It's been a while since I posted book reviews as some of you have reminded me. This post is overlong - feel free to browse or skip, but anyway, these are some of the books I've read and liked earlier this year.
Lawn Boy, Jonathan Evison
Mike Munoz can’t catch any breaks it seems. “I’d like nothing more than to spread my proverbial wings and fly the f**k away from my current life, or maybe just get above it for a while.” His only job skill is lawn maintenance which he enjoys, and when he loses his job and can’t find another, he is plagued by one grinding indignity after another, and says, “After all, most of us are mowing someone else’s lawn, one way or another....fleetingly content, most of the time broke, sometimes hopeful, but ultimately powerless. And angry. Don’t forget angry.”
He still lives with his mother who sometimes has to waitress double shifts to cover expenses so Mike’s most important role is providing care for his 300-pound older brother Nate who functions at the level of a five year old, and for whom he is a surprisingly compassionate and tender caregiver. Some jobs won’t work because the hours conflict with the hours he needs to spend with Nate. Enter easy-going Freddy who is really good with Nate and whose baritone voice soothes him when he’s acting out.
They live on the res and Mike points out that you don’t have to be an Indian to rent there. “Apparently all you need is a bunch of broken shit in your yard.” At one point their landlord raises the rent forcing them to live in their car until another rental becomes available. Mike is a determined young man who doesn’t want to “settle.” He didn’t learn job skills at school but he did learn to read and the library becomes one of the warm places he likes to hang out and get book suggestions from a librarian. As a former librarian I adored this: “The library was the most stable thing in our lives, the only thing in the whole damn society that said to little Mike Munoz: ‘There you go, kid, it’s all yours for the asking.”
I think this is a rich as The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving and certainly as warm and humorous. One of Evison’s themes was the class divide in America. Mike had a dust-up with a wealthy client and said “I guess when you’re a big rich, important person, sitting around on your ass, meditating on your big important, rich-guy thoughts, moving your money around in the ‘free market,’ the one built on the backs of slaves and children, you can’t be bothered with noisy lawn movers.”
Mike Munoz is not given over to complaining and recognizes the need for honesty in his voyage of self-discovery, one step at a time making interesting and loyal friendships along the way. I absolutely loved this book, hated for it to end.
We Own the Sky, Luke Allnutt
I selected this book to read next when I saw the Harlequin imprint thinking, oh good - I could use a romance right about now, not realizing how much Harlequin has changed since the years Harlequin was synonymous with romance, when my mother would read one a night before bed. Perhaps it started that way with Rob and Anna so in love with each other and their beautiful child whom Rob sometimes called Beautiful instead of Jack, but it became something else as Jack’s illness was diagnosed and quickly progressed.
I found it almost unbearable to continue reading yet was buoyed by the hope and compassion offered by others and through the online help group. I had to finish the second half today; I needed a resolution, to know what happened. The writing is lovely and the story is simple. How do parents survive their children? The author wrote this after his own harrowing cancer experience and perhaps that’s the source of his authentic voice. The author left me with a fresh appreciation for the power of forgiveness and to reaching out to help others. This is an unforgettable book.
Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover
This read like fiction, me flipping pages, trying to squeeze out reading in every possible moment. I thought of Kristen Hannah’s recent book, The Great Alone. What happens to the children of a mentally ill father and a meek cowed mother? Hannah’s book was fiction, this was not.
Normally parents protect their children, but when the tables are turned, children are left without advocates and have to fend for themselves against parents who leave them unsafe and vulnerable. Three of the seven siblings left home and earned PhDs, while the other four stayed to be enmeshed in the web of paranoia, lies and twisted religion.
Westover’s story is remarkable in that she never received a formal education, didn’t understand rules of standard hygiene and was clueless to social protocols, yet she climbed over all the hurdles to earn her PhD from Cambridge, while battling the disapproval of her parents.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.
In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.
How Hard Can It Be?, Allison Pearson
It’s hard to believe that a book this funny could also deal with some very serious modern-day problems, or as she says, “I don’t know why no one says “problems” anymore, except maybe problems have to be solved, and they can’t be, and issues sound important but don’t demand solutions.”
And Kate is nothing if not a problem solver. Her marriage is stale, her husband is in training for a new career so isn’t working, she needs to return to the work force after a seven-year hiatus at the age of 49, her teenage daughter has fallen in with a destructive crowd and her son just wants to play video games all day. When she’s faced with employment competition from a much younger crowd, she has to take steps to turn back the clock. “That’s how I ended up being a liar in the office and a liar at home. If MI5 were ever looking for a perimenopausal double-agent who could do everything except remember the password (‘No, hang on, give me time, I’ll come to me in a minute’) I was a shoo-in. But believe me, it wasn’t easy.”
Let’s see, what else? Her mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s and since her husband is in retraining, doesn’t have time to help with her care. Oh yeah, her mother has taken a fall, her nearby daughter has to take care of her and resents it, resents Kate. Kate tries to understand Julie’s position, “I try to be understanding, but since when could the power of reason unpick the knots of sibling rivalry? I should call Julie back, and I will, but I need to get Emily sorted out. Emily first, then Mum, then prepare for my interview with the headhunter this afternoon. Anyway, I don’t need Julie’s help to make me feel guilty about getting my priorities wrong. Guilt is where I live.”
All of these problems and more fall to Kate to resolve. One situation after another crops up and meanwhile I’m laughing my head off. Wait, menopause isn’t funny, hahaha, and age bias in the workplace is serious, hahaha, and on. I can’t wonder at Kate’s tolerance for Richard’s mid-life crisis since I had such a marriage myself once up a time. The good news is that this is a sequel.
Paris in the Present, Mark Helprin
This wasn’t suspense but it was a page turner nevertheless. This was unique in every way, an absolutely new and fresh novel with an 75-year-old protagonist set in Paris with it’s feet in WWII.
"Mark Helprin’s powerful, rapturous new novel is set in a present-day Paris caught between violent unrest and its well-known, inescapable glories. Seventy-four-year-old Jules Lacour―a maître at Paris-Sorbonne, cellist, widower, veteran of the war in Algeria, and child of the Holocaust―must find a balance between his strong obligations to the past and the attractions and beauties of life and love in the present.
In the midst of what should be an effulgent time of life―days bright with music, family, rowing on the Seine―Jules is confronted headlong and all at once by a series of challenges to his principles, livelihood, and home, forcing him to grapple with his complex past and find a way forward. He risks fraud to save his terminally ill infant grandson, matches wits with a renegade insurance investigator, is drawn into an act of savage violence, and falls deeply, excitingly in love with a young cellist a third his age. Against the backdrop of an exquisite and knowing vision of Paris and the way it can uniquely shape a life, he forges a denouement that is staggering in its humanity, elegance, and truth.
In the intoxicating beauty of its prose and emotional amplitude of its storytelling, Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense is a soaring achievement, a deep, dizzying look at a life through the purifying lenses of art and memory." Review from the New York Times
Women's Work: the First 20,000 Year, Elizabeth Wayland Barber
"Twenty thousand years ago, women were making and wearing the first clothing created from spun fibers. In fact, right up to the Industrial Revolution the fiber arts were an enormous economic force, belonging primarily to women.
Despite the great toil required in making cloth and clothing, most books on ancient history and economics have no information on them. Much of this gap results from the extreme perishability of what women produced, but it seems clear that until now descriptions of prehistoric and early historic cultures have omitted virtually half the picture.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber has drawn from data gathered by the most sophisticated new archaeological methods―methods she herself helped to fashion. In a "brilliantly original book" (Katha Pollitt, Washington Post Book World), she argues that women were a powerful economic force in the ancient world, with their own industry: fabric." Review from the New York Times
This book was surprisingly more interesting than I could have ever thought. As I research spinning and knitting in turn-of-the-century homesteading of Central Oregon I find a dearth of written record and have come to realize much like in Barber's book, there isn't one. I have to find mention in digitized newspapers and off-hand comments in miscellaneous memoirs. Women's work apparently isn't remarkable enough to write about!
When Things Don't Go 'Right'
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