Book Corner 2020.4

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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Two stories going on at once, and as usually happens, I liked one much more than the other.  The protagonist of the modern-day story, Willa, is really a riot; a 50-something matriarch in a house that is literally falling apart.  Every other line that comes out of her mind is funny.  This story reminded me of The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver – in that case, the whole U.S. economy was falling apart; whereas Willa only has to deal with her own house and family.  But the sarcastic middle-aged woman trying to keep it all together is common to both.
In the other thread, a house on the same lot (though, we find out, not actually the same house) is coincidentally also falling apart – but over a hundred years in the past.  This story reminded me a bit of the Lydgate sub-story in Middlemarch – the ambitions of a man of science brought low by a pretty face.  Unfortunately I found this story mostly tedious and exaggerated.  The character of Mary Treat, the woman scientist, is intriguing; but the minor female characters (Polly, Selma) hit you over the head with caricature.  And the conversations just go on forever. 
Come to think of it, the conversations tend to drag in the modern-day story, too.  The characters are a bit better (though I disliked how Tig was always implied to be in the right).  And I really did look forward to getting back to their story – ceilings falling down; a tiny half-orphaned infant to tend to; and a hysterically funny, racist old father-in-law on life support.  Kingsolver at her best.

Book Corner 2020.3

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The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife by Connie Scoville Small

It’s funny how I got this book. My husband was telling his mother about the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland which we visited this past September, and how he found it to be a very haphazardly run place considering their impressive collection. Yeah, I piped up, and told a little story about how they had talked up this memoir written by a lighthouse keeper’s wife, and got me real excited and wanting to read it, and there wasn’t nary a copy of it in their bookshop. My mother-in-law said, oh, I think I have that book; and she fished it out. Sure enough, this was the very book!

“[A] life of people risking their own lives to help men and ships; a life of order and duty.”

This is how Connie Scoville Small describes her life of living in lighthouses along with her husband Elson, in the near-conclusion of her memoir, THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S WIFE.

From 1919 to 1947 the Smalls tended lighthouses up and down the Maine coast. I myself have little experience with life on the sea, and little patience to read through long descriptions, along with little ability to place myself in long-drawn-out scenes of nature with which I have little familiarity. I don’t think it was just me, though; Connie often seems to drop us into scenes with little in the way of helpful background explanation.

That said, I kept reading because I love slices of ordinary life from early in the last century and beyond. I could not easily picture the lighthouse-specific and maritime and boat scenes, but I loved reading about the family’s cats and cows… and of course the food. Lots of baked goods!

Rarely does Connie give us deep insight into what she, or, perish the thought, Elson, are feeling about the big picture. But here is a glimpse:

“I put inside of me my desires, my longings, things I wanted to do, if they came in conflict with what he wanted. I felt what I wanted were selfish desires… I gave and I’ve never been sorry… I wanted to rebel, desperately so at times, but I didn’t… I filled my life with Elson… I’d be so busy making it work and doing things he wanted me to do… I forgot to be unhappy and found joy.”

So different from us today. That’s why I like to read old memoirs. ( )

Check out the title link for her obituary – she died at 105!

Book Corner 2020.2

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The Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison

Just like THE F*CK IT DIET by Caroline Dooner but with very little swearing. Harrison is a registered dietician, and uses what she knows to convince you that Health At Every Size (HAES) (TM) is the only way to go. Lots of proof showing that diets don’t work, don’t last, and actually make you gain weight (NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!). Seriously, Harrison is always bending over backwards not to offend (with constant shout-outs to non-binary-gendered people), refusing even to use the words “overweight” or “obese” without quote marks.

There is only a very short chapter about how to do truly intuitive eating. Like THE F*CK IT DIET, this book warns you that by “intuitive eating” we do not mean being obsessed with hunger cues, which is just dieting by another name. F*ck-it-style intuitive eating means: just eat. Whatever you want, whenever you want, however much you want. Enjoy.

Who couldn’t get behind that?

Harrison gives lots of reassurance that this will NOT ruin your health. After a honeymoon phase with brownies, you will settle in, your weight will settle in, and your health will be fine – or not – but if not, it won’t be because of eating the wrong things. Lots of factors contribute to health, including many beyond one’s control. And dieting is about control, so that’s not a message many may want to hear.

But it’s true; and other things that are true are: adipose tissue itself has NEVER been proven to DIRECTLY cause health problems. It’s just body tissue, after all. And: being health-obsessed, or even health-conscious at all, is not a moral obligation. There are no “good” and “bad” foods because an apple and a hamburger are MORALLY EQUIVALENT. Running a marathon and watching a Netflix marathon are MORALLY EQUIVALENT. What is “health” for, anyway? To let you live longer and more productively … to do what? Whatever is meaningful to you, THAT is the moral obligation; not health per se.

This would all be obvious if not for what Harrison terms “diet culture,” the water we all swim in. We are all afraid of being or becoming “fat” and what it will mean for our status. But this sounds shallow so we cloak it in talk of health-consciousness and “wellness.”

Just chuck it all. In other words, F*ck It. ( )

Book Corner 2020.1

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American the Anxious by Ruth Whippman

Started out strong, and had a hysterical, dead-on chapter about meditation, or as Ruth puts it, “Meh”-ditation. The theme really isn’t about how Americans are too anxious; but about the ridiculousness of the happiness quest and its associated industry. Ruth’s discovery seems to be that happiness is other people. I beg to differ, but I still cheered on her take-down of mindfulness.

Unfortunately it frequently devolved into that kind of non-fiction book I hate, the kind that reads like a research paper. “Research shows this. It seems that that. Turns out that…” And chapters about parenthood and Facebook were boring, with nothing we haven’t heard a zillion times.

Even amidst all of that, though, I still found myself frequently laughing out loud – not just chortling but outright guffawing. Maybe it’s the Britishness of her humor. ( )

Book Corner 2019.57

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

The first part was excellent. Marianne is a high school outcast who barely registers, let alone cares, that she is an outcast. Connell is a well-liked, smart and athletic boy who is nevertheless awkward and introspective. Marianne is part of a rich family, and Connell is the son of their housecleaner. They begin a sexual relationship, which they keep secret. The secrecy is not because Marianne is associating with a working-class boy beneath her station; it’s ironically because Connell is dallying beneath his station in the high school popularity pecking order. Small spoiler for part one: Connell finds out after high school is over that a) everyone at school kind of knew all along about the relationship, and b) now that high school is over, it doesn’t matter at all that he was seeing Marianne, because that whole part of life is over. So all the secrecy was for nothing, and this hits him hard, because he knows he should have done better by her.

After that, the story seems to thrive on misunderstandings and unspoken things between Marianne and Connell, who both attend Trinity College. It became a bit less interesting as Marianne turned out to be not so much a free-spirited iconoclast but a broken girl from an abusive home; Connell became the more interesting character. I’ll try to avoid spoilers by stopping here, but the ending wasn’t bad. ( )

Book Corner 2019.56

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Good Husbandry by Kristin Kimball

Having first met Kristin Kimball in THE DIRTY LIFE, we follow up now to see how her marriage to Mark and Essex Farm are doing.

Well, one observation of hers that I liked was an interesting angle on the by-now over-observed ‘curated’ nature of our lives today.  Someday, she said, future generations will look back on how we only showed a positive picture of our personal lives, and marvel at what a load of shit it was, the way we look back at the Victorians and their ostensibly prudish mores and know that they got down and did the nasty just like every other generation.

So Kimball purports to pull back the curtain a bit and show us some of the miserable bits of existence on a farm with a nutjob husband who wants to dress the kids in sacks.  But of course, overall the, arc of the book has to bend towards positivity, or else it wouldn’t be a product of its time; or else, nobody in this time would want to read it.

The second kid they have basically wrecks everything.  Kimball starts to feel separated from the farm and its work and from Mark as she spends all her time taking care of babies and cooking.

It’s so easy to see the solutions to other people’s problems – that’s why I like reading advice columns so much.  I wanted to shout, YOU’RE DOING TOO MUCH.  Why do you guys think you have to fee the entire town?  Feed yourselves – and a few extra people as gravy!  You can do that easy!  At no time or place in history did an entire town get fed from a single freaking farm.  What on earth do you think you’re trying to do?

As for the martial problems, I wanted to shout: is Kristen a partner in this farm business or is she a hired hand?  If she’s a partner, why can’t she decide to spend a few dollars improving a room in the house, or taking a freaking afternoon off to go to Plattsburgh – with the kids, to buy a piece of plumbing equipment for chirssakes – it’s not like she even wanted to go there to buy shoes, although that should have been perfectly acceptable too.  You know, world, not every physical step taken in a marriage has to be we, we, we.

I really liked DIRTY LIFE and I still like reading Kimball because I share her feelings about growing and cooking food.  I envied the meals she described making – not because they sounded so delicious, though I’m sure they were, or creative or anything, but because they were all so hard-earned, which is its own special sauce.  Some people aim to work hard and play hard.  I wish I could work hard and eat hard.  I really like that about vacations where we bike & hike – I like basically wrecking our bodies all day so we can just fill them up with abandon at the end.

Anyway as we feel Kimball’s worry and read about their privation through hardships and setbacks on the farm, only towards the end of the book does she mention the help they got from a royalty check from her first book.  It made me conk myself on the head and say, oh yeah, there is that.  They did have an alternate potential source of income this whole time, which she never mentions – she’s a writer.  They aren’t only holding on by their fingernails on the farm.

One last observation is about how they struggled with flooding; their farm is low-lying and they had no drainage until some weirdo in town decided to voluntarily finance it for them out of the blue.  She touches on the realization that the ‘bad’ years of wetness actually were outnumbering the ‘good’ years, and it takes years for people to slowly realize that a particular piece of land or region of the country maybe isn’t all that suited to what they envisioned doing with it during an odd beautiful year.  Reminds me of an old quote I read about early white settlers in New England, to the effect of, “When I think of the glowing pictures of this place that they wrote to us back home, I can only think, they must have been writing during strawberry time.”

In the end things started looking up for Essex Farm.  Key things seemed to be the book royalties, and opening up their market to the rich weirdoes in NYC.  Yay rich weirdoes.

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Book Corner 2019.55

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In Pieces by Sally Field

I read this only because it was a book club pick. I do enjoy almost all memoirs; and this did have a good narrative arc, watching Field’s acting career progress in “seriousness”. But I never would have picked this book on my own, mainly because, I really just don’t care about actors. I don’t find acting interesting as an art, and I don’t find actors intrinsically interesting as people. And I had a hard time nailing down who exactly Sally Field was. Funny true story – when we were considering doing this book, someone in book club said that Sally Field was “so good in ‘All in the Family.'” After some puzzlement, we all protested, “That was Sally Struthers!” Then someone added, “Yes, Sally Field was Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Then we all protested, “No, that was Sissy Spacek!” And I’m really embarrassed that I went home chuckling at this, and then read the book the whole time waiting for her to get to her big break playing Major Houlihan in the movie version of M*A*S*H. That, of course was, Sally Kellerman!

But seriously, I think I’ve at least got straight now who Sally Field is and was. She was Gidget, then the Flying Nun. She enjoyed being Gidget but hated every moment of the Flying Nun, and longed to be seen as a serious actor. The book climaxes effectively with her winning the Academy Award for ‘Norma Rae’.

Of course, there’s abuse along the way. Field’s childhood was dominated by sexual abuse by her slimy stepfather while her drunk mother looked the other way. I’m glad she seems to have achieved some degree of closure on those issues by book’s end. ( )