Saturday, April 30, 2022

Home at Last


 Twenty-two years ago we bought our first house. We didn't have a huge list of requirements. We were thrilled just to have our own house after living in rentals for the first 11 years of marriage. But we did want a house that had an attached apartment—not a basement one, but one with plenty of light and its own entrance. Our dream was always to have my parents spend time with us. For the first 10 years, my parents were snowbirds. They came to TN from NY from November through March of each year. It was a wonderful time; we had what we always wanted: that our children would know their grandparents.

After dinner games and books, 2004


And then they finally decided to sell their beautiful house on the shores of Seneca Lake and move down here full time. They bought a house just two minutes down the road from us and lived there for 12 years. Every now and then something would happen— a fall, a hospitalization, too much housework—and we'd wonder if it was time for them to move into our apartment. But they always rallied and decided they wanted to stay in their own space. 

Mom in the hospital with a broken arm

Dad battling a toe wound

Last month, just a week before Mom's 95th birthday, Dad sent me a text on a Sunday afternoon. "Can't wake Mom up. Can you come?" When I got to their house, Mom was out cold, completely unresponsive. We called 9-11, and she was transported to the hospital. She'd had a mild heart attack and also had a urinary tract infections. UTIs are serious in the elderly, often causing delirium and leading to hospitalization. She finally awoke the next day, bewildered and weak. My brother and I alternated between being in the hospital with Mom and transporting Dad to and from the hospital. Randy fed us every evening. We all decided that it was time to move Mom and Dad into the apartment.

Mom said "This hospital sure is nice!'

And so, here we are in this new season—one we always knew was coming but didn't really know what to expect. This all happened at a good time. I just had a few weeks left in the semester. As an adjunct at a small private college, my load is light anyway. Mom and Dad seem happy to be here, although Mom is often confused, wondering where she is and where she came from. 

We still have some adjustments to make. My brother is putting in a walk-in shower—and also finishing his last semester as a college professor. We have to eventually figure out what to do with their house—and all their stuff. For now, we're just taking this day by day.


It's an honor to have these two kindhearted people who have lived in this world so long and seen so much here with us, for however long it lasts.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Oh HEY!

 Oh hey! 

I'm not gone yet.

2021 is gone, yep, and 2022 is nearly halfway gone, but I'm still here.

A lot of things have changed this year, and a lot of things have stayed the same.

Our oldest child got married.

Our middle child and her husband moved 12 hours away.

Our youngest is finishing his junior year of college.

My parents moved in.

Some things stayed the same. Our jobs. Our friends, mostly. Our love for hiking and for each other. Our desire to travel, to see it all, and yet to stay home on the couch and watch Hulu.

I'm going to be updating here more often with a focus on preserving memories of these last year with my parents. My blog's gone from raising kids to partnering with aging parents, and the time between is short.

If you're still here, thanks for reading! I'll be back soon.

Monday, May 10, 2021

School Year Wrap-up

My homeschooling days are two years past now, but our lives perpetually revolve around the school year calendar. Last week was exam week for everyone. I still have a few papers to grade, but Randy has his grades all submitted. Here we are with the traditional end-of-the-year ice cream celebration!


We took a quick trip down to North Carolina midweek to help Duncan pack up his dorm room and transport stuff home. He'll be out in the Pisgah National Forest for the next three weeks as part of a class —backpacking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, etc. 

Duncan at the climbing wall where he works

Had a nice dinner with Duncan and his girlfriend, JR


So, Duncan has now finished his sophomore year in college (or will have after this 3-week class), Jesse has finished year 2 of law school (one more to go!), and Laurel and Hunter graduated with their master's degrees!






They actually both still have a summer semester before they official graduate, but their divisions both walk in the May ceremony. At the end of July, Laurel will be a Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, and Hunter will have a Master of Divinity. And then... who knows? They are job hunting!

Last day of class!

I finished my first year as an adjunct writing instructor at Maryville College, teaching freshmen composition. It's basically always been my goal to teach part-time at the college level, and I absolutely loved it. There was definitely a learning curve —especially with technology — but I just enjoyed helping these students grow as writers, find their footing in college, and persevere to the end of this very strange year. I'm hoping there will be a class or two for me to teach again next year!


The pandemic of course made family gatherings rare. This photo was taken on Mom's birthday in April. It's the first time we'd all been together since Thanksgiving, and we are all fully vaccinated! Speaking of being fully vaccinated, here's Dad proudly sporting his "Fauci Ouchie" button.




Summer couldn't join us that day, as she has been commissioned to do a mural for the Dogwood Arts Festival. She did an amazing one at the Knoxville Zoo and then also did this one a different weekend at World's Fair Park. Isn't she incredible?



So, here we are, at the end of the academic year! Randy and I are looking forward to doing lots of hiking and waterfall exploring this summer. 

We hope to take a trip up to NY, as Duncan will be working at my brother's orchard in Ithaca.  Beyond that, we don't really have any solid plans! We're just so happy to have vaccinations all around so that we can venture out safely.

And that's a recap of academic year 20-21 in our own small world! 


Friday, April 16, 2021

Books Read in March


 Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.

"…We all have this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine. When this day is over and the night takes us, allow yourself a deep breath. because we made it through another day."

The story: A bank robber. A man who jumps off a bridge and the girl who doesn't. A real estate agent, a couple of cops, and a few people in and out of love. Mothers and fathers. Lovers and lost loves. This beautiful, tender novel features a cast of characters who are accidentally held hostage and who hold themselves hostage with secrets too painful to share. Their anxiety is palpable... but sometimes, when you share just a little bit, the anxiety can be relieved, and hope can be restored —if everyone works together. 

My reaction: Fredrik Backman does it again. HOW DOES HE DO IT? Once again, Backman took me by surprise, made me fall in love with characters, and got me all choked up. This novel took me a little bit to get into but once I did, well, I never wanted it to end. His rhythm and pace, as well as the connectedness of the stories, reminds me so much of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, which is one of my all-time favorite books. 


The Lions of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis

The story: Laura Lyons and her family live in the NYC Public Library, where her husband is the superintendent. They seem to have a wonderful marriage, and then Laura decides she simply must pursue her journalism degree; her husband suggests she wait a year until their finances are better. Suddenly, she sees him in a new light. He's holding her back, and she pursues the degree anyway. She meets a whole new crowd as a result of journalism school, and her life changes. In the meantime, books are missing from the special collections at the library, and her husband is blamed for the thefts. The second story alternates chapters with this one. Sadie works at the library

My reaction: I love the setting of this novel. Imagine living inside the NYC Public Library! Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler know what I'm talking about. This novel has a lot of the same issues I complained about in last month's book club novel also by Fiona Davis, The Dollhouse. It's jumbled. We're here and then we're there and squirrel! Way too much isn't explained. The dual stories are better connected in this one, for sure. Davis starts strong, but ultimately way too much happens, the characters are poorly drawn, the action is outrageous (way too many coincidences, for one), and her messages seem didactic and yet confusing and contradictory. I did enjoy the peeks into early 20th century feminism as well as the book trade, but otherwise... too much eye rolling and "what just happeneds??" going on in my head. 



The Reckoning by John Grisham (audiobook)

The story: Small town Clanton, Mississippi's local war hero and respected resident Pete Banning kills the pastor. And 18 hours later, we find out why. In the 16 hours between the killing and the big reveal, we get the complete story of Pete Banning, including an entire extremely detailed section on his wartime experience in the Philippines, his courtship and marriage; plus every detail of his son Joel's life (loved his meeting with Faulkner), a little on his daughter, and lots on his wife. 

My reaction: I have John Grisham issues. I've written about this before, and yet I keep going back to him. This time, we listened to this as an audiobook all the way to Florida and back and then a few more hours even. 18 hours of a story that could easily have been half that long. I mean, Grisham is a great storyteller. He is terrific at building and maintaining suspense. We cared about these characters. We were sucked in, waiting for the great reveal. Which was... a big thud. A big Are you freaking kidding me? Ugh. So much wrong with the big reveal. I won't say what it was, but it was not only disappointing but terribly trite. It was just an old, old story that needs to stop being told. Randy and I felt like Grisham really wanted to tell the story of the Bataan death march, which is the whole middle section of the book. It was interesting, for sure, but it was absolutely not necessary. Grisham is so good at nonfiction; in my 2007 review of An Innocent Man I wrote that "Grisham needs to pursue writing nonfiction a little more often," and I'm sticking with that. Why not write an actual account of one of the survivors of Bataan, rather than squeezing this in with this novel? Anyway, I felt ripped off at the end of this novel, as well as annoyed throughout for many reasons, but particularly for Grisham's stereotypical, rude treatment of Black characters. (He actually uses the term "colored." For real. But there's so much more.) Also, for the last few hours, we were rolling out eyes at all the completely extraneous details and shouting "GET ON WITH IT, JOHN!" My recommendation: skip it.


The Survivors by Jane Harper

The story: After a decade away, Kieran returns home to his tiny coastal village in Tasmania to help his parents. His father is struggling with dementia, and it's time for them to pack up and move into assisted living. Kieran left for a good reason: the summer after he graduated from high school, a huge storm struck and lives were lost —because of him. When he heads into the local cafe with his wife and newborn daughter, he can feel all eyes upon him, accusing him. And then tragedy strikes again, and as the townspeople and official investigate this new murder, all kinds of secrets surface.

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. This is my introduction to Jane Harper, and I will definitely be reading more. Reviewers seem to like this one a bit less than her others, so I'm super excited to read The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man, too. Harper is a wonderful writer. Her characters are richly drawn, her dialogue spot on, and the mysteries about what really happened were revealed slowly and satisfyingly. I love the long ending. So many books I've read lately reduce the ending to a quick wrap-up, as if the writer herself got tired of the book and declared, "I'm done." Not so with The Survivors. This is everything I love in a book: a long story with plenty of backstory, a setting that acts as another character, a true mystery, excellent writing, strong and likable characters, and just the right amount of tension. Highly recommended. 


Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire by Jen Hatmaker

The story: Subtitled "The Guide to Being Glorious You," this is a "embrace who you are,"  "you can do it" and "we're all in this together" book. It's divided into five self-reflective categories: who I am, what I need, what I want, what I believe, and how I connect. The chapters within those categories explore strategies, offer stories, and provide encouragement for navigating who we are and feeling exuberant (or at least okay) with that. This is listed as "Christian Women's Issues," but the theology is light-handed but extremely refreshing. 

My reaction: We chose this book for our small group (six women) over the past year -- pandemic year. At first, we were all super excited and found relief and connection in this book. We loved the dismantling of what it means to be a "Christian woman." We loved knowing we aren't alone in our questions and searching. Ten months later, we were all thrilled to be done with it. I don't think that's a reflection on the book or Jen Hatmaker. I think we transitioned, as the rest of the world has, from exploring ourselves to being sick of exploring ourselves! Toward the last third of the book, sick of Zoom and longing for normalcy, we became annoyed with Jen's cheerleading and capital letters and LET'S GO GIRL rah-rahs. Somehow, at the end of a year of isolation, perhaps it's been difficult for us to connect with who we were pre-pandemic. Our values have shifted. Our inner eye is tired. I also think this book would be much more appreciated by women in their 30s-40s, and we are all in our mid-40s and 50s. Also, I don't recommend spreading this out over nearly a year! This could be a quick read but a kind and thoughtful one, if read at the right time in one's life.



When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O'Neal

The story: Sisters Josie and Kit has a terrible and wonderful childhood. Their parents, free-spirited restaurant owners, were so obsessed with their own lives that they completely neglected their daughters, who ran wild on the California beaches. Fortunately, they have Dylan, an informally adopted older brother, to keep them straight, help them with their homework, teach them to surf, and basically care for them as if he were their parent. And then tragedy strikes when an earthquake completely shakes up their lives. Nothing is ever the same after the earthquake. The sisters drift apart, and Josie dies in a terrorist attack on a train Or does she? One day Kit and her mother see a face on a screen that looks exactly like Josie, and the search begins. 

My reaction: I absolutely loved this book. O'Neal does a masterful job of revealing the story bit by bit through flashbacks interwoven with the current day story of Kit and Josie. Each character is carefully, lovingly developed. I was rooting for both sisters -- I wanted Kit to find Josie, and yet I wanted Josie to be able to keep the beautiful new life she'd made for herself. Honestly, I was just utterly wrapped up in the entire story and was so sad when it was over. Some of the issues in the book are hard, but it is well worth the emotional investment. Highly recommended.


The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The story: The is a modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane falls in love with Eddie. Eddie has a secret wife, well, upstairs. And so the story goes.

My reaction: Honestly, I tend to steer clear of retellings of classic stories.  Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels ever, so I probably would not have picked this up had I realized what it was about. But... I liked it! As a true Jane Eyre fan, I appreciate all the characters being included: the insipid St. John Rivers shows up as John Rivers, Jane's sniveling, sneaky roommate. Rochester's daughter, Adele, is Eddie's dog in this version; Jane is the dog walker. In fact, she's the dog walker for all of Thornfield Estates, the ritzy subdivision. I thought Hawkins' reimagining was fun, and there are a few twists that made me smile. I would actually recommend this for fans of Jane Eyre, if you're up for a playful adaptation.  




Love, Life, and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick

The story: This is Daphne Sheldrick's lovely memoir of growing up in Kenya, from her early childhood to her many years as the warden's wife of Tsavo Park, a wildlife refuge. Sheldrick was a mother to hundreds of animal orphans, from a weaver bird to a mongoose to rhinos and, most famously, as an elephant keeper. She is the first person to ever successfully raise an orphaned baby elephant to adulthood. Woven in with her animal tales are her people tales -- her loves, her losses, and her friendships. 

My reaction: This is a book I would probably never have read on my own— and that's why book club is so wonderful! I absolutely loved this sweet memoir. I listed to this one, and Virginia McKenna is an absolutely delightful narrator. I was utterly wrapped up in Daphne's life, rooting for the animals, rooting for her. You can't help but fall in love with each animal and with Tsavo Park and, of course, with Daphne. She had an incredible life and shares that with her readers so beautifully. I learned so much about all kinds of African animals! I don't know that I would have enjoyed the book quite as much if I'd read it; I think McKenna's narration feels as if Daphne herself is telling the tale. Highly recommended! 



Girl A by Abigail Dean

The story: Lex is the girl who escaped the House of Horrors. Once identified by the press and police only as Girl A, she's now a successful attorney, trying to live a normal life. But her past haunts her; how could it not? She and her brothers and sisters grew up in utter poverty, starved, neglected, isolated, and, ultimately, held captive by their parents. She wants only to forget it all, but when her mother dies in prison, Lex is appointed executor of the estate. She has to go back and face her story, her childhood home, and her fellow captives: her six siblings. Each of their stories — during and after their childhood — is different. Each has coped in a different way, and their bonds to each other are tenuous and complicated.

My reaction: I absolutely loved Dean's debut novel. It was emotionally tough to read at times (OK, most of the time) because the subject matter is unthinkable, but it's utterly engaging and so well written. Abigail Dean handles the story with grace, allowing these fictional siblings their dignity and giving the reader enough detail to let us see the horror but without going into extraneous, over-the-top description. This is somewhat along the lines of Educated, Tara Westover's memoir. Although this is a work of fiction, we all know that horrors like this do occur. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Books Read in January and February

Books Read in January 



 The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi DarĂ©

The story: Adunni is a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who wants two things: her mother, who was her greatest advocate, and an education. She can't get her mother back—she has passed away—but she is determined to get an education. This, her mother told her, is how she gets a "louding voice"—how she can speak for herself and determine her own path. Adunni lives in a traditional village in Nigeria, under traditional tribal laws. When her father pulls her out of school and trades her to an old man as his third wife, her dream of an education looks impossible. She faces daily abuse, drudgery, and fear, and then tragedy strikes. She makes a bold decision that saves her life and ultimately leads her to a new one. 

My reaction: This was a perfect book with which to begin a new year. Adunni is the most wonderfully courageous young woman. She is compassionate, gutsy, curious, intelligent, and determined. The story is told through her voice, which makes this even more compelling, inviting the reader right into her world. In her words:  “I want to enter a room, and people will hear me even before I open my mouth to be speaking. I want to live in this life and help many people so that when I grow old and die, I will still be living through the people I am helping.” I loved the wide array of women introduced in this novel, each with a different voice and a different experience. Some of their voices are muffled, some completely shut, some shouting, but each one cries out in some way for understanding. Highly recommended!



Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The story: Isabel Wilkerson explores the characteristics of caste systems, the way human beings are ranked, and shows how the United States is rooted in a brutal caste system that puts Black Americans firmly at the bottom of the ladder. She compares and contrasts the U.S. caste system with that of Nazi Germany and India. As she writes, 

"Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations." 

My reaction: I think every single American should read this book. We need to be talking about this, teaching this in our schools, and working toward demolishing the American caste system. As Wilkerson writes (italics mine), 

Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country. 

Wilkerson uses stories about real people —including her own experiences— to show how insidious and pervasive the caste system is in America -- how it seeps into every aspect of our lives. I highlighted about a billion passages in this book. I had to put it down sometimes and just mull over what I'd read. Wilkerson is a wonderful writer, using just the right balance of personal experiences, analysis, and research, both historical and scientific. (At one point I shouted to my husband, who has a PhD in genetics, that I was reading about telomere length and understanding perfectly!) This book is a lesson, a reprimand, a call to action, a plea, and a challenge.

"Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean."


The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. 

The story: Miranda's favorite uncle dies and leaves her his independent bookstore. Well, that's the simple way to explain the book. But Miranda, now in her late 20s,  hasn't seen her uncle since she was 12-years-old, when he disappeared from her life without explanation. Her mother, his sister, won't talk about Uncle Billy. Her father just says, "Ask your mother." And the bookstore is on the opposite coast, far away from Miranda's current life as a high school history teacher. When Miranda returns for his funeral, she realizes his inheritance comes with a scavenger hunt. In order to solve the mystery of why Billy disappeared from her life, she has to follow the clues and put the whole story together: “Like Prospero, Billy wanted to tell me of his betrayal, the event that had exiled him from our family." And so the search begins, taking Miranda from person to person, event to event.

My reaction: Boy, did I ever need this one after reading Caste! This is lighthearted (mostly), warm, happy (mostly), quick read. This is a book lover's book, for sure. I love all the titles listed throughout, the literary references, the celebration of reading. And what a DREAM: to inherit a whole bookstore! Meyerson does a fantastic job immersing us in the world of bookstores—I could smell the books, feel the covers, and take comfort in the shelves. Miranda herself was a little annoying now and then, but certainly not enough to keep me from highly recommending this.

My biggest gripe: the title. I cannot remember this for the life of me! Shakespeare's The Tempest was such a prevalent theme throughout the book—Prospero Books and the name Miranda, just for starters. Why not use Prospero in the title? (Or maybe the title IS a reference from The Tempest, and I'm not getting it! "Dreamers of tomorrow and yesterday," perhaps...)  I keep getting this title mixed up with others I've read recently: The Little Paris Bookshop, The Library of Lost and Found, The Book of Lost Friends... I know—it's a petty complaint and should not stop anyone from reading this lovely book!




My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

The story: Vanessa is an outcast at her boarding school. She's lonely, friendless, isolated, and 15. She's the perfect prey for a predator like her 40-something English teacher, Mr. Strane. He singles her out and grooms her carefully, telling her that she's just like him, that he's madly in love with her, that she's brilliant. He knows all the right things to say, knows exactly how to manipulate Vanessa. Over 15 years later, he still knows all the right things to say: he knows how to convince her to keep their story quiet when another young woman, and then another and another come public with accusations of being abused by Strane. "They're lying," he tells Vanessa, and she believes him. He has been telling her since she was 15 that she's special, after all. The book alternates between 15-year-old Vanessa and Vanessa in her early 30s, when the accusations are flying about Strane. It's the #metoo movement, and Vanessa claims she is NOT a victim: that she made all her own choices, willingly. How long will she keep protecting her abuser?

My reaction: Haunting. Disturbing. Unsettling. Brilliant and brave. My heart absolutely broke for Vanessa, over and over again. This book is full of triggers, so beware. It is a difficult, gut-wrenching journey. To read how a 15-year-old is brainwashed, manipulated, and degraded by an authority figure is just so heartbreaking and maddening. I was angry at her parents for treating her like a leper, for the school for not pursuing the initial report of abuse, and of course for Strane for being a despicable pedophile. But I was never angry with Vanessa, who was so deeply twisted by Strane that she could not see the truth of their "relationship." This book is not for everyone, for sure. It is raw, graphic, and so disturbing, but Russell does an incredible job of inviting the reader to explore the complexities of abuse, the thread between abuser and the abused, the voiced and the voiceless. Highly recommended but know ahead of time: this is hard stuff.




The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis.

The story: Rose is a 30-ish journalist who has recently moved into the once glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, now luxury condos, with her partner. She becomes intrigued by the older women who live on the fourth floor of the hotel—women who are long-term tenants, now living in rent-controlled apartments. She learns that one woman fell to her death in the 1950s, another has a terrible scar on her face from some kind of altercation. Rose pitches the story to her editor and starts interviewing these women. From there, the book alternates between Rose's present day story and the story of Darby, one of the Barbizon women in the 1950s. 

My reaction. The first half of the book was great... and then it fell apart. Darby's story just took too many unrealistic turns, and Rose's story never reached much development after the first half. I mean, she thinks she is about to get engaged, and then her boyfriend leaves her for his ex-wife. Exit long time almost fiancĂ©, enter new guy. She's over her ex really fast. And there were a lot of references to what "really" happened at her previous job, but it just seemed extraneous and distracting. Darby's 1952 story could have been so much more interesting had it been given more attention. The characters there held promise. It was as if too many stories were happening at once, and none of them made it to a satisfying conclusion. Honestly, the book just went on way too long, and the climax was like a balloon that slowly and limply deflates. 

Linked up with It's Monday! What Are You Reading?



Books Read in February 

 Woman 99 by Greer Mcallister

The story: It's the mid 1800s, and Charlotte's beloved older sister, Phoebe, suffers from what appears to be bipolar disorder. Her parents commit Phoebe, who they consider to be an embarrassment to the family, to an insane asylum. Charlotte absolutely cannot let Phoebe rot away there, and she hatches her own insane plan: she'll get herself committed to the asylum so that she can bring Phoebe home. By appearing to be suicidal, Charlotte gets sent to the asylum. She is shocked and horrified to discover that many of the women have been committed merely because they were somehow not "proper" women: they suffered from postpartum, loved the "wrong" person, or perhaps their husbands were just tired of them. She learns their stories while searching for Phoebe, and she also considers her own life and pending wedding.

Willard

My reaction: I've always been both drawn to and terrified of books about asylums. The tension is real! I grew up on Seneca Lake, roughly across and down some from The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane, and Willard, as we called it, loomed largely in our young imaginations. I used to terrify myself by imagining that an escaped inmate would row a boat across the lake and land on our beach. Anyway... it's always been a strange fascination of mine. The thought of Charlotte willingly entering an asylum was both fascinating and unbelievable to me. I enjoyed very much the descriptions of the various wards, each focused on a different "ailment": love, silence, oversexualization, melancholy, etc. And I loved that Charlotte quickly recognizes that so many of the women in the asylum are there simply because they are inconvenient in some way. This is basically storage for women who dare to buck the system. There were definitely times that the book was too repetitive and drawn out, and some scenes seemed quite implausible; however, I found the book ultimately satisfying. For a book about an asylum, it was not graphic nor horribly disturbing. Recommended! 




The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The story: This is a marvelous story of a brother, a sister, and their rightful inheritance, the Dutch House, a grand house purchased by their father and ripped out from under them at his unexpected death. For the rest of their lives, Danny and Maeve try to figure out what went wrong and how to get it all back. They move forward with their lives when they are apart, but each time Danny and Maeve get together, they pick apart every detail of the events that led up to their father's death. Other people in their lives fill in details now and then, and as they leave middle age, the siblings finally have some closure as questions are answered.

My reaction: Ann Patchett is just the real deal. What a storyteller! Everything about this works together. There are no loose ends, no wondering for me. The characters, including the house itself, are all richly drawn. It's somewhat of a Hansel and Gretel tale, with an evil stepmother, a kind but distant father, and that irresistible gingerbread house that draws them back again and again. I love Ann Patchett, and I love this book.




After Alice Fell by Kim Taylor Blakemore

The story: It's just after the Civil War, and Marion has spent the past year as a battlefield nurse. While she was gone, her beloved sister, Alice, was committed to an asylum by their brother and his wife. And then Alice fell off the roof of the asylum and died. Everyone assures her that Alice committed suicide, but Marion knows she would never do that. So how did Alice get to the roof, and who pushed her? Let it go, her brother and his wife tell her, but she cannot rest until she finds out how Alice fell.

My reaction: Eh. Well, first I have to say how weird it is that I read yet another book this month set partially in an asylum in the mid-1800s. Between this and Woman 99, the latter is far more interesting. This one had so many missing pieces. It was terribly disjointed, and at times I felt as if I were in an institution. None of the character, except the dead Alice and the nephew, were particularly likable, and I like books with likable characters. I'd give it a solid 3.5. 




The story: Lucia and Miranda are Chinese-American sisters, fiercely loyal to each other. Miranda, as the elder sister, is protective and motherly toward Lucia, who is carefree and impulsive, a girl who thoroughly enjoys each moment of life. Both sisters are independent and brilliant, but as Lucia heads into her 20s, she develops a mental illness. Only Miranda knows about it for awhile, until Lucia marries Yonah. Within the first year of their marriage, the "serpents" begin tormenting Lucia. The voices in her head drag her down, and Miranda is there to rescue her. Their relationship suffers, as Miranda becomes more and more insistent that Lucia take her medicine, and Lucia resists. Lucia spends the next decade or so in and out of hospitals, in and out of relationships, and in and out of motherhood. Miranda is walks the tightrope of caring too much and letting go.

My reaction: What are the chances that I would read yet a third book centering on two sisters, one of each pair with a mental illness, in the span of a month? This was totally not on purpose; I just grabbed the books when they became available on the library's electronic reading system. This is my favorite one by far. This book is so beautifully written. Each of the characters — Lucia, Yonah, Manuel, Esperanza, and Miranda — is richly brought to life. We are especially submerged in Lucia's world— from vibrant and then impoverished neighborhoods in NYC to rural Ecuador. Lee's  perspective on various immigrant experiences in the U.S. was powerful and so lovingly written. I especially appreciated the section on Lucia and Manuel, an Ecuadorian immigrant who is constantly afraid of being deported. Lee paints all her characters with such tenderness and such vivacity. Miranda and Lucia are a classic pair: the Martha and Mary, the steady worker and the prodigal daughter, one responsible and one reckless; but both fight demons in their own way. Highly recommended. These characters will stay with me for a long time.




Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The story: This is a sweeping story of a family through many generations and across continents, beginning with the half sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into different villages in Ghana in the 1700s. One sister is sold into slavery; the other is taken as an Englishman's Ghanian wife. (He has another back in England.) From there, the novel proceeds through subsequent generations of each sister's line, telling a different  family member's story up until present day. One line goes through Ghanian warfare, the slave trade, and colonization; the other sister's descendants are enslaved people on Southern plantations, convicts in the coal mines, part of the Great Migration, and all the way to today. Ultimately, the two lines meet again in a powerful, hopeful conclusion.


My reaction: Brilliant. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. Eye-opening. This is a tremendous undertaking on the part of Gyasi (this is her debut novel), and she absolutely succeeded. Each character's story is told with such love and devotion; it's as if she freed dozens of voices to speak and say, "I am here. I lived, and I loved, and I have a story you need to hear." I wish I had read this in an actual hard copy book rather than on my Kindle because Gyasi includes a wonderful family tree at the beginning that I should have returned to again and again, to keep all the characters straight. I am too lazy to do this on my Kindle. That is a small, reader's issue that has nothing to do with the actual novel itself, which is astonishing. Read it. Pay attention. And then tell someone else to read it. Truly incredible.

And that's it for February! I've started March with Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. So far, so good!


Sunday, January 31, 2021

2020 in Review (Part 1)

 I'm a month late in reviewing 2020... but I have to get this strange year recorded. 


2020 started out with such promise! We were looking forward to Jesse and Summer's wedding on July 4. We toured their venue; we got together for some planning.



Randy had hernia surgery and spent a few weeks recovering...


We moved his mom into an assisted living facility. In the photo below, my mom (on the left in blue) is visiting Randy's mom on the right.


We had book clubs and game nights and celebrated birthdays.






We saw friends and family and celebrated weddings and even traveled.

We spent an couple hours with Laurel and Hunter while they were in Gatlinburg

We spend a night with my high school friend Robin and her husband while they were in the Smokies

We celebrated Elizabeth's son's wedding!

I visited Laurel and Hunter in Nashville for a few days

And then COVID became real. I remember this particular night so well. It was about a week before things got really bad in NYC. Randy and I were planning to go to NYC during spring break, and I remember telling my friends that we were still planning to go.


We all thought it would go away soon.

A few days later, my friends and I went to Biltmore Estates for a little getaway. It all still seemed so far away.


That was March 11.

Laurel came home for spring break, and we all went for a hike. On the way to the hike, we talked about the wedding and wondered if it would still happen. On the way there, it was recommended that gatherings stay less than 100.




On the way home, the governor recommended that gatherings stay at fewer than 50 people. The virus was officially and certainly in Tennessee. And everywhere.

And Duncan was in Peru, doing research on the Amazon River, totally off the grid. Imagine how happy we were when our boy made it home, getting out of Peru just two hours before the borders closed! Like so many students, he finished up his semester at home. Here is is climbing the house, because it's the best climbing wall we have here!


And then there was this...


Answer: YES.

And Jesse's birthday on Zoom...




And lots of cocktails.

So many cocktails.

And we worked from home, like everyone else.



And bought a lot of toilet paper.


We played games and took walks and lounged in hammocks.










We Zoomed.

We put on masks.





And that's just up until May. This is when it really began to set in that we were in this for the long haul. The wedding was off. Our trip to NYC was long ago canceled. Graduations were canceled. Concerts postponed. Cases were so low in Tennessee -- just a handful in our county. We settled in and waited.