My bookshelf…

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Having happily devoured several of Curtis Sittenfeld’s previous novels, I was eager to read Rodham.  This is the story of what might have happened had Hillary not married Bill.  As in real life, she graduates from Wellesley and attends law school at Yale where she meets Bill.  After graduation, they head for Arkansas so Bill can start his political climb.  He proposes several times until Hillary finals accepts.  In the novel, when she discovers he has been unfaithful, she endures a painful breakup and leaves Arkansas to blaze her own trail, eventually becoming the first woman president of the United States.

The first third of the book was borderline creepy with much too much information on the sexual antics of the couple for my taste.  It became much more interesting after the breakup.  I learned some things about how politics work.  Even though I already knew money influences politics, this book – even if it wasn’t the intent – certainly makes the case for campaign finance reform.  

I have mixed feelings about the book.  On one hand, it is the perfect revenge story for a woman who gave up her dreams to follow those of her husband.  On the other hand, I had to remind myself while I was reading that it is FICTION.  I wonder what Hillary thinks.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig  

British author Matt Haig gives us the story of a woman on the verge of ending her life.  She has lost her job, her life is falling apart and her cat is dead.  So, Nora overdoses on pills. When she wakes up, she is not in heaven, hell or purgatory, but in a library.  Nora is filled with regrets about decisions she has made in her life. The Midnight Library is a place where people can go when they are between life and death, not entirely sure which way to go.  It is filled with endless books to choose from, allowing you to try on another life you could have lived.  Author Jodi Picoult described it as “…an It’s a Wonderful Life for the modern age…”

While not life changing, I did like the book.  I loved that Nora’s school librarian, Mrs. Elm, who was a great comfort to Nora growing up, runs The Midnight Library.  And while I was pretty certain I knew where the story would end up, it was still a satisfactory read.  By age 65, I have certainly wondered what life would have been like if I had made different choices.  What better place to work out those thoughts than in a library!

Touched by the Sun, My Friendship with Jackie by Carly Simon

In early December, I received a text from my friend, Lou Anne, inquiring whether I had read Touched by the Sun. I had not and she proceeded to send me a copy as a Christmas gift, along with ordering a copy of her own. Around the end of January, we both found time to read it.

Carly lost me early on in the book when she went on and on about Jackie’s town car being so much better and cleaner than anyone else’s.  “…It was tempting to conjure up images of chambermaids licking every leathery square inch in one fast, last, lapping touch up…”  Really?  

In addition to thinking maybe Carly should stick to songwriting, I struggled with the privilege of it all.  Between the lingering lunches at all the best restaurants and parties on Martha’s Vineyard, I was getting annoyed with Carly, her drug use and whininess.

One aspect of being a part of a book group that I miss was that other people’s perspective sometimes made me re-evaluate my own.  Lou Anne and I “discussed” the book via text and her insights made me look a little into Carly’s background which made me feel a little kindlier towards her. I appreciate Lou Anne making me dig a little deeper, but I’ll never forgive Carly the chambermaid’s line.

The book is really more about Carly than Jackie, but Lou Anne and I both appreciated that she was respectful of Jackie’s privacy.  If you like Carly and admired Jackie, you will find the book interesting.  We both gave it three grandmas.

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Paris, libraries, friendships and family.  This historical novel is a dual narrative, not usually a favorite format of mine, but this one works beautifully.  Odile is a young woman working at the American Library in Paris from 1939 to the liberation in 1944.  Lily is a young, lonely teenager, in small-town Montana from 1983 to 1988.

When Germany occupies Paris, libraries are targeted for banned books and given lists of to cull from their stacks.  Jews are not allowed in and some libraries are closed.  Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, I was drawn to book from the beginning.  Odile is part of a group of dedicated employees who keep the American Library in Paris open during the war.  When the war finally ends, there is a betrayal causing Odile to leave the library and volunteer at the American Hospital.  There she meets the American she will marry and move to Montana with.  

Lily has recently suffered the loss of her mother.  Grief-stricken and lonely, she befriends Odile, now widowed. Odile teaches her French and reveals secrets about her life in Paris.  They share a love of language and books and find that they have much in common.  Ms. Skeslien Charles stated, “My novel is a love letter to libraries and librarians, reminding us that in the digital age, our libraries – our third space, our sanctuary, our source of facts in a fake-news world – are more vital than ever.”   She also receives the coveted Five Grandmas!

C’est la vie.

My bookshelf…

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Mr. Smith discovered this title on The New York Time’s list 20 Books We’re Watching for in 2020.  He requested it from our library, quickly devoured it, leaving time for me to read it before it was due back. It is the story of Italy’s haves and have-nots told through the eyes of a young girl. Giovanna is a meek, obedient, 12-year-old girl growing up in a middle-class part of Naples.  She overhears her father comparing her to his sister Vittoria who her parents have always described as someone in whom “…ugliness and nastiness were perfectly matched.”  From that point on, Giovanna begins a journey through the Hell that is puberty with her father’s words in her head.  There is chaos, deception and infidelity on the part of the adults in her life.   The book opened up a window for me into the Naples culture, allowing me a look into a very different world than the one I grew up in. It wasn’t my favorite read of the month, but I’m glad I stuck with it and appreciate that it expanded my horizons.  Elena Ferrante is a pseudonymous Italian novelist who also wrote My Brilliant Friend.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

My fan-girl admiration of Fredrik Bachman continues this month with Us Against You.  Set in hockey obsessed Beartown and full of human drama, you don’t have to have an interest in hockey to love this book.  When the star of the hockey team is accused of rape, the town is divided and struggles with the aftermath. Even though I know Bachman is a Swedish writer and his novel is set in Sweden, I could easily imagine it being northern Wisconsin.  The Washington Post review states, “Us Against You takes a lyrical look at how a community heals, how families recover and how individuals grow.”  Not a quick read, but well worth it.

Atomic Love by Jennie Fields

Jennie Fields’s own mother worked as a University of Chicago-trained biochemist in the 1950s. Inspired by her mother’s work, Fields wrote Atomic Love set in Chicago.  During World War II, the protagonist, Rosalind Porter, was the only woman working on the Manhattan Project.  Five years after the war, she is 30 years old and selling jewelry at Marshall Field’s.  When she is contacted by a colleague she had a passionate love affair with while working on the Project before he abruptly broke up with her, she is also contacted by the FBI who wants her to spy on her old lover.  There is science, love and espionage.  One reader aptly described it as “atmospheric, historically interesting and escapism” and I agree.  It was a quick read and a nice distraction.

And a Valentine book craft!

I recently came across a Valentine craft I had saved from a few years back.  I decided this was the year I would finally make the upcycle book-page treat bags ala The Refab Diaries.  I made a pattern and since I didn’t have any books to upcycle, I cut out my hearts from some sheets of crafting papers I already had on hand, as well as using ribbon and card stock from my stash.  The only thing I purchased was the candy to tuck inside.  I used a 4” heart template which only held one Hershey Miniature.   

They were quick and easy, and I think turned out pretty darn cute!  For those of you who may not have a sewing machine, I hand stitched one heart with two strands of embroidery floss using a running stitch.  Let me know if you are inspired to create your own!

C’est la vie.

My bookshelf…

2020 was a banner reading year for me.  I recorded 47 titles in my book journal, although I’m sure I missed a couple along the way.  Thanks to Covid, our library is partially closed again.  Luckily you can still request books online and pick them up by appointment.  For this I am grateful. 

One of the books I requested this past December turned out to be my favorite book of 2020, although it could also be called, The Best Book I Almost Didn’t Read.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith

I like to be drawn into a book right away.  When the author told me on the first page that Anxious People is “about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots” my interest was piqued.   But then for the first couple of chapters, I had some difficulty getting into the book and almost put it aside.  That would have been a huge mistake.  As soon as I allowed myself to relax into Backman’s amazing storytelling, I didn’t want to stop reading.  

It’s almost New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town.  A distraught parent short on rent money and afraid of losing custody of their child, makes a feeble attempt to rob a bank.  Unfortunately – or fortunately – for them, they chose a cashless bank.  From that failed bank robbery, the story quickly develops into a hostage situation in a most unlikely way.  Eight hostages, each with their own lifetime of grievances, hurts and secrets, who had simply gone to attend an apartment open house.

Backman’s ability to submarine your expectations of each hostage, slowly exposing their histories, finally getting to the root of their anxieties is ingenious.  A friend of mine who was also reading Anxious Peopleshared that she loved, “the ordinariness of the characters”.  

The relationship of the father-son police team was one of the many highlights of the book for me.  Trying to decide how to handle the matter at hand and Googling “hostage situation” is one of their finer moments.  When they started arguing over who should enter the building first, I choked up and had tears running down my face.

When reviewing books, I never want to give away too much and I particularly feel that way with this book.  I can share that I found it humorous, compassionate and wise.  And it is poignant.  In my old book group, The Book Babes, poignant became one of our signature words to describe books.  This book is Poignant with a capital P.

Fredrik Backman is a Swedish blogger turned superstar.  I searched for his blog and succeeded in finding an entry from July 2, 2018.  I have only read one other of his novels, A Man Called Ove, but have already requested My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.

Looking over my book journal, there were a couple of other titles I wanted to share with you.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe 

This is a memoir.  When Will Schwalbe’s mother, Mary Anne, is diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment, the two of them spent hours sitting in waiting rooms.  He often sits with her during her chemotherapy treatments.  They pass the time talking about the books they are reading.  When by chance they read the same book at the same time, their book club of two is born.  Gracefully written, The End of Your Life Book Club is a beautiful testament to his mother.  

Monogamy by Sue Miller

This is the story of a marriage and what it means to be faithful over the course of a long marriage.  Annie, the wife, is shy and private.  The husband, Graham, is a gregarious Cambridge bookstore owner, a classic extrovert.  He dies early on in the book, but he is not gone.  Graham remains very vivid in the memory of his wife, his children and his first wife.   Annie loved her husband, but she is left wondering was he as good for her as she was for him.  A very interesting read. I wanted to give this 3-1/2 grandmas, but just couldn’t bring myself to chop a head in half!

C’est la vie.

Midweek musings…

On this chilly, late fall morning, what better subject could there be than books???  Here are the titles I read in October.  Again, I don’t want to give a fulI “book report”, just a brief overview. I hope you find something that piques your interest.  And if you have a title you would like to share, I’d love to hear!

The Jetsetters by Amanda Eyre Ward

I don’t remember where I came across this title. I am going to start keeping yet another list and when I do request a book from my library, I’m going to write it down and note where I found the recommendation.

The premise of the book did catch my attention.  Seventy-year-old Charlotte Perkins submits a sexy essay to the “Become a Jetsetter” contest in hopes of winning and taking her three estranged children on a ten-day cruise traveling from sun-drenched Athens, glorious Rome and onto Barcelona.  Charlotte, of course, wins and everyone packs their bags.

I did find humor, poignant moments and a little twist at the end I didn’t see coming.  But, and it’s a big but, much of the book was written too easy breezy for the underlying heaviness that triggers the family pain.  I did read the entire book, partially because I thought it was building to something that never materialized for me.  I’m giving it 3 grandmas out of 5.

A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkel

Originally published in 1945 under the title No Place to Lay One’s Head, this memoir documents the fulfillment of a dream for Francoise Frenkel and her husband, opening La Maison du Livre, Berlin’s first French bookshop in 1921.  They are both Jewish.  Their dream is shattered on Kristallnacht in November 1938.  Though the shop is miraculously sparred, fear of prosecution forces her to flee, first to Paris, then to southern France.  Chronicled in her writings are the countless horrors she witnessed along the way. She survives the war at the courageous hands of strangers who risked their lives, secreting her away in safe houses.

Ms. Frenkel believed it was the duty of those who have survived to bear witness to ensure the dead are not forgotten.  She tells her story in gripping, compelling prose. I will not forget this book.  5 grandmas.

Paris, A Love Story by Kati Morton

I have mixed feelings about this book. Kati Marton is an award-winning journalist and distinguished author. After the sudden death in 2010 of her husband, American diplomat and author, Richard Holbrook, she retreats to Paris where she and Holbrooke had purchased a pied-a-terre in the Latin Quarter in 2005. The book jacket describes the book being “For anyone who has ever fallen in love in Paris, or with Paris.”

Born in Budapest, Hungary, the daughter of to reporters who spent two years in prison on false charges of espionage for the U.S., Kati and her older sister were placed in the care of strangers.  Following the revolution, her parents fled Hungary and settled in Chevy Chase, Maryland with Kati and her sister.  Kati eventually studied at the Sorbonne and the Institut Politiques in Paris where she began her love affair with Paris.  

I thought the book was going to be about the death of her third husband, Richard Holbrooke, and how she recovered from this loss.  What I found was story of her three marriages.  The first short one barely mentioned, her second marriage to Peter Jennings and her third to Ambassador Holbrooke. Perhaps it is because we live in such different worlds, the book felt obsessed with glitterati and name dropping.  While she certainly has led an interesting life, I never felt engaged with her thoughts or emotions.  Maybe I read it at the wrong time.  Sometimes I reread a book and wonder why I didn’t like it the first time through. If someone else has read it and found it engaging, please let me know.  Back in my Kendallville book group, other readers insights often helped me see things differently.  But for me, it gets 3 grandmas.

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Spoiler alert, this book gets 5 grandmas out of 5.  It follows the story of Noriko, a young half African American, Half Japanese girl as she grows up in post-WWII Japan.  Abandoned by her mother, 8-year old Noriko is locked in the attic by her grandparents. Noriko’s isolation and suffering are palpable and I was rooting for her the entire book. It is not until her half-brother, Aira, enters her life that she seems to have any chance of happiness. In her debut novel, Asha Lemmie tells a story I had never heard before and tells it in a compelling and compassionate way.  I didn’t want to put it down, reading it in two days. 

C’est la vie.

A good review is the literary equivalent of a love note. Aly Zigada

Every morning in my email I receive a message from The New York Public Library, introducing me to their Book of the Day.  Last week, a book by Anna Quindlen popped up.  I was thrilled, a new read from one of my favorite authors!  I jumped onto my library’s website and confirmed that they had the book.  Not only did they have the book, it was available.  They have recently reopened with limited hours, so I quickly added a stop there to my to-do list.  Arriving at the library and pulling the book from the shelf, I immediately realized Alternate Sides was not a new title and that I had read it when it was released back in 2018.  I put it back and stood there, lovingly looking at the row of books by Ms. Quindlen. I was thrilled when I discovered a title I had not previously read, Still Life with Breadcrumbs.  I quickly checked out the book and headed home to indulge in an hour (or two) of gratifying reading.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen

Settling in with my book was like sitting down with an old friend.  I wanted to call Anna up and say, “Hello!  I’ll be in the city next Thursday.  Can we meet up at Café Luxembourg for a glass of wine?”  That thought led me to remember a book I had read years ago when I was a member of a book group, The Book Babes, on ideas for your reading group.  I was looking for ways to keep our troop engaging, beyond drinking wine.  One thought was that since we all had our favorite authors maybe we should try contacting one just to see where it would go. The book’s advice on author meet-ups was – wanting to meet the author because you liked the book is like wanting to meet the cow because you liked the hamburger!  While I understand the intent, I still want to meet Anna!

The heroine of Ms. Quindlen’s seventh novel is Rebecca Winters, a 60-year old photographer.  Her early success has waned, she is helping support her aging parents, occasionally assisting her film maker son with an influx of cash and her supercilious husband has left her. “‘Peter is so European,’ women would occasionally say and later Rebecca wondered if that was their way of telling her that he sleeps around.”  With Rebecca’s bank account quickly dwindling, she sublets her beloved Upper West Side apartment for an infusion of cash and rents a cottage in upstate New York sight unseen.  The book is a somewhat predictable romance, feel good read, but I loved it.  The passage where Jim makes Rebecca a grilled cheese sandwich was laughable.  The (somewhat) quintessential New York City woman meets 900 calorie deliciousness. The book has been described as literary comfort food.  It certainly was a comforting, satisfying read, but also inspiring.  Yay for sixty-year old women who make their own way.  I give it four grandmas out of five!

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The Daughters of Erietown:  A Novel by Connie Schultz

When I learned that Connie Schultz had a novel out, I knew I wanted to read it and I wanted to read it as soon as possible!  Ms. Schultz has long been on my radar.  My oldest son and his wife, Emmet and Emily, were both working at The Cleveland Plain Dealer along with Ms. Schultz when she received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. They both remember gathering with the entire newsroom, waiting for the official notification to arrive. Connie was standing with the managing editor and editor in chief, who was holding a bottle of sparkling wine (Cook’s to be exact), ready to pop the cork as soon as word arrived. Word came, they heard the “pop” of the bubbly and the newsroom erupted with applause and cheers. Savoring her moment, Connie raised a hand to acknowledge her colleagues. Emily shared, “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who walked back to my desk (after grabbing my glass of Cook’s, of course) inspired to work harder and dream bigger. The award was obviously hers, but she made the entire newsroom feel like a part of the win. I kept my plastic champagne glass on my desk as a reminder of what’s possible.”

In her debut work of fiction, she tells the story of four generations of women in a hardscrabble Ohio town.  Beginning in the 1940s, it tracks the rhythms of daily life in a blue-collar community.  Ellie is being raised by her maternal grandparents.  She has the best grades in her class and dreams of going to nursing school and marrying her high school sweetheart, Brick.  Brick is a basketball star who is offered a college scholarship and a chance to escape his abusive father.  Everything changes when Ellie learns she is pregnant, and the young lovers revise their plans and marry.  This is the story of women, marriage, friends, mothers, grandparents, daughters, husbands, choices made and secrets kept.  In other words, it is the story of life.  In Ellie’s own words, “Everybody starts out as one kind of person and ends up being somebody else.  Even if you don’t notice it, life is rearranging you.”

While I value Ms. Schultz’s journalistic endeavors (you can read her article Finally, a Convention for the Rest of America for Creators Syndicate here), I’m delighted she took the time to venture into fiction.  I rate this book four grandmas out of five!

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

And now for something completely different.  Mr. Smith is quite a fan of Trevor Noah and that led his thoughtful son to gift him with Trevor’s book, Born a Crime, for Fathers’ Day. Mr. Smith quickly devoured the book and passed it on to me.  Oh my!  It is the story of Trevor’s childhood and growing up in his native South Africa during apartheid.  Trevor was born to a white father and black mother in 1984.  At that time in South Africa this was a crime punishable by five years in prison.  His parents tried to conduct their relationship in secret, but his mother was frequently jailed for short periods of time and Treavor would often be hidden from authorities.


Each chapter is prefaced with commentary helping me understand the times, followed by tales of his early experiences as a mischievous child who grew into a restless young man.  His stories weave together to provide a sometimes funny, sometimes moving picture of a boy making his way through a crazy world in a dangerous time.  Although the descriptions of life under South African apartheid were revelatory, I believe this book is primarily a love letter to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo.  Ms. Nombuyiselo grew up in a hut with 14 other occupants yet created a life where she could eventually provide a house for Trevor.  She was stubborn, fearless and deeply religious.  And she loved Trevor unconditionally and unconventionally.  Part of her deep love manifested in severe discipline. When Trevor was arrested for stealing a car, his first thoughts were of how much trouble he would be in with his mother.  But it was his mother who paid his bail and paid for his lawyer. 

“…Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love.  If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse.  The world doesn’t love you.  If the police get you, the police don’t love you.  When I beat you, I’m trying to save you.  When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

Considering the state of our nation today, I would recommend this book to everyone. Not preachy, but honest and gritty. And with a nod to Trevor’s extraordinary mother, I’m giving it the much coveted five grandmas!

The Dutch House by Ann Pachett

A couple weeks ago I received a text from my friend LouAnne, inquiring if I had any books to suggest for The Book Babes.  They were making up their reading list for the year and she needed to come up with her selection.  I suggested Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver and Connie Schultz’s book reviewed above.  When I asked if she had any recommendations for me, she shared she was reading The Dutch House which had been suggested to her by a literary friend and I decided to give it a try.

Ann Pachett’s eighth novel is the story of a brother and sister, Danny and Maeve.   It spans five decades and details their obsessive connection with the iconic house they lived in as young children.  Their father, Cyril, bought The Dutch House, a 1922 mansion outside of Philadelphia, fully furnished in an estate sale as a surprise for his wife, Elna.  She hated the house, both aesthetically and ethically.  When Maeve is ten and Danny is three, Elna leaves both the house and her family.  Cyril is obsessed with work and leaves the lion share of care of his motherless children to the kind-hearted cook and housekeeper.  The fractured fairy tale feeling continues with the entrance of the evil stepmother who systematically pushes Danny and Maeve out.  The years pass. When Danny and Maeve are both in town, they spend hours sitting in Maeve’s car outside The Dutch House, going over and over the past. Danny eventually asks, “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”  

Ann Pachett is another favorite author of mine.  I read Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars years ago and I found The Dutch House to be just as engrossing and satisfying.   Again, I give it four grandmas out of five.

I purposely didn’t provide a complete plot summary of the books, I simply attempted to whet your appetite.  When I read a book, I don’t want to start out knowing everything that is going to happen.  I want to be brought along with the author’s twists and turns.  In these crazy times when we can’t even cross the Canadian border, we can spend hours traveling around the world through fascinating books. Happy reading…

C’est la vie.

The Art of Growing Old…

I’m too old to be young and too young to be old.  This quote from Evelyn in Fried Green Tomatoes sums up what I’m feeling these days.  I’m not ready to start polishing up my obituary, but I recognize I am entering my third act.

When I contemplate the remaining chapter of my life, I know I want to be the author.  When you are a child, your parents write your script.  On my own from 18-23, I had no clear direction. I know there are individuals who in young adulthood take control and endeavor to forge their own paths, but I think they are few and far between. I did make the choice to marry at 23, but in retrospect I think that decision was largely driven by social expectations and limited exposure to our wondrous world. Luckily, I chose a mate well.  Then we had our sons and when you are raising a family, they become your focus and direction. But now, pushing 65, life has grown simpler.  I am lucky to be basically healthy, all our children and grandchildren are healthy, and Mr. Smith still loves me. I’m not naïve enough to think my remaining years will be all champagne and beach sunsets, but I hope to direct them as much as possible.  In looking for guidance, I went to the place I always go.  Books.  

The Art of Growing Old, Aging with Grace by Marie de Hennzel was referenced in several articles I read about aging, so I decided it was time to check it out.  Marie de Hennzel is a French clinical therapist, largely focusing on the art of aging well.  She is also the recipient of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honorary decoration. I found her book to be positive and heartfelt, drawing from many of her life challenges and personal experiences.

There is no doubt that we live is a society obsessed with youth.  If you feel you have an issue with your appearance, there is more than likely a cosmetic surgery procedure you can undergo.  But Dr. Hennzel believes that in order to age gracefully, we need to dwell less on the physical aspects of aging and focus on the positive emotional changes.  Accepting that we may be slowing down and acknowledging that this slower pace will allow you new observations and insights is just one of the positive aspects of aging.  She doesn’t ignore our inevitable physical deterioration and provides practical life plans for dealing with the fears of becoming a burden on our families, illness and isolation.  

I do think my time spent reading this book was time well spent.  I will share that for me, it read a bit like a research paper full of academic references and studies. What I was really seeking in a book about aging, was something with a more conversational tone.   Like sharing a cup of tea with my beloved Aunt Ruby while she shared her best wisdom for growing older and remaining so loving and kind.  I’ll take inspiration from both.

C’est la vie

Who doesn’t love a list?

In July of 2013, I began keeping a written record of the books I read. I no longer remember the catalyst for this list keeping and I’m sure I’ve neglected to record a few along the way, but when I look it over, I see a roadmap of my life.  It reflects my interests, conflicts, and challenges through the years. Where some titles are like running into a familiar old friend, some I barely remember.

Last Saturday I was recording my last read in January when I noticed it had been a banner month.  I normally average three books a month, but in January I had read seven!  Mr. Smith did have a two-week cold in January which resulted in us spending more time than normal at home. I obviously put those hours to good use.

Early in January, I wrote about a couple of the titles I read, Rules for Visiting and How Reading Changed My Life.  Of the remaining five books I read in January, one that I won’t soon forget is The Fires of Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky.  Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Ms. Nemirovsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish origin. She lived more than half her life in France, but was denied French citizenship.  By the 1930s, Nemirovsky had become a hugely popular and critically acclaimed writer. Then came the war and the Vichy government’s anti-Jewish laws. Nemirovsky was dropped by the literary establishment and was no longer able to publish under her own name.  She was arrested as a Jew during German occupation and died at Auschwitz at the age of 39.   Her husband, Michel Epstein, was arrested shortly thereafter and also died in Auschwitz.  Their two daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, survived the war due to the kindness of neighbors who hid them from the Vichy Government. The girls did not know the fate of their parents until after the war ended.  Miraculously, a suitcase containing some of Nemirovsky’s writings survived the war.  In the suitcase were family photographs, diaries and other writings, including the manuscript for Suite Francaise, first published in the United States in 2006.  

The Fires of Autumn is considered its prequel.  Set in France, it revolves around a group of friends and neighbors from the beginning of World War I through the early years of World War II.  The main character is Bernard, a naïve young man still in short pants who wants to fight for the honor of France.  Witnessing the realities of war, he quickly loses his idealism and becomes cynical.  He returns home from World War I addicted to obtaining wealth and success. His doting mother feels she no longer knows him.  His lover eventually leaves him. And then comes World War II. The book does start out a little slowly, or that may be just me.  I’m always a little impatient with “setting the scene”, I want to get right to the point.  I stuck with it and my reward was a satisfying read that taught me a lot and made me think.  What more can you ask of a book?

 A difficult read, but one that I didn’t want to put down, was JoAnna Goodman’s The Home for Unwanted Girls.  At one level it’s an age-old story.  Young girl gets pregnant, parents reject the boyfriend and force the girl to give the baby up for adoption.  The baby, Elodie, is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system run by the Catholic church. On a deeper level, it tells the story of a dark time in Quebec’s history.  Elodie’s life takes an even more tragic turn when, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, she is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages.  Not only are the orphans declared mentally ill, these young children are forced to be caretakers of the truly mentally ill, feeding and bathing them, all while trying to avoid the wrath of the nuns. There were moments while reading I had to remind myself that this horrendous offense against thousands of orphans truly occurred as it is hard to understand such greed.  But the Duplessis Orphans scandal, orchestrated by Premier Maurice Duplessis, a staunch Catholic, was real and took place in the 1940s and 1950s.  Duplessis’s time as Premier is now referred to as “The Great Darkness”.  This book is going to haunt me for some time.

I am considering making other book lists.  One would be Books That I’m Searching For.  A small notebook kept in my purse that I would have when I happen upon an extraordinary used bookstore would be just the place to record these titles.  I may also start a list of books I’d like to purchase for my grandchildren, sharing some of the books I loved growing up as well as more current fare.  After all, who doesn’t love a  book list?

C’est la vie.

In winter she curls up around a good book and dreams away the cold. Ben Aaronovitch

Just as reading was the salvation of my lonely youth, it is my reprieve from the January blues.  I have often used reading as a reward.  As a young mother living in our big old house in Indiana, I would get my boys off to school, set a timer and clean for an hour.  I would then read for an hour, repeating the process until I could simply read.  Now I use reading as solace for my winter doldrums.  Since our little apartment doesn’t need as much attention as our old Victorian, I no longer need to set a timer, I just tidy up after Mr. Smith has left for work and then I dive into my current guilty pleasure.

This December, I finished reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as part of My Three Son’s book group.  I read it years ago with my Indiana book group, but I found I enjoyed it just as much the second time around.  My son Elliot was taken with the friendship between Call and Gus.  They were friends, no stipulations, no questions asked, noting that friends like that can be hard to find.  Our next read is The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje.  Mr. Smith has been devouring many of Ondaatje’s books and recommended this one about the adventures of three adolescent boys traveling alone who meet on a ship crossing the Indian Ocean bound for England in the 1950s.

Last week I read Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane.  Her character, May Attaway, is a forty-year old woman who sets out to explore friendships in the digital age.   She is employed as a gardener for a university and the book is full of fascinating information about trees.  May is an introvert, more comfortable with plants than people, leading her to lean heavily on Emily Post.  When I started it, I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to bond with the protagonist, but like Alana Masad in her NPR review, I ended up loving May and I’m glad I stayed with it until the end.

Presently, I’m reading Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life. My girl crush on Ms. Quindlen was validated when I read about her mother trying to chase her outside with “It’s a beautiful day,” when she only wanted to curl up in her favorite chair, lost in a book.  I was delighted with Ms. Quindlen’s adamant belief that despite computers and e-readers, print books are here to stay. Admitting that while reading lists “…are arbitrary and capricious…”, she acknowledged that she loves them and ends the book with several different lists.  Lonesome Dove appears on her “10 Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer to Read (but Aren’t Beach Books)” list.  I did come away with two more titles for my reading list:  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

My library card is one of my dearest possessions.  I was over the moon when we were living in New York and snail mail brought me my library card from the New York Public Library.  Anyone who lives, works, attends school, or pays property taxes in New York State is eligible.  The card gives you access to millions of materials, resources and services.  And you get a really cool card!  I no longer live in New York, but I still receive an email every morning with a Book of the Day recommendation. 

Mr. Smith and I have lived in many different states.  I have gone through many different library cards, but they have all been my key, opening the door to the joys of intriguing stories and new adventures.  I hope this will continue as long as I love books – in other words – forever. 

I am simply a ‘book drunkard’. Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotees. I cannot withstand them.

L. M. Montgomery

C’est la vie.

This is the gift of the grandchildren…

As a grandmother of seven and a prolific reader, the title Unconditional Love, A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today by Jane Isay grabbed my attention. Ms. Isay is a former editor of Yale University Press and this is her fourth book. The book is well researched and draws heavily from Ms. Isay’s own experience, as well as from the hundreds of interviews she conducted with grandparents.

The book is written as a guide to help grandparents navigate their new role in a manner which keeps family conflicts to a minimum and strives for harmony. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure it was for me. The beginning focused on “grandparent prep” with suggestions on how to get up-to-date on the mores of today. Since I no longer have any infant grandchildren, I have no reason to check out Websites and blogs discussing the pros and cons of babies sleeping with parents. Then I got to the section where the reader was asked to close their eyes and take themselves back in time to the months when their child was first born. The frustration of not knowing how to calm your baby, the panic when a feeding didn’t go right, no shower, no sleep and no end in sight. Even though it’s been decades, I could still feel the fatigue and isolation. And even though the baby days are long behind my daughters-in-law, I wanted to go hug them all and take them out for a cocktail. And while they are hopefully all getting to sleep through the night at this point, the challenges of parenting continue. No matter how many books or internet articles you read, parenting is still on the job training.

Ms. Isay acknowledges that when our children take on the responsibilities of parenthood, they also take on new power. They get to set the rules! With a grandparent’s years of experience and perspective of time, some of these rules may seem silly, but they are to be respected. And who doesn’t want respect?

Just as much of parenting is learn as you go, so is grandparenting. Isay doesn’t provide you with a definitive list of things to do to be the perfect grandparent. But she does provide oodles of real life experiences. I was inspired by stories from the different grandparents who were interviewed for the book. Many found grandparenting to be a second chance, an opportunity to provide grandchildren with the time and attention they couldn’t afford their own children. My grandchildren consist of a single child, a set a three brothers and a set of three sisters. It is normally quite hectic when we are visiting one of the sets of three. This book reminded me of the importance of carving out some time alone with each child, even if it’s simply a walk around the block. The benefits of a grandparents individual attention are priceless.

The book also addresses the issues of grandparents who become caregivers when their children are incapable of parenting, long-distance grandparenting and fairness with time, money and resources in a straight forward manner. Unconditional Love was worth my time. I picked up a few thoughts on how to maintain close relationships with my grandchildren as they grow older. What I most appreciated was the reassurance that grandparents can be a powerful influence on how grandchildren show up in the world and that our time and conversations with them will exist as “tiny shards of color in the great mosaic of understanding.”

I want my grandchildren to feel unconditionally loved. I grew up without grandparents, but I was extremely lucky to have my beloved Aunt Ruby who exemplified unconditional love. I can only remember one occasion when she even came close to being short with me. I was nine years old and my younger brother and I had been spending a week with her and my uncle during our summer vacation from school. We had cousins who lived in the same town and we spent hours playing together, running in and out of Aunt Ruby’s house. On the day my parents were coming to pick us up, she was busy cleaning house and preparing food for their arrival. We must have run into the house once too often. She told us to go outside and stay outside and not come back in unless the house was on fire. We did as we were told and were well rewarded. A neighbor started a fire in a burn barrel, an ember blew over into the yard and started a grass fire. We were full of smug self-righteousness as we marched back into the house to announce the yard was on fire! But being Aunt Ruby, she simply came out into the yard, put out the minor grass fire and went back to work. I am lucky she is a part of the mosaic of my life.

C’est la vie.

“Everything I learned, I learned from movies.” Audrey Hepburn

Whether it’s at the cinema with popcorn or your own home with much more affordable – and quite possibly better – popcorn, most of us enjoy a good movie.  Movies allow us to escape. They take us to places we’ve never been and they broaden our horizons, offering us a window into wider worlds. Over the past four decades, Mr. Smith and I have indulged in many an afternoon or evening at the movie theater.  However, these days it seems to take something quite tantalizing to entice us away from our comfy sofa and pay the hefty ticket price. Plus, there’s always a chance of sitting next to someone who thinks he must narrate the entire film to his friends.

Today, with Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and all the numerous services available in the comfort of our own living room, we have too often chosen to hunker down at home and take advantage of the unlimited inventory of movies available online. On any given evening while perusing what’s assessable, we often check out the perspective films’ ‘Rotten Tomato’ ratings, then make a choice and hopefully don’t fall asleep! 

 Recently my movie watching stars aligned and I found myself at an actual theater three times within a two-week period. Here are my quick impressions of some current theater fare.

Book Smart

On my last road trip, I spent a Wednesday afternoon at the theater seeing Book Smartwith my sister and her daughter-in-law.  Directed by Olivia Wilde and written by four women, it is a coming of age/end of high school romp.  Two academic overachievers and best friends are shocked to discover that students they had labeled as losers had somehow managed to balance hard work and play during their high school years. They had gained admission into good colleges and universities despite partying their way through high school and weren’t doomed to spend the rest of their lives asking, “do you want fries with that?”  Because of this revelation, the bookish friends set off to cram four years of fun into one night so they won’t graduate without ever having attended a wild party.

Chandler Levack, Globe & Mail, wrote “Book Smart is a love letter to any young woman who has ever stayed home on a Friday night to watch a Ken Burns documentary.” 

 I think I may be a little too old to entirely bond with this movie.  I was hoping for something a little more bookish, but there are certainly many hilarious and poignant moments.


Father’s Day turned out to be a rainy, chilly day, so Mr. Smith and I ventured out to our local independent theater to see Non-Fiction,written and directed by Oliver Assayas. This gabfest of French sophisticates is sexy, witty and fun!  I’m not always a fan of movies that are dialogue heavy, but I found Non-Fiction to be marvelously entertaining.  It revolves around a revered Parisian publishing house and the future of books and literature in the internet age and who is sleeping with whom. Lots of talk and plenty of sex. Word to the wise: if you are going to use your affairs as fodder for your novel, you may want to be careful who you are sleeping with!

Late Night

Mr. Smith was out of town and I was drowning in house moving details, so what’s a girl to do?  I went to the movies!   I left work a few minutes early on Wednesday to grab the 5:00 showing of Late Night, written by Mindy Kaling and directed by Nisha Ganatra. The talented Mindy Kaling wrote Late Night specifically for Emma Thompson, despite never having met her but hoping she would accept the part!  It was in inspired choice as Ms. Thompson played her part with just the right amount of elitism despite being a late-night talk show host whose ratings are in a nose dive and has been informed she’s on her way out the door.  With a reputation as “the woman who hates women”, Thompson, hired Kaling as a writer for her show to prove she doesn’t hate women and per her producer’s suggestion, fills a “diversity” slot. Late Night deals with many familiar workplace issues, illustrating that diversity is also about class, gender and age.  At first the all-male writing staff seemed hopelessly chauvinistic, but as their separate personalities emerged, the tensions eased. As in many good movies, there is more going on than meets the eye.  You have an opportunity to see people in more than one dimension, complete with their flaws and frailties.  

For awhile I thought I was going to have a private viewing of Late Night, but I was eventually joined by six others!

The Rotten Tomato ratings for these movies were relatively high.  But what is Rotten Tomato?  I always thought it was a movie review company. Turns out it is the leading online aggregator of movie and TV show reviews from critics.  The Tomatometer score is based on the opinions of hundreds of film and television critics.  

I was surprised to see Book Smart had the highest Rotten Tomato rating of the three movies at 97%.  I’m guessing they got the youth vote.  Next was Non-Fiction at 89%, followed by Late Night at 79%.  Personally, I give them all two thumbs up.  They provided a much-needed break from the current chaos of my life.  Even with all that’s available on your TV at home and no matter how big your TV is, I don’t think people will ever give up the occasional trip to the movie theater. As I read somewhere, people still go to restaurants even though they have a kitchen in their home.

C’est la vie.