Book Corner 2019.54

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Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum

I continue to love Meghan. This is Daum #3 for me, and while I feel it’s a bit weaker, and definitely less weighty, than THE UNSPEAKABLE or THE PROBLEM WITH EVERYTHING, it’s still worthwhile. One part about her boyfriend’s attachment to a couch that is too big for her house which he’s about to move into was so funny I read it out loud to my husband. He cracked up, and said that if you just threw in a few references to European philosophers, it could have been Woody Allen. I hope she’d take that as a compliment.

I feel I share Meghan’s real estate fetish, although she’s taken it to lengths I would never have dared. The sentence in the book that gave me that “Meghan has hijacked my brain again” feeling was:

“[W]ith a few exceptions, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never visited a place without imagining myself permanently or at least semipermanently installed there.”

I never knew if this was something that everyone feels to some extent, or if it was just me. Maybe it’s just me & Meghan.

I KNOW I share her fixation on “Little House” and all things farmy and prairie. I rage with jealousy that she actually did move to a farm in Nebraska for a period of time. Just hearing her mention the words “Lincoln, Nebraska” fills me with longing. I think only she would understand. ( )

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Janis by Holly George-Warren

I love Janis Joplin and love being immersed in her story. I can’t say I really learned anything in this bio that I hadn’t from the several others that I have read. This one leaned heavily on Janis’ copious written correspondence with her family; and seemed less focused on her relationships with men, and more on those she had with women. Janis here is presented as frankly bisexual, if not lesbian with a daddy fixation.

I took issue when lyrics were misquoted. The most egregious example was the part in “Piece of My Heart” where Janis sings, “Nowma nowma nowma nowma nowma HEAR me when I cry-y-y-y, and baby I cry all the time!” This was transcribed on paper as “Never, never, never hear me when I cry.” I can only think that when another artist wrote or transcribed the song, the word was “Never.” If so, tell us what you’re quoting. Because you’re not quoting Janis. On no planet does “Nowma” mean “Never.” (It means, obviously, “Nowma”.)

My thoughts on the medical nature of addiction have evolved since I last immersed myself in Janis’ life story. With so much attention to the opiate crisis, so many obituaries of young people in my local paper, and a harrowing recent book club meeting covering DOPESICK by Beth Macy accompanied by a gut-wrenching story of the addiction-related death of the son of one of the members of my own book club, I now more than ever consider addiction to be a brain-altering medical condition.

And this makes me ponder in a new light the narrative of Janis Joplin. How would it be different if she had lived? Luck played a huge part in who among her cohort lived and who died in the 60s. What if she had lived, cleaned up, moved on; would we still dwell so much on the “tortured soul” angle of her early years?

She indisputably had a lot of difficulties in her background. She tried to kick heroin multiple times, sometimes seeming to come oh-so-close, only to relapse – how it always goes. In the past, I would think, “What tortured her soul so much that she had to keep going back to it?” Now I simply think, “She was an addict. The addiction kept her coming back.”

What is it about Janis? Right in the introduction, George-Warren nails it: “Janis was a walking live nerve capable of surfacing feelings that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t.” When I’m asked what it is about Janis that so enthralls me, the only phrase I can come up with it “out there,” accompanied by expanded arms. “She was so out there.” It was all out there. Being “14 with no tits,” as she put it. The acne, the high school hall put-downs that didn’t seem to end with high school. She puts it all out there in a way I can’t or won’t. Janis is my live nerve. ( )

 

Book Corner 2019.52

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Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon

This made Louise Penny look like the finest literature. It was so cheesy. The treatment of homosexuality was so dated. Nobody had any personality. Not a moment was believable.  No more mysteries, book club!  ( no stars )


 

Books, Fiber, Food.  Is that all there is?  Not exactly; there are a few other things like work.  Tomorrow I take an exam to become a certified Amazon Web Services Cloud Practitioner.  I need it for work.  I have been studying very hard.  Almost all of my team has already passed, and it would be super embarrassing if I didn’t; so I’m nervous.  I have to drive 50 miles to Lyndonville, VT, to take the test.  I hope to post good news tomorrow.

 

Book Corner 2019.51

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Watership Down by Richard Adams

Why don’t they write stories like this anymore, at least not for adults? Is this a children’s story? What makes it a children’s story?

I won’t do too much of a plot synopsis for such a well-known and beloved book. It’s a story about bunnies who have a lot of allegoric adventures. It is reminiscent of LORD OF THE RINGS in many ways – unlikely heroes set off on a quest, and battle evil, for the sake of saving the peaceful life of their idyllic pastoral home. It’s a ripping good yarn. And there are allegories and messages and morals to be learned that don’t whack you over the head.

Two topics I found myself mulling as I read it, and the first was the treatment of male vs. female characters (bucks vs. does) and how it shows the book’s age. Had it been written a few years later than it was (1972), we might have had female characters saving the day now and then. As it is, does are gentle, not unintelligent, and brave, but they are subordinate to bucks. Every buck has a name; a few does do, but most of the time they are “a doe” or “the does.” Look, I don’t know what rabbit society is like. I’m sure it’s not as enlightened as 21-st century human society in terms of gender roles. It’s just an observation.

The most puzzling episode I found myself mulling over was the significance of the warren the heroes found, where rabbits were indirectly fed by humans, for the purpose of occasionally being snared and killed. The rabbits in this warren had developed visual art and profound poetry. Indeed – I disliked most of the detours into rabbit story-telling that didn’t advance the plot, and I famously hate poetry; but the poem recited by the rabbit in that warren, I found to be beautiful. That very poem fills Fiver with horror and dread. The heroes ultimately run away from the warren when they discover what’s really going on with the snares. But they are filled with horror not only at the killing, and the warren rabbits’ acquiescence to it, but at the art and poetry as well. They deem this unnatural and a distraction for the warren rabbits so that they forget their miserable position. What is Adams saying about art and poetry? What are they a distraction from? I’m assuming he has some message here for humans, not just rabbits, but what is it? What should we do or face instead of distracting ourselves with art?

If you don’t care for questions like this, it’s easy to get caught up in the story without searches for deeper meaning. Just curl up and enjoy some rollicking good bunny adventures. ( )

Double Book Corner 2019.49-50

I made it to 50.

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The Calculating Stars  by Mary Robinette Kowal

Disappointing. It got off to such a strong start. A meteor hits in 1952 off the coast of Maryland and literally wipes out DC and much of the eastern seaboard. The heroine and her newlywed husband are in the Poconos when the blast hits, and they get themselves to safety in time to survive the aftershock. They are both scientists and can do calculations and know what to do and when to do it. They get to their private plane and the heroine pilots them to an air force base in the Midwest – the war has recently ended and they are both veterans as well as scientists.

I loved the matter-of-fact way both of them responded to the disaster and how she was every bit as calm and smart as he was. Unfortunately this was not the tone that persisted through the rest of the book. We dealt a lot on the heroine’s anxiety problems; and the husband’s perfection in the eyes of the first-person narrator, his wife, became tiresome. Of course he was always handsome and brilliant and handsome and chiseled and handsome in every situation. Their innuendo and the way they couldn’t keep their hands off each other got annoying quick.

The story certainly brought home the impact of sexism on STEM-happy females during the post-war era. I felt the situations and reactions on this front were realistic. However, the book’s forays into the similar injustices of racism were very difficult for me to accept because I couldn’t get over the not-period way that characters talked about it. People were referred to as black. I’m sorry, but the word used back then was “Negro”, or sometimes “colored.” At once point, the phrase “men and women of color” was even used by a character! I couldn’t get over this glaring error of tone, and faithlessness to the alleged period.

I got a little skimmy by the end of the book. I knew it would have a happy ending and I just wanted to get to it. ( )

 

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The Problem with Everything by Meghan Daum a.k.a. My Twin

I’d read Meghan Daum’s THE UNSPEAKABLE and found I could not be impartial about it, because it was like she was talking out my own brain. I felt the same way throughout this book, except for the parts about her divorce (I am still married). So I guess I can’t be impartial about that, either, in an opposite way – because it is so NOT part of my brain. The parts about her divorce were the least interesting, and I’m just glad they weren’t dwelled on any further than they were.

Spoiler – if there’s such a thing as a spoiler for a book of personal essays – the last paragraph is the best: “The problem with everything is meant to keep us believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, in the exquisite lie of our own relevance. What a gift. What a problem to have.” Maybe it’s not much of a spoiler, because I guess you have to read the whole book to understand it.

The problem with everything that Meghan wants to complain about most in this book comes down to “toughness.” She was born in 1970, I in 1969. We grew up wanting to be tough. Adult. “Kids today,” however, almost seem like they revel in being vulnerable.

We had Zoom. We had Jodie Foster and Kristy McNichol. We had androgyny, being a kid, not a little girl. Meghan hits on an interesting idea: finding out the sex of your baby before the birth didn’t become a common thing till the 80s. Maybe, once people starting finding out the gender and preparing for it well in advance, with pink/blue parties and nurseries, this had something to do with the return of little princess girly girls. We weren’t all tomboys, but no one in my generation wanted to be a princess. (“Kids today!!”)

This plays into the main topic which is the problem with feminism (as well as everything) today. There’s no room for being “tough” anymore; it seems we are supposed to be the opposite, and raise a big complaint about everything no matter how micro.

But back to my life! The first chapter is about the woman who used to protest pornography back around 1990 in NYC, manning a table with a big poster of a woman being fed through a meat grinder. I remember that vividly, in Grand Central Station! Meghan describes her as feral, kind of insane. I agree. I was anti-pornography back then, but the one time I tried to engage her, she talked right through me.

Meghan lived my life. “To be 20 years old in 1990 was, as far as I was concerned, to own the world.” “I practically skipped to the office every morning.” Construction workers would whistle at her/me “because I was 20 years old.” She talks about re-entering the city now as a middle-aged woman. “Now that I had returned, it was as if my 20s were being handed back to me in used condition.” I feel that way on every return visit.

I just can’t be impartial about this book. Five stars for being me. I hope you continue to publish my thoughts in book form, Meghan. ( )

Book Corner 2019.48

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Devoured by Sophie Egan

A book of essays and small bites about how “we” eat in this culture and time. “We” here is really millennial office workers, I’m afraid, and that’s the biggest downside to the book. Sophie Egan is a millennial San Franciscan, and she writes about the culture she knows. It was still fun; lots of the observations are universal. I am amazed to learn that Carl Jr.’s pop-tart ice cream sandwich actually has fewer calories than other items on its dessert menu; or should I say, the disaster that must be Carl Jr.’s dessert menu has many items with more calories than a freaking pop-tart ice cream sandwich.

Egan is at her best clueing us into fun trivial like the above. But she should have gotten out of her milieu a bit and researched eating habits among even slightly older people or people in circumstances other than that of a freelancing writer or tech startup minion. ( )

 

Book Corner 2019.47

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Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

From Wikipedia: “Edward Joseph Snowden is an American whistleblower who copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013 when he was a Central Intelligence Agency employee and subcontractor. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA…”

He is now living in Russia, as he is wanted in the US for espionage. Here’s his very engrossing story of how and why he did what he did. Once he decided on the right thing to do, and once he decided that he’d actually do it, there was no turning back. It’s amazing to hear the tenacity it took him to get all the incriminating information together, and get it out of the NSA without being detected; he used a smartphone and a tiny chip. He flew to Hong Kong to make his revelation, and waited a painful number of days for the appropriate journalists to fly out and meet him and get his story out to the world. From there he tried to get to Ecuador, but was detained in Russia, and there he stays.

He does use a lot of acronyms and go into a lot of technical detail, but does a pretty good job of simplifying it and not letting his story get bogged down.

There’s a happy ending. His girlfriend eventually joined him in Russia and married him. She does seem like a keeper, if the two make an apparently odd pair – he’s a techno guy, she’s some kind of artist into yoga and pole dancing. Whatever; they met on the website HotOrNot, and the rest was history. ( )