Turn Off the News and Read

With the world gone mad, reading can be a relief from the news.  Last night I turned to an old favorite by Lois Lowry, The Giver, with its ambiguous ending of hope for a dystopian world.  Then, I read Michael Faber’s Under the Skin, a chilling tale yet curiously connected to civilization.  Published in 2000 and later made into a movie, the story is better if you have not heard of its premise, and I won’t spoil it here, but clearly not everyone is as they seem.

Reading books about how horrible the world has yet to become makes today seem not so bad – despite the dire ramblings of politicians and pundits.   Sometimes listening on Audible makes the misery more palatable and the hope for a changed future more possible.  Two I have on my iPhone to keep me properly alert  –

  • Station Eleven

615t54nnUzL._SL150_“…offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.” from the Sigrid Nunez review for the New York Times

  • California

61QRlMVfpeL._SL150_“…Perhaps the world as we know it will indeed end this way for many Americans: terrified of porcupines, longing for the sound of S.U.V.s, unable to ­distinguish between an artifact and a keepsake, helped to find temporary sanctuary by the last black man on earth. If it does, we won’t be able to say that “California” didn’t warn us.”  from Jeff Vandermeer’s review for the New York Times.

If the apocalypse is upon us, books have already outlined what we can expect.

The Man Booker Longlists

Although I have tried to read many of the acclaimed books from the Man Booker Longlist, my record gets a little sloppy and I get lazier as the Shortlist announcement approaches in September.

Last year’s winner – A Brief History of Seven Killings – never made it to my reading list, but the long list included one of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler, with A Spool of Blue Thread, and Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways.

From 2014, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves surprised and enlightened me, and Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (the winner) is still on the pile beside my bed, waiting to be read.

For some reason, I could never get through the winner of the 2013 Prize – Eleanor Canton’s The Luminaries, but I thoroughly enjoyed others on the list that year: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Another Longlist will be announced in a few days.  Readers have speculated on possibilities:

  • Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time
  • Annie Proulx’s Barkskins
  • Louis Erdich’s LaRose
  • and maybe – Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place.

Whether or not they make it to the prestigious finals, consider getting them on your library wait list now.


This Must Be the Place

9780385349420_p0_v2_s192x300   Where would you go if you wanted to disappear from the world?  If you are Maggie O’Farrell, of course you would go to Ireland.  In her new book – This Must Be the Place – O’Farrell creates a complicated saga of lives constantly being reinvented, and the turmoil of relationships.

Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor, drives the action, across different wives, countries, children, and time zones.  As the story opens, Daniel is trying to recover from a bitter divorce which has kept him from seeing his two young children, Niall and Phoebe.  On a trip to Ireland to scatter his grandfather’s ashes, he serendipitously meets Claudette, a famous movie star in hiding with her young son, Ari.  Eventually, they marry and happily stay in hiding together in a remote area of Ireland for ten years – until, the next crisis in Daniel’s life.

If the plot seems formulaic, do not be deceived.  O’Farrell expertly weaves characters and motivations together, while keeping the reader off balance with the jumping of time zones and the introductions of new characters.  She cleverly draws the reader into what would seem to be an ordinary existence, then clobbers all expectations with revelations of the past in each character’s life.

The story is complicated but rewarding.  In This Must Be the Place, O’Farrell offers the possibilities of love offering understanding and relief from our own worst selves.

I need to read the book again, but knowing what happens will not spoil the anticipation of watching the interaction of all the characters, and, this time, I plan to revel in O’Farrell’s vivid descriptions of place and time.

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Can You Pass the Test?

To work in New York City’s iconic bookstore, The Strand, you have to pass the test – literally. Annie Correal includes samples of the literary matching test from The Strand’s job application in her article for a The New York Times – There Will Be a Quiz.

    Isn’t it rewarding to know The Strand requires its employees to read? From checking the list, I found myself lacking and need to catch up with The Strand standards – more potential reads for my library list.

    Here’s a sample if you’d like to try your book smarts. (Note: one pair is incorrect – The Strand’s “trick question.”)

    Match Authors:

    1. Tool
    2. Ibsen
    3. Ellison
    4. Swift
    5. Gogol
    6. McCullers
    7. Woolf
    8. Kundera
    9. Orwell
    10. Naipaul

    To Literary Work:

    • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
    • Animal Farm
    • To the Lighthouse
    • A House for Mr. Biswas
    • Invisible Man
    • A Confederacy of Dunces
    • Dead Souls
    • Waiting for Godot
    • Gulliver’s Travels
    • The Unbearable Likeness of Being

    Pretending and Believing

    Unknown   The Muppets and Sesame Street saved me as a young mother.  If I nodded off from exhaustion with a toddler in my grasp, I knew friendly Grover would always be there to demand and get her undivided attention.   Although their creator, Jim Henson, died suddenly in 1990, he seems to be still around.  Miss Piggy still shakes her curls, the Count still guffaws,  Cookie Monster still devours – even Kermit, who was voiced and operated by Henson himself, still philosphizes.  In his biography – Jim Henson –  Brian Jay Jones reintroduces Jim Henson with all his quirks and weaknesses, as well as his extraordinary talent and playful way of looking at life that changed the world for many of us.

    Being a little preoccupied with death lately, I started with the last chapter titled “Just One Person, 1990,” addressing Henson’s short illness, and including a memorial service he had outlined in a letter to his children four years earlier.  His trademark whimsy permeated the grief.

    Backtracking to  Chapter One, I followed Jones’s easy conversational writing about Henson’s childhood and the beginning of his career in his college days at the University of Maryland, the Muppets’ big break on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show,  and the first Muppet commercial – for coffee.  Henson’s “ridiculous optimism” was catching; it was impossible not to like him.

    Henson was more than Sesame Street, yet educational television eventually defined his art, as he eschewed commercials  to focus on the show that would make his Muppets household names.  Jones follows the family brood – Henson had five children – as they moved into bigger houses and followed the patriarch’s dream, but he follows the Muppet family more closely, outlining in detail how each puppet was created and evolved.  Each success and failure is carefully documented, from Fraggle Rock to Labyrinth.   Only the two sets of pictures inserted in the narrative give some relief from the exhausting details, but the few personal glimpses behind Henson’s calm demeanor were worthwhile.  When his success allowed him to wear bespoke suits so his pants would be long enough to hide his calves when he crossed his legs in a television interview, he became even more endearing.

    Jones focuses on Henson’s creative life more than his personal; his separation from his wife has only a paragraph in the book, and his later relationship with Mary Ann Cleary was given scant attention.  Jones affirms his view of Henson as a family man – with five children and dogs, even after his marriage fell apart – and his family of Muppets.

    Kermit’s words from The Muppet Movie reflected Jim Henson’s life:

    “…I’ve got a dream, too.  But it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy.  That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. And, well…I’ve found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream.  And it kind of makes us like a family.”

    A wonderful testament to the Kermit inside the man, Jones’ biography includes a picture of Henson as he manipulates Ernie.  Even then, it’s hard to believe Ernie is only an extension of Henson’s arm.  The muppets always seem so real.

    Unknown-3   Life’s like a movie, write your own ending.

    Keep believing, keep pretending.