Friday, October 31, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin

I almost never read contemporary fiction, except for mysteries, but occasionally I do.  Another blogger posted favorably about this book about a bookstore owner and it's only a bit over 250 pages, so I thought I'd give it a try.  I'm glad I did.

A. J. Fikry and his wife Nicole open a bookstore on a fictional island called Alice, off the coast of Massachusetts.  (If you've been reading me for any length of time, you'll recall that I lived most of my life in Massachusetts and know and miss the area.  Every Memorial Day for many years, I was on Nantucket for the Figawi sailboat race that Jack was sailing in.)  But, back to the book.

A. J.'s wife has died in a car crash and he's drinking himself into an early grave.  He's never really connected with anyone but her.  He's surly with everyone, including customers at Island Books.    Besides all that, his almost priceless copy of Poe's Tamerlane, bought in a box of books for $5.00 at an estate sale, has been stolen.

What is there to live for?  Certainly not the baby that someone leaves in his bookstore.  He doesn't want a baby, knows nothing about them.  There's a note saying that the little girl's name is Maya, she's 25 months old, the mother can't take care of her, and she wants her to grow up to be a reader.  The body of a young woman washes up on the shore a few days later.

A. J. takes the baby to the police station but then decides to take care of her himself until Child Services can pick her up.  Over the weekend, the little girl endears herself to him.  The mother wanted Maya to grow up with A. J., so he adopts her.  He resorts to Google and his sister-in-law to find out what to feed her, how to change her, how to give her a bath without seeming to be a pervert, and all those little things that a parent must know.

Each chapter starts with A. J.'s pick of a short story, a very short synopsis of the story, and his reasons for choosing it for Maya.  In clumsier hands, this might seem gimmicky, but I think it works here.  It's not clear why he's doing this until near the end.

Maya loves books and she grows up reading her way from board books to young adult books to  literature.  A. J. falls in love with goofy Amelia (Amy) Loman, the sales rep for a publishing company he is rude to when she replaces the previous sales rep who has died.  A. J. is feeling that too many people in his life have died and he's not happy about that.  Lambiase, the local police chief, becomes a reader after he starts hanging around the bookstore to make sure A. J. and Maya are doing okay.  He even starts a book club for fellow officers and other safety personnel.

I was reading along happily until I ran into a looming tragedy.  It was of the sort that almost made me stop reading, but I read on.  I'm glad I did.  Like the chapter beginnings with short story recommendations, the tragedy was handled well.  It came but was not belabored, it was over, and the book went on to end satisfactorily.

There are some side stories, with characters who changed and grew but who remained very human.  I smiled while reading.  A. J. is a grumpy but ultimately likable  guy.  Maya changes him and he, of course, gives Maya exactly what her mother had hoped he would.

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

A few months ago, a few of us decided to read Rebecca together.  Katrina has just posted her thoughts on the book, and there may be a few more posts.  Keep your eyes open.

I think this was only the second time I've read Rebecca.  I know I read it as a teenager and that's the only time I see any mention of it in my records.  I've seen the movie several times.

The unnamed narrator is companion to the social climber Mrs. Van Hopper when she meets the older Max de Winter in Monte Carlo.  She and de Winter enjoy each other's company and de Winter asks her to marry him to keep her from leaving with Mrs. Van Hopper.  de Winter makes the very young girl feel grown up and she makes him happy.  His wife, Rebecca, is dead, drowned in a sailing accident a year before.

I felt uneasy about the relationship when de Winter casually proposed during breakfast.  It seemed almost brutal.  He then tells her that there will be no church wedding because, she must remember, he's already had a church wedding.  Well, fine, but how about her?  She is a young girl with dreams and fantasies of romance.  He tells her she can call him Maxim, as his family does, although Rebecca called him the more intimate Max.  He also drives too close to a cliff edge in Monte Carlo and frightens her.  These should have been red flags, but she's young and naive.

Things start to unravel when they return to Manderley.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is just this side of openly hostile to her, undermining her shaky confidence.  The girl starts to become obsessed with the dead Rebecca, the woman with whom she cannot compete, the woman who will never grow old, whose legacy as a beautiful enchantress will endure.  She's convinced that de Winter still loves Rebecca.  She starts acting like a child, accidentally breaking a china cupid (one of Rebecca's wedding gifts) with a painting book (one of her wedding gifts) and then hiding the broken pieces in drawer.  She's easily intimidated by de Winter and Mrs. Danvers and everyone else.

As it turns out, Rebecca is not what some people thought and de Winter is not still in love with her.  It's a completely different situation that becomes apparent toward the end of the book.  When the truth is revealed, it brings the narrator and de Winter together.

I liked this book much better than Jamaica Inn.  Katrina has mentioned that the writing is more polished and I agree.  The characters seem more fully developed and the suspense grows and grows.

Manderley was a real house in Cornwall called Menabilly.  du Maurier rented the house and lived there for more than twenty years.  According to the introduction in the edition I read, du Maurier was 30 when she wrote Rebecca.  Her husband was in the military and they were stationed in Egypt, which du Maurier hated, homesick for Cornwall and disliking the social duties of a military wife.  Jamaica Inn had almost been a bestseller, but she thought Rebecca was gloomy and that the ending was too grim.  Her publishers promoted it as a Gothic novel and it's never been out of print.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Silent Traveller in Boston - Chiang Yee

Another bad cover photo.  I promise I'll do better.  In my defense, this is an old, well-worn, plastic-covered library book.  That's Park Street Church and a corner of Boston Common on the cover.

The author, Chiang Yee (1903-1977), was an admired Chinese author, poet, and artist.  He illustrated this book with his own watercolors and black and white drawings.  He left China, and his wife and children, to attend the London School of Economics.  While in the US, he taught at Columbia and Harvard.  He went back to China two years before he died.

Chiang Yee travelled while in England and wrote several books as The Silent Traveller.  He also came to the United States and wrote books about New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  The Boston book was the one that interested me because I lived most of my life in or around Boston.  He lived on Beacon Hill, at 69 Pinckney Street;  I lived a few blocks away at 25 Revere Street a couple of decades later.  It was interesting to note the differences between Boston in 1959, or thereabouts, and Boston from 1971 on.

I recognized most of the places he wrote about:  Boston Public Garden, Boston Common, The Union Oyster House, the Museum of Fine Arts, Church of the Advent (where they still ring changes, as in the Dorothy Sayers book The Nine Tailors, hard to find churches in the US that still do this).  I was puzzled when we wrote of Fenway Court until I realized he meant the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by The Fens.

The Silent Traveller strayed outside the city limits, too.  He visited Nahant (where I lived for a few years) and Marblehead (where I lived for six months), Rockport, Salem, Concord (canoeing on the river, where we used to canoe), Plymouth (near which we lived, too).  He went to hear the Boston Pops at the Hatch Shell, beside the Charles River, conducted by the great Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Symphony (where I tended bar one night).

In addition to places, he wrote about the people of Boston.  Who they are and who they were.  I must admit that he socialized mostly with 'proper Bostonians', not with the working classes.  Boston is the site of many 'firsts', so he admired Bostonians for their ingenuity.  He admired the New England work ethic and ability to adapt without giving in, and the determination to be free.  Chiang Yee explored the history of Boston, the Pilgrims, and science and literature in Boston, Cambridge, and the surrounding areas.  He admired Bostonians and he proclaimed Beacon Hill the most livable place he'd ever been to.

There were times when he went off on a related tangent, comparing China and Boston in both political and social ways.  There are several pages on the Chinese porcelain trade and how porcelain was made in China, on dragons and unicorns (there's a unicorn, for Scotland, on the top of the Old State House in Boston, as well as the British lion), and on Confucianism and Taoism.

It was fun for me to follow the author to places I know well and to discover a few new ones.  We'll be back in Boston in a few weeks, so I have a list of addresses and things I want to see.  But it's sad for me, too, because I love Boston and I miss the many friends we left there when we decided to  move closer to my family.

But I want to be able to see my family whenever I want without planning a twelve or sixteen  hour roundtrip.  My oldest niece just made Halloween costumes for my three grandnieces.  One of the 2-year-olds wanted to be a butterfly, so my niece made her wings.  When her mother put them on her, she thought the wings were broken because she couldn't fly.  I wouldn't want to miss a sweet moment like that.

Damage - Felix Francis

This isn't a very clear photo of the book I just finished, but it will have to do.  I have a problem with glare.  My solution is to hold the flash closed to eliminate the glare from the flash.  But that keeps the camera from focusing properly.  I think there must be a way to shut the flash off, but I don't have the patience to read the manual.

I loved the old Dick Francis books, the very first books.  When he deviated from books centered on horses, I kept reading, but not so enthusiastically.  I understand that Dick's son, Felix, collaborated on several of Dick's last books and he's now taken over the franchise.  I think he's doing okay, but I think  the older books are better.

In Damage, Jeff Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority.  He's dealing with his beloved older sister's cancer and trying to decide if he really wants to marry his live-in girlfriend.  In the midst of all this personal angst, someone is trying to damage British horse racing, trying to shake the betting public's confidence in the integrity of the sport.

Jockeys and other racetrack personnel get poisoned, all the winners in one race are doped without their owners' knowledge, fireworks explode at a jump, causing mayhem and the death of one of the horses.  I had the misfortune of seeing the death of a horse at Cheltenham Race Days and it pretty much ruined the 'sport' for me.  The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) receive a message extorting money to cease the disruptions.  The BHA ask Jeff to go into deeper cover to ferret out the person behind it all.

There's a bit of slack in the middle of the book, as far as I'm concerned, and there are loose strings left at the end.  There is an exciting bit in the last few pages when Jeff, his girlfriend, and another BHA investigator follow the offender and unmask him, literally.  There is an, uh, smashing end in store for the perpetrator.  But then the book just ends.  Maybe there was a publishing deadline to keep, but I think the ending was too abrupt, leaving too many questions.

Now I get to tell you that I love the old Francis books, just as I used to like Westerns on TV or in movies.  But with maturity and knowledge comes the realization that things are not always what they seem.

Race horses (and other horses used for competition) are bred with the hope that they'll be winners.  If they're not, or if they stop winning, they're discarded, usually shipped to Mexico or Canada to a horrible death in a slaughterhouse.  We closed all the US equine slaugherhouses (you can't kill a horse the same way you kill a steer because their anatomy is different, and killing a steer is wrong, too), a very good thing, but the law still allows us to ship them to other countries for slaughter.  There's a bill in Congress to close this loophole, but it languishes year after year.  (Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act S. 541 / H.R. 1094)  Horses of every kind, including pets who go to auction and are bought by 'killers', face a similar end because they're expensive to keep.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Egyptian Cross Mystery

There's no photo for this one because I read it on my Kindle and I have no idea how to find and post a photo from another site.  Besides, I want to get back to reading!

I love these old, 1930s mysteries.  I love the atmosphere, the cars, the hats and suits men wore, the less hurried way of life, just everything about them.  I love movies from this era, too.  I own the complete Ellery Queen TV series from 1975 / 1976, starring the late great Jim Hutton and David Wayne.  Such style.

Several people lose their heads in this mystery.  Literally.  Ellery Queen, the sleuth son of NYC Inspector Richard Queen, is bored.  He reads of a murder in West Virginia, where a local teacher has been crucified at a crossroad and beheaded, hopefully both after he was dead.  He was hung to look like a gruesome, giant letter 'T', and there are other 'T's involved.  Ellery wonders about their significance.

A few months later, on Long Island, there's a murder that's almost identical.  Ellery has to investigate.  A few of the people from W.Virginia are living in the vicinity of the second murder, but are they involved?  And then there's another beheading and crucifixion.  What's going on?  How are they related?

It's hard to say much more about this book because there's a lot of deception.  People aren't always who they seem to be.  Motives aren't clear.  Someone like Ellery is needed to see through the fog.

At the end of the book, there's a heart-stopping chase across several states involving cars pursuing the murderer through storms and via trains and airplanes, often just missing him by minutes.

Goodbye, Nancy

Normally, I like books of letters.  Or diaries.  They don't have to be those of famous people, they just have to be interesting.  And, for me, that's the problem with The Letters of Nancy Mitford.

I know a bit about the infamous Mitford sisters and I think they all led interesting lives.  But Nancy's letters are mostly about people I've never heard of, as well as some I have.  They all seem to have pet names and I had difficulty remembering who was who when they weren't called by their proper names.  There's not enough of the daily nitty gritty that I enjoy.  

I stuck it out for half of the book, but then I realized I was forcing myself to continue.  That's not the way to read!

So, goodbye, Nancy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Watersplash - Patricia Wentworth

'A watersplash is a shallow ford in a stream.'

In my opinion, Miss Silver is just as good as Miss Marple.  They share many similarities:  they both knit, they're both little old ladies, they're usually neatly but not fashionably dressed, they're observant and wise in the ways of human nature, and they're not obvious, so they're often underestimated.

In a village in England, a young man, long thought dead, returns to find that his wealthy uncle, believing him dead, has left his riches and estate to the young man's uncle.  Even though he's wealthy in his own right, his uncle is not sharing.  But then a rumor starts circulating, a rumor of a subsequent will leaving everything to the young man.

The thing is, one of the two witnesses to the will is dead  -  and the other drowns in the watersplash.  A woman who was nurse to the ailing and then dead man tells Miss Silver about the second will.  The woman has designs on the possible heir and wants Miss Silver's advice.  Miss Silver advises telling the truth to the lawyers.  But then the woman drowns in the 'shallow ford in a stream'.  Too much for coincidence, thinks Miss silver, and goes to the village to find out for herself.

There's nastiness in the village, a lot of secrets, and several people out to get what they can for themselves.  It takes someone like Miss Silver to unravel the web of deception.

This was a satisfying cozy English mystery.  Thank goodness there are many more Miss Silver mysteries for the chilly winter days coming up.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Other Uses for Books

We all use books for things other than reading, right?  Like end tables or bookmarks while reading other books.  I've discovered a new use, but now you'll all know what an awful housekeeper I am and how lazy I am.  I prefer to think I'm innovative.

Our top bed sheet always come out of the dryer with the top edge crumpled.  I think ironing sheets is a ridiculous waste of time, although I had to iron pillowcases at home.  But this top edge was annoying me.  So one day when I put clean sheets on the bed, I looked at the chunkster books on my bedside table and a little light went on.  Hey, it works quite well!  Top edge nice and smooth!

Do you have any unusual uses for books?

Please Save Our Wild Horses from Their 'Protectors'

I received the following e-mail from the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign  an organization I've been helping for years.  (I can't get all the links to activate, so you'll need to visit their web site via the link in the first sentence.)  Please, if you can, help in any way you can:  donations, calls to your federal legislators, calls to the White House.  We're losing a battle we shouldn't have to be fighting and the horses are losing their lives.

No one is stopping the Bureau of Land Management in their campaign to eradicate OUR wild horses and burros on OUR  public lands.  They're pimping OUR lands to private interests such as cattlemen and the oil, gas, and mining industries.  Are we really so desperate that we'll give up anything for money?  Especially considering how the government wastes our money  -  like spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to round up and stockpile horses that would cost us next to nothing to allow to roam free, as the law says they should.  How does it feel to be ignored by your own representative government?  Just who are they representing?  Please let them know how you feel.

As we write this email, helicopters are scouring the beautiful Red Desert, chasing and capturing every last horse in a more than one-million-square-mile area known as the Wyoming Checkerboard. Today is expected to be the last day of this devastating Bureau of Land Management (BLM) roundup in which more than 1,200 wild horses will lose their freedom and families. 
We’ve been fighting this assault on Wyoming's wild horses in and out of court for more than two years -- now we need your help to see this through.

At least 13 wild horses have died in this unnecessary roundup, including young colts who crashed into panels and broke their necks, and elderly, arthritic and injured horses who were forced to run in pain and terror for miles in a traumatic helicopter chase before being “euthanized” by a bullet to the head.
These are just some of the tragedies … all the wild horses were unnecessarily victimized by this rancher-driven roundup.

In the end, the BLM removed 50 percent more wild horses than originally planned. This devastating action contradicts Americans’ strong support for wild horses and violates legal requirements for actions on public lands.

We urgently need your help to right this wrong. We can’t stop now. 

First we fought in court against the backroom deal the Wyoming ranchers cut with the BLM. Then we fought to stop this roundup. The District Court denied our injunction request. We strongly believe that decision was wrong. We need to prepare to appeal the Judge’s final ruling, which, based on her decision on our injunction motion, does not look good for the horses.

We cannot let this travesty go unchallenged. If the BLM gets away with this in Wyoming we can expect more of these illegal actions against the wild horses in other western states. Would you please join us in this last stand for Wyoming’s wild horses?

Every donation makes a difference.

With gratitude,
Suzanne Roy & the AWHPC Team

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign is dedicated to preserving American wild horses and burros in viable free-roaming herds for generations to come, as part of our national heritage. The Campaign is endorsed by a national coalition of more than 60 organizations. AWHPC's founding organization Return to Freedom (RTF), is a national non-profit dedicated to wild horse preservation through sanctuary, education and conservation. RTF's American Wild Horse Sanctuary is based in Lompoc, CA.
You are subscribed to the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign email list.Click here to unsubscribe.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


On Thursday, Jack and I drove from Philadelphia to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY, to visit our adopted steer, Lawrence.  We hadn't seen Lawrence since shortly after he was rescued as a calf in 2011.  You can read about his rescue here.  We were amazed and impressed by how much he's grown!  Our little calf is a big guy now!

Jack is 6' tall and I'm 5'5", so you can see how tall he is!  His caregiver estimated that he weighs about 2500 pounds!  Lawrence is sweet, and he was curious about us.  He enjoyed the head rubs and neck rubs we gave him.  We were covered in steer saliva when he was done inspecting us!

We're so blessed to be able to help support this wonderful guy and to be able to pet him and show him how wonderful he is. 

Lawrence has many steer and cow friends at Farm Sanctuary.  One of them decided to re-arrange my hair with a gentle snuffling and a bit of steer spit!

Steers and cows are not hamburger, steak, rump roast, or lactation factories  -  they're animals, like we are.

 A young turkey was also in the mood for hairdressing and did her best to give me a new style.  (By the way, all the animals have names, I just wasn't introduced to all of them.)  There are older turkeys, at least one of whom had the end of her beak and her toes cut off, a normal factory farming practice, causing her great pain and diminishing the quality of her life.  Thank goodness she's found a home at Farm Sanctuary, where she can be lovingly cared for.  The turkeys enjoyed being hand fed grass we pulled for them.  I think one would have curled up in my lap like a cat.  Another young one dozed off in the sun.

Turkeys are not Thanksgiving dinner or tetrazzini or snacks at a Medieval fair.  They are animals, just  like we are.

We hand fed chickens, and some pigeons did their best to pretend they were chickens!

Chickens are not fried dinners or soup or nugget snacks or cutlets.  They're animals, like we are.

There were sheep and goats, but most of those were far out in the fields.  Jack made friends with one goat who enjoyed having his neck and head rubbed.

Goats are not pulled goat sandwiches or stews.  Sheep are not lamb chops (from babies only a few weeks old) or stews.  They're animals like us.

When we were there in 2011, they had just rescued a piglet they named Eric.  Read about his rescue here.  Eric was the most joyful little guy when we met him, despite what he'd been through.  If you've  ever wondered if animals feel delight, happiness, pure unadulterated glee, you only had to see Eric.  He's a big boy now.  I forgot to take a photo of him, but here are some of his friends.  Pigs sleep most of the day.  They bury themselves in straw for a long comfy snooze.  In the winter they even bury their friends in the straw to keep them warm, like you and I might tuck in a loved one.  A pig is a good friend.  They love to have their bellies rubbed.  Even though their skin and hair feels coarse, they're very sensitive.

Pigs are not bacon, pork chops, ham, baby back ribs (again, babies only a few weeks old), roast suckling pig (oh, my God!), or loin roasts.  They're animals, like we are.

The weather was gorgeous.  Farm Sanctuary's New York sanctuary is in the Finger Lakes region, a beautiful area of lakes and vineyards and hills and rolling fields.  The fall foliage was orange and rust and yellow and red, and there were New England asters and other wildflowers blooming by the road.

It was a wonderful trip, renewing and reaffirming.  I went to bed smiling and I smile every time I think of all the rescued animals we met who touched us and gladdened our souls.  But my heart aches for the hundreds of millions of animals, just like these sweet animals, who are abused, tortured, and slaughtered in this country every year.  Every year.  

We are all animals.