bears Ears in Utah as a protected area.

Like Attenborough, Gessner wants to motivate readers to be aware of the importance of preserving the natural beauty of the land, with the same urgency Teddy Roosevelt felt for future generations when he said: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”

I downloaded a sample of the book, and it follows the same conversational tone the author established in the zoom interview, often including Teddy Roosevelt quoting his own famous lines. Gessner and Teddy Roosevelt on the zoom call were entertaining as well as educational.

More reviews of books by Alice Hoffman:  Alice Hoffman 

 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Today is Scott Bakula’s birthday.  You may know this actor in the crime drama he plays on television, but back in the early nineties he was a time traveling scientific wonder, jumping from life to life in the serialized show Quantum Leap.  Matt Haig uses this construct to create an entertaining story in The Midnight Library.

The heroine, Nora Seed, is so despondent and dissatisfied with her life, she sees no reason to live.  Cue the angel in the Jimmy Stewart classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Ms. Elm, the kind and generous librarian who manages the midnight library, appears with a trove of books documenting Nora’s life and regrets as the stacks precariously slide along the ethereal walls.  Before she dies, Nora has the chance to be in lives that might have been, and the adventure begins.

Who hasn’t wondered about the ‘road not taken,” life decisions leading to inevitable consequences.  What if another choice had been made?  How would a different decision have affected your personal life, your career, your impact on others, your contribution to the world?  We can only speculate, but Nora gets the chance to really experience the results of other choices she might have made.

The book of regrets reminds Nora of what she might have done, and she starts a series of quantum leaps through the universe, reliving her life as a successful rock star, wife of a pub owner, glaciologist fighting a polar bear, revered author and professor, married, unmarried, with children, without children – the possibilities are endless but Haig sticks to just enough detours to convince the reader that Nora is probably happiest back in her old life.

And like the song, “Back in Your Old Backyard,” Nora finds herself seeing the life she has as not so bad, with still time for constructive changes.

The Midnight Library offers some respite from reality, and a reminder to be grateful for what we have, no matter how dire the circumstances.  

 

The Authenticity Project

Although I am still recovering from the Presidential debate debacle and the shock (well, maybe not so much) of the President being infected, I found a book to distract me.  Clare Pooley’s The Authenticity Project promised to be a light cheery read and I submerged myself in the ebook version.  Starting light with the premise of a journal passing anonymously to subsequent readers and writers, the story quickly morphed into a confessional.

Long before the pandemic was a household word, I often left paperbacks on planes or in terminals.  Sometimes I found a book in the waiting area, and once I accidentally left The Dutch House on a seat.  I had finished it but had to buy it again when it was time for the book club discussion (this time I listened to the Tom Hanks version).  Sometimes, I purposely left a book on a park bench and tried to follow its trajectory through a website created for that purpose, but I quickly lost interest and the website address.

I have never revealed the pages of a personal journal; in fact, I follow the advice of a good friend and destroy the pages after purging my soul, rereading my angst, and moving on.  In The Authenticity Project, the characters not only write about themselves but point to their identities so subsequent readers of the journal can find them.

One reviewer called the book a “cozy, feel-good read.”  It does have a happy ending but the surprise betrayal took it off that course and strengthened the story with tension and realism.  Julian, an elderly artist starts the project, writing about his loneliness and leaves the journal in a cafe where the owner, Monica, picks it up and decides to help him.  She too writes about her desperation, and the book passes to a series of characters looking for friendship and love: an addict and wealthy banker Hazard, Australian surfer Riley, social media queen and new mother Alice, and a few others.  Monica’s cafe becomes home base as they eventually connect in person and become friends, trying to help one another.

Through a series of humorous twists, the story morphs into the revelation of each character’s real inner identity; aspiration meets reality, and friendship reigns.  The Authenticity Project will make you grateful for your friends, and mesmerize you into a better world for a while – we could all use that distraction.

A Quick Inventory of Books

You know where the road to good intentions leads and I seem to have been on it for a while.  Although I have renewed online library books from the Libby site, more often they are returned unread.  How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell is the latest ebook I have on my Libby shelf, but I think maybe I’ve already figured it out.  The list of books returned stays on the site, admonishing me for neglect, and I’ve forgotten why I decided to check out the titles in the first place.  Have you read any?  Should I try again?

  • Actress by Anne Enright
  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma
  • The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin

I have read and finished Bob Woodward’s RAGE, and it offered more than I wanted to but should know.  Things are worse than they seem.  I followed by watching the new not so fictionalized cable presentation of The Comey Rule and my appetite for facts ignored by the general population gave me indigestion.

My books from Powell Book Store finally arrived by slow boat, but Trust by Susan Choi was disappointing.  I have hopes for Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life, with a review from Elizabeth Berg promising magic.  I could use some.

The Authenticity Project by Claire Pooley is an iBook on my phone, as well as The Secret Book and Scone Society, recommended by a friend.

On my to read list (I still have good intentions):

  1. Monogamy by Sue Miller (on the NYT Sunday Review
  2. The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey (a favorite author)
  3. The RBG Workout by Bryant Johnson

Zooming with Books and The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Although I belong to several book clubs, I’ve been a member of a local group for years.  The size has morphed from a handful of people to over thirty when the snow birds are in town.  Snow birds, for those of you who live in the same place year round,  is that category of lucky people who fly South or West to winter in warm lazy climes and return to their civilized home territory, complete with neighborhood bookstores, professional theater, and real newspapers, in the Spring – the best of both worlds.

I live in the same place year round – and it’s not the one with the bookstores, theater, and newspapers – but with great weather and amazing views.  Lately, traveling has been a distant dream of days in the past.   Even before the pandemic, I had become wary of attending this book club.  As my dear friend, Julia Child, always said, I lacked the cour- ahge (courage).  More about this later.

I have just finished Abbi Waxman’s The Bookish Life of Nina Hill – bought from the only small independent bookstore in the neighborhood  – and decided it is perfect for the next zoom meeting of this book club.  Not only is it upbeat, fun, and easy to follow, but the back of the book has a Reader’s Guide with questions for discussion – and some even go beyond literal meaning.

Answering prescribed questions has become the standard for this book club, despite a few members’ attempts to steer the discussion into a real conversation.  The new zoom format begs for structure, and prepared questions seem to be an easy organizational tool, and a way to corral a group of participants.

Here’s where my courage is lacking.   Before I can take a quiz on a book I’ve read – and the questions usually are testing factual knowledge – I’d have to read the book at least twice and take notes.  I’ve decided life is too short to read many books twice; there are too many other books I want to read first.  And, knowing there will be a quiz can be scary – feels too much like being in Sister Eugene Marie’s sophomore literature class.

But I will be reading Waxman’s book again to take notes, not only for the books mentioned that I want to read, but also to outline the sights and sounds of the Los Angeles I seem to have missed whenever I visited there.  Next time, when I finally use the cancelled airplane ticket, which now will be free of its change charge, I will be ready to find the food, the streets, and the city Waxman describes.   And all those books she mentions, from Saroyan’s The Human Comedy to Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham will be on my list to read on the plane.

The story follows Nina, who prefers reading to anything else – even people.  Of course, she works in a bookstore and has floor to ceiling bookshelves in her little apartment.  But Nina is not just the smart bookish stereotype; she’s clever and witty.  She discovers her missing father when he dies and writes her into his will, suddenly immersing her into a family of brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, leading to a series of hilarious conversations and not too shabby inheritance.  Romance is added to her life when she connects with someone on a rival trivia team in a classic meet-cute scene.  If you enjoy Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding (Bridget Jones), add Abbi Waxman to your list of modern Jane Austen novelists.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill was fun and refreshing. Go ahead – ask me a question.

TIPS For Your Next Zoom Book Discussion:

  1. Keep participation optional, including the video – not all of us can get to our hair dresser these days.
  2. Send the discussion questions a few weeks before the meeting, and be sure to include open ended questions. No one likes to have to remember what Aunt Mildred was wearing on the third Tuesday before the murder.  But relational questions can help connect the book to the reader, e.g., Would you have handled the character’s anxiety differently?
  3. Steer away from the “Writer’s Process.”  Instead ask readers to identify a favorite character, a plot twist they found believable or unbelievable, the value of the setting (locations) in the story – could it have been anywhere or did the setting make a difference?
  4. Have readers identify a favorite quote or passage from the book.
  5. Reading Guides are usually available, but don’t feel compelled to use all the questions.  Remember it’s a guide, not a quiz.
  6. Have fun – isn’t that the point?