Saturday, February 28, 2015

Feb. 28: Sunny Last Saturday in February!

34 degrees, no wind, and steady sunshine in a deep blue sky. We had another snow day last week, but we're all hopeful for March (Mainers may find that a deeply troubling statement, given how March often kicks us around). . . Soon to head out for a run on roads that might actually show melting!

The Alchemist's Daughter: A NovelThe Alchemist's Daughter: A Novel by Katharine McMahon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well: I *loved* McMahon's The Crimson Rooms, and I was delighted to find this one on audio so I could start right in. And: it's well-written, as CR is, and provides an incredibly detailed historical context, as CR does, but the main character is much less likable, and I'd say that the plot, lacking the mystery aspect of CR, drags a bit more. I do find that pacing is tricky in audiobooks, because we don't have the heft of the remaining pages to give us a sense of where we are, but I still think the final 1/3 could've moved a bit more briskly. My second and third reservations are connected, because I think that what makes the last 1/3 drag is Emily's self-absorption: even though she is realizing how self-absorbed she was/is, witnessing what is of necessity a self-absorbed process got a bit tedious.

The last segment of the plot sped up again, and then McMachon left us hanging a bit--but upon mature reflection, I realized that her decision not to include a post script with Emily writing from 25 years down the road and tying up all the loose ends fits perfectly with Emily's discovery in the book that life is complicated, that you might wish for a return on your investment, but what if that entails great human suffering? Etc. So: overall, I think Alchemist's Daughter is a worthy forerunner to Crimson Rooms, but I might not have sought out CR if I'd read AD first.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia de Luce, #7)As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My Lenten decision to cut out Facebook during the week (as well as several snow days recently) has led to an upswing in my reading. Yay!

Flavia's seventh outing is good, but a tad convoluted, tho hers generally are. Once again, this one follows a familiar arc with Flavia chasing red herring after red herring, then tying up all the loose ends--to an extent. The switch in location (this one's set in Canada) requires a bit more background, which slows the narrative a bit, and my biggest frustration is that the entire school F. goes to is never clearly defined: is it a school for spies pretending to everyone, even its own students, to be a regular boarding school? Is it a school for spies whose students are so tricky that they all, nod-nod, wink-wink, just keep up the facade of being a regular boarding school? What's up with the Headmistress? With the vanished students? The haziness of the details felt careless.

Overall, it's not Bradley's best Flavia, but it's a pleasant read.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Feb. 25, Wed: Yup, Snow Day #6

Funny GirlFunny Girl by Nick Hornby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sharp and funny, but drags a bit in the middle. There are some great lines, and Hornby does a really nice job of describing the feeling of working with inspirational people. Barbara/Sophie is a sympathetic character, but there are a few clunkers thrown in to keep it all moving. Hornby's insights on social change in the 60's and on the effects of getting older ("It was absurd that they were getting old, Sophie thought--absurd and wrong. Old people had black-and-white memories of wars, music halls, wretched diseases, candlelight. Her memories were in color, and they involved loud music, and discos. . " (435), for example) are well-worded and astute. I liked it a lot (as did my husband), despite a slightly draggy middle.

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Well, despite all our hopes, when I raised my head from a lap at 6:15 am this morning, Margaret the faithful lifeguard told me that we had no school. Heavy snow started at about 5:15, and by the time Andy and I headed out to breakfast at 9 we had a good 6", and it hasn't really stopped yet, even though the sun keeps trying to break through. So we're here, and Maine schools' quest to find out how to make up for these days just gets trickier. I, personally, think there should be a cap: 5 snow days need to be made up, but after that, we're done. There's only so much shifting one can do. End of story--but then I don't believe in standardized testing, either, so clearly I'm not on the wavelength of the DOE or the powers that be in the first place.

Reading, about to take a nap, and remembering my resolution, so I'm enjoying the day.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Feb. 21: Saturday of vacation, and lots of snow!

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shocking, laugh-out-loud-funny, heart-breaking, and vividly honest about many forbidden topics, the novel was a huge surprise. I tore through it in one day. It reads like a memoir, with a strong sense of hindsight making 14 -17 year old Dolly/Johanna self-aware beyond her years (and self-destructive behavior), but it's fiction. I can't remember where I got the recommendation, or if I just spotted it on our library's shelf (it seems an odd choice for our small New England town!), but I'm going to be recommending it widely. While the sexual details feel over-the-top at first, Moran's clear-eyed assessment of how her character uses sex is both insightful and troubling--and some of the description had me weeping with laughter. Most notable, though, is Moran's ability to depict a family that's struggling to survive on the edges of the lower middle class: her insights into the impact that poverty has on all their lives and her simultaneous emphasis on the love that keeps them all surviving make the book unusual, refreshing, and memorable.

I want to read her "How to Be a Woman" ASAP!

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It's Saturday night, nearly bedtime, and snowing huge big flakes at a great rate. Nate, Andy and I went out to dinner at Shinbashi to celebrate Nate's last night home,  and then N and I took Z for a quick walk in the tumbling snow. It's warmer than it's been for a long time--nearly 32--which, coupled with the flakes, made for a stunning walk.

What a nice break it's been: far more mellow a time than we've had in a long time. It's been so nice to let the weather be what it wants to be, without concern for snow days or. . . well, at least since last week, or travel! Dad's getting better, February is passing by, and things are good.

Happy days!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Feb. 19, Thursday: Snowing Again!

The Monogram MurdersThe Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This "new Christie" was well-written, but so densely and ponderously plotted that I gave up 1/2 way through and skimmed to the end. Hannah adds a confused, flawed police officer as narrator, thus adding another layer to Poirot's traditional "I know everything, and I can't believe you haven't figured it out" approach. Catchpool's self-doubt and incomprehension slowed everything down enough that once I had two or three other books I wanted to read, my impatience won out and I skimmed to the end to find out, more or less, "whodunnit." I would say that true Christie aficionados would enjoy this book, but I think a slimmed plot, more directed narration, and about 100 fewer pages would've worked better for me. That said, it's a high quality imitation with lots of moving parts.

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and also:

Much delight in all quarters, as the endless sweater is completed, and N wore it most of yesterday! I jiggered the neckline to our mutual delight--no neck irritation at all! Hope I can do this for other versions of this!--and tho it is looser in the body than he usually wears, I think the overall blanket-like approach will work well. And. . . it's DONE. Yay and whew! 

So we/I have settled into a calm and pleasant vacation mode, after hunkering down and feeling regretful about last weekend. Tuesday was cold and sunny; I drove down to Lewiston to see Dad during his last day in the hospital, helping him to fill the boring hours of a quiet morning, and then had lunch with Mom at a new restaurant in Lewiston, Rails--good food, and a nice visit! I was home by 5:45 after a quick browse around the Augusta Target, and that was a day very well spent. 

Yesterday I spent some time hanging out in the Library, waiting for N to finish his newspaper delivery sub gig, and that was really a pleasure--it's been a long time since I sat and read a paper or a book there, and it felt great! Then we went to Governor's for a snack (we got two desserts, and they ended up providing FIVE servings--ample servings--as we divided and doggy-bagged and shared with Andy!) and then to TJ Maxx, where we bargain-browsed: N got a nice paisley shirt, and I got some wool sox, some tights, and. . . . a pair of red sequin Converse--JUST the kicks for Spring, once it comes! Tomorrow we plan to go to Bangor for a movie and some errands, and then it will be Saturday. . . wow! It's been a low-key but very pleasant time. 

Today: a few letters, 12 papers, and planning for MDIHS Readers&Writers. A swim. Possibly lunch out? Work on A's to-be-felted Valentine mittens. We'll see. 

Some thoughts: it's Lent now, and I hope to avoid FB except on weekends; Easter is April 5; time changes March 8th (I think), and we have one week of February left when we get back to school. Nate's play is the weekend of the time change, and March is, of course, a crazy month at school, with several exhausting night-time commitments. However: the light is increasing, we are spinning toward Spring, and, after all, my mantra is "Enjoy." So I will try my best!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Feb. 16: Presidents' Day Reading Update

Heroes Are My WeaknessHeroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Picked this off the Library's "New" shelf as perfect vacation reading, forgetting that Phillips is no Jennifer Crusie, Marian Keyes, or Jennifer Weiner. Lines like "'Is it possible you saw your relationship with her as a way to make up for what had happened to Regan?'. . . She'd gotten her insights into human psychology in acting workshops dedicated to understanding a character's deepest motivations. . . .'Have you ever thought that writing might be your rebellion against whatever it is inside you that makes you feel responsible for other people?'" (277) coupled with characters so wooden that they're impossible to picture, let alone see as actual human beings, keep this book firmly in the fluff category. Vague overtones of Jane Eyre and way too many plot-lines to even call it "predictable" kept me interested enough to read to the end, but if it hadn't been bitter cold and snowy outside, I doubt I'd've stuck with it.

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Well, the storm didn't really materialize, but it's been cold and intensely wintery weather nonetheless. Tomorrow I head down to see Dad, still hospitalized but improving, and have lunch with Mom, and then will head back up. It's been a pleasant and deliberately lazy stretch of "Sherlock," good food, knitting, occasional snow forays, breakfast out this am, "Parenthood," and reading. Big Thing is that I finally finished Nate's sweater:
That's it washed and blocking, so will post a pic of him wearing it later. The neckline (featured above) was our original tweak (redo #5, in fact), and it came out brilliantly. Can't wait to see him sportin' it. Yarn is cleaned out, needles put away, and I am ready to start something else. FINALLY. 

So. Nice vacation so far. Peaceful. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Feb. 15, Sunday: More Snow, and Some Reflections

So, I was supposed to be in Portland enjoying city life with my world's best friend in our traditional weekend away, but the weather report (dismal, verging on terrifying)led to cancellation. On first glance, we have no other options till summer. . . . which is disappointing, as is the fact that the "bombogenesis" storm has turned out to be bad, but not historic. With all this suffering, I'd at least like an historic event. So the start of my vacation--much desired, despite/because of our rash of snow days--is a little blue, a little colored with "If only," "It's not fair," and "Why couldn't," none of which are phrases I enjoy.

Since everything in Ellsworth is closed today--church, Y, restaurants, stores--and since it is nasty outside with a strong wind, temps in the teens, and "only" a foot of snow due to fall, I was looking for a workout on line. Checking out Tara Stiles's yoga-based website, I read an essay she'd written in which she said she doesn't do resolutions for the year, but instead adopts a mantra. In the midst of my restless/sad/guilty feeling about my cancelled weekend and my disappointed friend, I remembered my resolution for my year--something I'd adopted even before I read her reflection. It's been useful for me already, though I had lost sight and touch with it in the blizzard blues of this weekend. My goal for 2015 is "Enjoy," plain and simple.

When it first occurred to me, that one word goal seemed trite, even fatuous. However, it kept surfacing, even though I usually adopt action-based goals, and I have been good about keeping them. In early 2000, I decided to floss regularly, and now I feel strange when I skip that step before going to bed. Last year I decided to call my mom weekly; a year and change later, it's a rare week when we don't chat for at least ten minutes. But still, somehow, that New Age-y, 70's-ish word, overused by check out clerks and wait staff the world over, kept surfacing. "Enjoy." Finally (since New Year's resolutions are supposed to apply, kind of, at the, y'know, start of the year), I gave in, and thought I'd try it, secretly a little embarrassed by its easy familiarity.

What I've found, and, in this latest re-discovery of it, realized, is that my easy peasy resolution is deeper, challenging, and more valuable than I thought. Trying to enjoy my life, my decisions, and the passage of time forces me to acknowledge my choices and my role in shaping my own life. I teach ninth graders, and after 28 years in the classroom, their quirks and habits are familiar, smart phones and Facebook notwithstanding. But every day I have a choice: I can roll my eyes, sigh, yell, scold, and make us all miserable and stressed, or I can acknowledge the fact that despite my awesome lesson plan on supporting a thesis statement, my students are going to be fixated on the fact that I have chalk on my butt, laugh at the whole situation with them, and go on. Last week--the week before vacation in a winter that's been full of bad weather and planning/replanning/starting and restarting for teachers--a group of us had to present to the school board about our new ninth grade program. My day then started at 5:30 am, got me to school at 7:30 am, continued with back-to-back meetings at 2:30 (I ran that one) and 3:30, and then would finish with the Board at 7 and a 30 min drive home around 8 pm. I don't like meetings and I don't like changes of plan, so I was pretty whiny in my head for a while, but then I remembered my resolution. "Enjoy" forced me to see the situation differently, to celebrate the gorgeous knitting project I had to work on in my meetings, to notice the beautiful scenery I drove through en route to school, to celebrate that my colleagues are dedicated, gifted professionals, and, best of all, to head out with a friend to get take-out dumplings for dinner before the meeting instead of staying in my room trying to correct a few more papers. Tiring as it was, the day was a good one: I look back on it with a smile rather than a groan, and I was able to start that transformation early on by remembering my resolution.

This cold, snowy, disappointing, unplanned-for, cabin fever-y weekend, "Enjoy" will rouse me to fuller awareness and living, too. I have time with people I love in the house I love that I didn't plan for: what can I do with it? Well, there's a sweater I can finish knitting, a bunch of new books I can read, and some letters I can write. As far as I know, "Parenthood" is still up on Netflix, and I'm only on season 2. There are snow shoes and scarves enough to go around once I get restless, and since it is mid-February, this weather will end in about a month. I can't change the weather, I can't rewind time so that we make other plans that wouldn't need to be canceled, but I can accept and embrace the experience I'm in now--with joy, with awareness. Off I go, reminding myself that after I've called my mom and flossed my teeth, there is a rich, varied, and interesting world out there to experience and appreciate.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Feb. 11: Finished a book--with no snow days!

The Slow Regard of Silent ThingsThe Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well. I read this . . . slowly, and thought about how I liked it the whole time. When I read the reviews, I was glad I'd made up my own mind, because, MAN! People are *intense* about this book and Rothfuss himself! Whew!

So: I thought it was annoying, interesting, inventive, and a bit too sweet in spots. Auri's size is emphasized constantly. She washes herself ALL. THE. TIME: I began to feel like I was watching uncontrolled OCD, even though he was aiming for ritual (I think). I also disliked how one minute Auri would be happy/fine/in balance, and then suddenly something would come loose and she'd come unraveled. Overall, I found her immensely sad: she has to keep the world in balance? She's so preoccupied with that task that she forgets to feed herself (but never to wash herself)? I think her hyper-domesticity coupled (ha!) with the fact that her final gift to the expected guest is herself set my hackles up. I also got fed up with the hints about her power, the worlds, the rooms, what she finds, etc. etc. I wanted someone to say, "Okay, here's her story:. . ." but of course, that was part of the whole point.

HOWEVER, overall, it was an intriguing read, and Rothfuss did some interesting things with words, with the idea of home, with the idea of a plot ("Waiting for Godot," anyone?), with narration and point of view. It's short, so even if you read it and hate it, you've only lost a little bit of your life compared with the amount we spend on Facebook. My advice would be to try it--check it out from your local library if you're dubious.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Feb. 7: Snowy, Sunny Saturday!

The Story of Edgar SawtelleThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gave up on this one when it became clear that poor Edgar and his mama couldn't get a break. Wroblewski is a powerful writer, but his imagination is dark and mythic in a way that got just too heavy for my somewhat fragile psyche during a hugely snowy Maine winter. I got the book out of the library, power-read through what I *thought* would be the dark part, and then discovered that Wroblewski was going to make the rest of the book dark. . . . so I let myself off the hook. It's a hugely sprawling book with lots of echoes and overtones of myths, archetypes, Dante, etc. etc., but it's way too devastating for my daily commute. Wroblewski cuts no one a break in this story--no one, including any reader foolish enough to become connected to any of his characters.

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It's a lovely shiny morning; the temp. has probably crested at 23.2, and I am planning a run and a snowy stomp for the near future, then probably a trip out and about just to be out and about! I might go pat some lovely fabric at Marden's just to see some color that's not white, brown, black or blue! We had two snow days and a late start day last week; a winter storm hovers on the realm of possibility for Monday/Tuesday, and the next week is vacation. You've just got to laugh.

We had a fun meal with a co-worker of mine and his significant other last night: when I invited him, I said we just needed to get out of our house and eat something that wasn't leftover shepherd's pie. We went to The Cellar, and we had a lovely time, fulfilling both goals and also having a good visit. Tonight will be Ellsworth Winter Carnival fireworks at 6 pm, which should be lovely with the cold, clear sky!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Feb. 5: Our Fifth Snow Day!

This winter has been amazing, and the snow just keeps coming. So far, we've made up two days and then used four more, so we're going a full week in mid-June and two Saturdays in the spring. Ah well--nothing we can do about it except shovel and read!

Snobbery With ViolenceSnobbery With Violence by Marion Chesney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the recommendations from a FB link, "If you like Downton Abbey, try these books," Snobbery with Violence was poorly written but entertaining nonetheless. Chesney, who also writes as M.C. Beaton, crammed way too much into too few pages, ending up with a bewildering panoply of characters who were thinly developed. The focus was dizzying, swooping from one paragraph that zeroed in on the deep personal secrets of one minor character to cover a day or a week of action in a few lines. "Tell, don't show," becomes Chesney's motto--the whole piece feels rushed, as if she was trying to crank out the story without truly developing its structure. Still, somehow, the character of Daisy the maid and the few glimpses of historical facts about the upper classes views of the middle and lower class make the novel a 2 star read rather than a 1.

*If you're craving a good and somewhat similar historical novel, try Katherine McMahon's The Crimson Rooms (my next review). It's excellent!*

The Crimson RoomsThe Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes, when I start reading a book, I know instantly that I'm in the hands of a skilled story-teller. Characterization, narration, word-choice, pacing--everything just flows together, creating a world that closes around me. McMahon's The Crimson Rooms is a perfect example of that experience. I got the title from the FB article "Books to read if you like Downton Abbey," and I inter-library-loaned a few on one of our many snow days. . . Several of them were weak outings (lookin' at you, Snobbery with Violence and Withering Heights), but The Crimson Rooms is an excellent novel, combining strong characterization, fascinating historical detail, an interesting whodunnit aspect, and a strong plot. I read it in about three days, deliberately working not to sprint through it just to find out how it ended, and my book hangover when it ended was intense! Luckily, McMahon has just published a sequel, only available in England at this point, but I think I'll indulge myself with a little Book Depository treat for Valentine's Day.

This is a terrific book!

Withering Heights (Ellie Haskell Mystery, #12)Withering Heights by Dorothy Cannell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Abandoned this one pretty fast: too dumb to endure. An adult woman who acts like a moron is something I can't accept, unless I've already gotten hooked, as is the case with the Diane Mott Davidson series. Dorothy Cannell's nitwit lacks Goldy's recipes, so I put her down pretty fast.

The Husband List (Culhane Family #2)The Husband List by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Another abandoned book, but I pretty much expected that. Given our endless snow this year, I've been reading a lot, and I was roaming my beloved public library (Ellsworth Public Library! Three cheers!)'s shelves when I spied this offering from Evanovich. Somehow, her Stephanie Plum novels work (tho less effectively as the numbers go on) but I have found her non-Stephanie books to be pretty fatuous, and I especially remember reading one that she co-wrote with Dorien Kelly and finding it unbearably dumb. . . . so for some reason (call it cabin fever?), I thought I'd give this one a shot.

Suffice it to say that Evanovich should probably *not* try to do historical fiction. I'm not stickler for complete historical accuracy, but why set a novel at a particular time period and then ignore nearly everything about that society's rules, expectations, attitudes? Stir in a tedious plot and you've got yourself one star.

Delicious!Delicious! by Ruth Reichl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Found this during a random wandering session in my beloved library's shelves, and since I've enjoyed other Ruth Reichl non-fiction, I thought I'd give this a shot, and ended up enjoying it a lot. It's obviously based on the demise of Gourmet, and I had the feeling throughout that if I knew more about Gourment's staff and setup I might've seen it as a "roman a clef" (I think?) or a poison pen novel, but as it was, it provided several slices of lives very different from my snowbound Maine teacher/mom experience. Pleasant and interesting (also mouthwatering!), the book strained to hold all the plot-lines together at the end, and the love story aspect was the weakest aspect. However, foodies and Reichl fans, as well as Gourmet experts, should enjoy it.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of GraceSmall Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

=Sigh.= When I hear "Anne Lamott's new book," I, perhaps naively, expect that her book will actually be *new work,* so I rush out and buy it for my best friend and also a copy in hardback for myself. Imagine my naive surprise when I read this book ($22.95 worth of new book) and find about 75% of it to be RECYCLED BOOK: essays I have read in her OTHER books (which I also rushed out to buy, often in hard back)!!!!

I really enjoy Anne Lamott--I see her as one of the ways that "God is still speaking" in our modern times, to use the UCC slogan. She has gotten me through some tough times and has provided me with words, jokes, and perspective that I value deeply. Some of her new essays in this collection are, I am sure, excellent, and some of her old ones that have been reprinted here are among my favorites. However, when I think of this collection, my overwhelming sense is that I've been ripped off, manipulated into spending my hard-earned teacher-money for words I've already spent my hard earned teacher money on before.

And that makes me sad, and more than a little bit angry.

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