Smile When You Read This

Today is World Smile Day, commemorating Harvey Ball, a commercial artist from Worcester, Massachusetts who created the smiley face in 1963.  Scientific studies prove your smile can reduce your stress and lower your blood pressure as well as your heart rate.  If you don’t feel like smiling outwardly today, smile inwardly, and adopt that enigmatic Mona Lisa upward tilt to your lips. You will feel better and everyone will wonder what you are thinking,

Looking for books to make me smile, I thought of a few I’ve read.  Click on titles in blue to read my review.

Checking on a few of the authors, I found some of their new books, guaranteed to crack a smile: Dave Barry’s Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old Happy Dog, Carl Hiassen’s Razor Girl, and Christopher Moore’s Noir: A Novel.

9781501175183Right now I am smiling as I read Julia Sonneborn’s By the Book, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Persuasion set at a university. “Professor Anne Corey is stunned to learn that her ex-fiance has been hired as Fairfax College’s new president. Her troubles are only beginning….”

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Calm, Ease, Smile, Breathe, says:

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy,,,”

What makes you smile?

Period Piece

x400  With bawdy courtesans and ephemeral mermaids, Imogene Hermes Gowar’s debut novel – The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – draws the reader into life in late eighteenth century London.  Although the story begins so slowly, taking its time to create the setting with a lonely widower merchant whose life begs for relief from his mundane existence, the pace picks up eventually, with rewarding insights and a rollicking plot.

When Mr. Hancock’s ship is traded for a mermaid, the narrative slogs along as he becomes prosperous exhibiting his fossilized find at a local bar, but when Bet Chappell, one of London’s well connected madams, hires his wizened little mermaid to draw customers to her upscale brothel, the honest merchant connects with one of her prize courtesans, Angelica Neal, and his life is never the same.

The chapters initially alternate between Angelica’s riotous life in prostitution and Jonah Hancock’s more subdued merchant arrangements.  Angelica has failed at her freelance attempts of selling herself and her debt threatens to force her to return to Bet’s “nunnery,” when the kind hearted Hancock pays off her debts and marries her. Their marriage is the chance for him to find happiness and for her to be secure.  Angelica jokingly asks Hancock to produce another mermaid just for her when the first is destroyed, and he takes her request seriously, requisitioning another ship to the Hebrides to find a new specimen.

As Hancock continues to invest, his fortune grows.  He speculates in successful real estate and buys an estate for Angelica in Greenwich.  Suddenly, the captain returns with his cargo – a live mermaid, a phosphorescent sea creature who periodically chimes in with italicized murmers between chapters.  Both Anglelica and the mermaid are fish out of water; both having difficulty acclimating to their new environment – Angelica in her respectable mansion and the mermaid hidden in the grotto at the edge of the estate. The captive mermaid seems to have a a mysterious effect on anyone who wanders close to her, producing a threatening and heavy sadness.

Gowars uses a cast of women to make her case for their surviving in the man’s world of the 1750s: crafty Mrs Chappell; persistent Angelica; former prostitute Bel Fortescue; mean-spirited Mrs Frost, and Mr Hancock’s  teenage niece Sukie, who is sent to live with her uncle.  Together, they keep the story moving to a satisfying ending.  And the mermaid?  Perhaps she didn’t really exist but she has powerful impact.

A Book List for National Coffee Day

UnknownCoffee – I look forward to that first cup every morning, and today is National Coffee Day in the United States, where you can savor a free cup at a few coffee shops.  What could be better than a good cup of coffee and a good book?  

First, where can you get a free cup of coffee today?

  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Krispee Kreme
  • 7 Eleven
  • Cinnabon

 I wondered about coffee references in literature.  Can you think of any?  Here are a few from books I’ve read: 

  • from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “I’d rather take coffee than complements right now.”
  • from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Good. Coffee is good for you. It’s the caffeine in it. Caffeine, we are here…”
  • from Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukura Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage: “The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.”
  • from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “That’s something that annoys the hell out of me – I mean if somebody says the coffee’s all ready and it isn’t. 
  • from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have measured my life out in coffee spoons.”

51U7v8YQdML._AC_US218_   Brazil is the largest producer of coffee (the United States is the largest consumer), so a new book set in Rio de Janeiro – The Caregiver by Samuel Park – seems appropriate for a coffee day. 

Quick Summary: “…examines the relationship between a mother and daughter after years of mutual misunderstanding. Ana, a voice-over actress, struggles to provide for her six-year-old daughter, Mara, in late 1970s Rio de Janeiro. Desperate for money, Ana takes on a dangerous job with revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the corrupt police chief. …Ana must separate from her daughter to save her from retaliation. Mara, with the help of her mother, escapes to California and years later finds work caring for a woman who’s dying of stomach cancer. During their time together, Mara begins to understand Ana in new ways as she considers her role as a caretaker.”

What are you reading as you sip your coffee today?

Related Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage




History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2018

The six books making the cut for the Man Booker shortlist this year include two American authors – Rachel Kushner for “The Mars Story,” set in a California women’s prison, and Richard Powers for “The Overstory,” about nine strangers trying to save one of the world’s last virgin forests.

The rest of the list includes:

  • Washington Black” by Canadian Esi Edugyan, based on the true story of the relationship between an eleven year old enslaved boy and his master’s brother who flee a Barbados plantation.
  • Irish author Anna Burns’ “Milkman” – told in the voice of a young woman forced into a relationship with an older man during the Northern Ireland conflict.
  • Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” – the first book selected for the Shortlist in verse, follows a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as he travels across the United States.
  • British Daisy Johnson, the youngest author ever shortlisted for the Prize, updates Greek myth in the tragic story of a lexicographer looking for her mother in “Everything Under.”

The winner of 50,000 pounds will be announced October 16.

I’ve read SNAP from the longlist and have “Washington Black” and “The Overstory” on my to-read pile, but I may skip the others. Do you plan to read any before the winner is announced?

Related Review: SNAP