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It’s 1975, and 14-year-old Mary Jane takes a job for the summer babysitting 5-year-old Isabelle “Izzy” Cone. Mary Jane lives a happy, sheltered life controlled by her mother, who is a 1950s caricature of an orderly Stepford wife gone mad. Mary Jane likes to cook, clean, sing show tunes, and sing in church. But the Cones are a 1975 caricature of laid-back grooviness, and Izzy is a live wire. Mary Jane immediately takes to Izzy and providing some order and good home-cooked meals to her home. Meanwhile, the Cones, with the help of psychiatrist Dr. Cone’s rock- and TV-star resident patients, Jimmy & Sheba, return the favor by opening Mary Jane’s horizons to possibilities she never imagined, starting with objects strewn about the house and ending with free love and talk therapy and beyond.

Mary Jane is loveable and sympathetic. The other characters, however, are one-note; Izzy’s being a particularly shrill note. She is always shouting, being lovable, loving anything Mary Jane wants her to do. She never gets cranky or difficult.

Even so, I liked the story. I like how it showed that Mary Jane’s orderly well-trained background was a plus as well as a sometime hindrance to her; she both contributes and takes from her relationships with the others. As things come to a head with her parents at home, she realizes and tries to explain to her mother that much of what is so loveable about her, Mary Jane, why the others love and need her, are things that came directly from her upbringing; her mother should be proud. And eventually, she is. The father’s another story.

Blurbs on the cover draw apt comparisons to the movie ALMOST FAMOUS. There it’s a sheltered, controlled male who comes into the orbit of rock stars, whose Mom back home has to be made to realize that his growing up and apart is necessary, and that she can not “approve” but still be proud of who he is.

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I was interested in air conditioning. But not this much.

And talk about your flowery language. I consider myself a bit of a word person. Even if I can’t define something to the letter, context will usually let me fill in the meaning. But I declared defeat when I encountered “cathexis of mortido.” This sounds like a really bad Batman villain. (It’s something Freudian.)

It certainly does contain the best step-by-step explanation of how CFC’s deplete the ozone layer, and I do feel better informed than I was before – one would hope for such after 400 pages! And just in time for me to come across a small blurb in the paper: this year’s ozone hole over Antarctica is significantly larger than usual. Joyous news. Climate change was going to be bad enough, but, barring a really bad tidal wave, at least SOMEWHAT gradual. A severely degraded ozone layer is going to be super nasty super quick. At least it gets my mind off COVID.

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by Catherine Raven

This is a very unique book. Indeed Catherine Raven is a very unique individual. Here she tells a lot about herself by documenting her two-year-relationship with a fox that lives on her property in Montana. Raven lives alone in a cottage on a remote plot of arid land; she’s obtained a degree or two, served as a park ranger, and taught college, but doesn’t know what to do next with her life. When a fox starts visiting her at her cottage, she starts reading to him; she names him “Fox”, and rendezvous with him regularly at the same time and place.

When I say she lives alone, I mean without others of her species. Her other friend is a magpie. As I said, Raven is a unique individual. I admired and envied her closeness to the land she chose to call home. I grew to love Fox as she did. I love how she tells us her life situation without self-pity and with directness, and I love the conclusions she came to over the course of the two years she knew Fox. While at times this book felt a little repetitive and confusing, given the poetic way Raven would skip back in time sometimes to retell a scene in a different way, I would not say I was ever bored.

The central question for Raven was: was she “anthropomorphizing” Fox, and was she within her rights to say that he was her friend? If she had tamed him, or if he had been a domesticated animal, nobody would laugh at her attributing humanoid characteristics to him, or naming him, or saying he was her friend. Why is it different with a wild fox?

Quotes:

“I tried lashing myself to the land, but it wasn’t reciprocating.”

“The American student sits long enough to rival the most sessile organism ever to evolve on planet Earth.”

“Each [elk] cow was searching for her perfect partner, and despite years of research, no scientist has ever been able to discover the criteria that females use when choosing mates. Maybe it’s because each cow chose for herself alone, the one bull that would most displease her mother.”

“On days when I worried over a pile of applications for university jobs that I didn’t want but should have been applying for anyway, I remembered I owned land in a high-altitude desert where tiny five-headed ball cactuses bloomed in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, and I stopped worrying.” I would too.

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Sam is a woman my age who makes an impulse buy – a house. An adorable old house in the middle of Syracuse; she will live there alone. I.e., she will leave her husband. For the house. For the chance to live in this lovable house alone.

Intrigued by this appealing dream-I-will-never-actually-live, I picked up this novel eagerly, but was disappointed. Sam is just so unlikeable. I mean, I’m unlikeable too, but she is super vitriolic, self-pitying, and self-aware only to the extent that she realizes she’s self-pitying and it makes her more self-pitying. C’mon, I’m not THIS bad, am I?

Also, it turned out to be heavy on the mother-daughter stuff that doesn’t interest me.

My weird predilections aside, being as objective as I can be, I think the book really does suffer from its central character’s unlikability, and weird digressive way of wrapping things up. Thumbs down.

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by Dodie Smith

This was my second read. Particularly the first five or so chapters, the book is strongly carried by our wonderful narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old who calls a centuries-old castle in England home. She lives with her highly eccentric family – a famous author father who hasn’t written anything in years; his much younger artist-model wife christened Topaz (though “there is no law to make a woman stick to a name like that”); Cassandra’s slightly older, beloved, but exasperating sister Rose; their slightly younger brother Thomas; and a hired helpmate about their age, though they haven’t been able to pay him anything in years. In fact, they haven’t been able to afford to pay anything or anyone in years; they’ve been selling off furniture bit by bit and scrounging together a living based on that, and when we meet them, they aren’t sure what they’re going to do next.

Then, a la Pride & Prejudice (deftly referenced by the narrator), a nearby property is suddenly let to a single man of means (who, it is a fact universally acknowledged, must fall in love with one or both of our heroines by book’s end).

I do feel that once characters started falling in love with each other, the story got worse. But it’s quite a piece of work nevertheless.

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by Ursula LeGuin

This is a re-read for me for book club. I first read this back in the early 90s on Aunt Alice’s recommendation. She thought I would get a kick out of the genderlessness. I had a lot of gender eShoes back then.

But I had not remembered anything about it other than the central conceit, so I went in fresh. It started out badly, for me. I’m not a fan of classic sci-fi. It always feels so pretentious. All the laborious exposition. I’m just not into the high concepts. & this one started out with a lot of politics which I found inscrutable.

It took off in the second half. The earthling and the alien bond during an arduous polar trek.

So, for those who DIDN’T have an aunt to introduce them to this classic and hence may not know the central conceit: the beings on this planet are hermaphroditic. For most of the month they are neither male nor female; then they enter “kemmer”, or heat, and take on one or the other gender. The main character is from our planet or some semblance thereof and is an envoy trying to get them to join an interplanetary alliance. He’s put off by the weird gender-bending, and starts out as annoyingly misogynist. But he gets woke.

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by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Honestly, this book literally put me to sleep more nights than not. It’s very hard to keep all the nuns straight and the story just meanders. A convent is founded in 1163. We begin following it in earnest in the 14th century, through a multitude of prioresses. A main character and constant throughout is Sir Ralph, a passing beggar who for reasons even he doesn’t understand passes himself off as a priest, and lives as the convent priest for the rest of his life. This at least provides a unifying thread through all the cast of nuns who die as frequently as they are introduced.

Couple of good sample quotes:

“To be traveling through this landscape so full of plenty and variety was like turning the pages of an illuminated psalter.”

“But no summer is so long, so wide, as the summer before it. Time, a river, hollows out its bed and every year the river flows in a narrower channel and flows faster.”

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by Annie Dillard

“My God what a world. There is no accounting for one second of it.”

That sums it up well. I’ve always been curious to read this one, but I also feared it would be dry nature writing. In fact it is rarely dry and is heavy on philosophizing. Dillard seems to walk through the world in a constant state of astonishment. She will notice a bug seeming slightly askew, and drop to the ground and stare at it for 45 minutes. She is in awe, awe at the profligacy of creation. She also gets herself into a state of high dudgeon over: the seeming waste of life represented by the sheer number of individual creatures who live nasty, brutish, short lives with only a few of their species living to propagate; the amount of general suffering that goes on in the natural world; and the teeming masses of creatures who are parasitic, noxious, or just disgusting.

I don’t find interesting everything that she finds interesting. But I do like philosophy. In addition to the sheer wonder Dillard brings to the table, she also holds forth on what it all means relative to our own place in the universe.

“Thomas Merton wrote, ‘There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.’ There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end.”

“I have often noticed that even a few minutes of self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves.”

“Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place?”

“Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”