Monday, July 13, 2020

Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1999)

I read this book 10 years ago and enjoyed it as much the second time around. I remembered some of the main elements, but was still captivated. I was going to just edit the old entry, but felt I still needed to recall what I am reading now, so I am leaving the description of Stardust to the old entry. Over these years I have more an more respect for Gaiman, a great supporter of libraries. I also loved the recent Good Omens series - just a delightful good vs. evil over the centuries tale. This book too is so full of good vs. evil and adventure. I can so relate to the main character Tristran Thorn, who would rather continue on adventures than settle down to ruling a state. I also liked that Gaiman went a bit beyond the "living happily ever after" as he gave what happened decades into the future.

In the talk with the author after the book, he says that readers will sometimes point something out that really needs fixing and that he will then fix it future editions of a book. I have now lost the details in my mind, but I thought I had found an inconsistency. There is a character that is supposedly kidnapped as a baby and then enslaved for many years. But then she remembers things from her birth country, and that she was treated like royalty. How did she even know who she really was? No, I will not write Gaiman about this.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Days of Gold by Jude Deveraux (2009)

I have now gotten hooked on Deveraux's Edilean series and chronologically, this is the first one. It really does set the scene for all the other books as the current day characters mostly come from these Scottish and English ancestors. I learned in the previous books that the town was named after the wife of the founder, so we get to meet Edilean and Angus.

We start in Scotland around 1770. Angus McTern is trying to hold his clan together, after his father lost the castle (more like just a tower) and the lands in a card game to a nasty Englishman. The Englishman realizes Angus works hard and maintains the place, so he leaves him alone. Angus is too busy to have a personal life until the Englishman's niece Edilean shows up and he is struck dumb. He avoids her, but then finds out that she is to be married off to one of her uncle's buddies, and he will get all the gold she has inherited from her father. Then we start the wild ride of Angus helping her out inadvertently, though she loves James, but James is just using her, and one way or another, Angus and Edilean end up on a ship to America, though Angus is now wanted for kidnapping. You know the story - they try to stay away from each other, but fall in love.

They land in Boston, she sets up house with James' sister Harriet. Through misunderstandings and Angus not wanting to ruin her life, they mostly do their own thing in the New World. Angus works an an inn for while, later with the army and learns the ways of the woods and natives. He dreams of getting land outside Williamsburg, VA and building a town with Edilean. She in frustration wants to prove she is not a helpless and useless woman, starts a company Bond Girls, where she buys farms of widows and provides them with help. She gets the bonds of women brought over from England for various crimes, usually out of desperation - and gives them jobs working on the farms and producing high quality fruits and vegetables.

I always like historic context. I guess I have seen some of the desolate castles of Scotland in films, and have read some novels set in current day Scotland, but this helps round out the picture in my mind. This book shows a few other routes that immigrants to America have taken. I somehow did not realize criminals were exiled here. Just started reading a bio of Hamilton and in the first few paragraphs learned that the Caribbean was another place to send criminals. Maybe a topic to research - cheaper to exile than keep in prisons? And many made a good life - or at least their children did. Again, early America - Boston (that I've learned about from the Jackie Faber series) and Virginia.

My other joy is learning about a rich set of characters. I will have to go back to the book and pull out the names I know appear in other books.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A House on the Heights by Truman Capote (2002)

With an introduction by George Plimpton. Originally published in 1959 as "Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir."

After reading Swans of Fifth Avenue, I felt I needed to read something by Truman Capote. This was a nice short book, actually one of his short stories and it gave me enough of a flavor of Capote's writing. He was very observant and he did love gossip, and you can see this in this rambling essay on Brooklyn Heights. I actaully have a new found interest in Brooklyn, as a few good friends live there and tell me something about their neighborhoods. While I was growing up in New Jersey, we too went to events at some hall off of Flatbush Avenue, and some of my parents' friends lived there. The density of life in New York City has never appealed to me, but I am fascinated by this concept of neighborhoods, and Capote nicely describes his neighborhood, its history, its people, its architecture, parks, and the energy of the place that enticed Capote to make it his home for a while. If I have time in my travels, I would like to drive around Brooklyn Heights, where Brooklyn Bridge forms the northern border of the neighborhood, and look over to Manhattan, just across the river. 

George Plimpton's introduction continues giving me a sense of Capote and his ability to draw people within his magical circle, including Plimpton.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Scarlet Nights by Jude Deveraux (2010)

Just a fun read. Mike is a super duper undercover detective, who often has to go undercover for long periods of time while he gets close to the women involved with the criminals, to get them arrested. This time he gets an assignment in the small town of Edilean where his grandmother used to live and his sister still lives. Since dangerous and unscrupulous criminals are involved, he has her go out of the country on a honeymoon, while he gets close to Sara, who is engaged to Greg, one of the criminals. The other criminal lives in the area, but no one knows what she looks like. They lure Greg out of town, and Mike shows up as the brother that has to stay in his sister's apartment, while on a case.

The town is full of delightful characters, but the plot gets a bit overwhelming in the end. The town liked Brian, Sara's first boyfriend, but he dumped her. They are not fond of Greg. Mike seems to fit in. There is a historical large house involved, that Mike inherits through his grandmother some way. There is a crazy old coot that lives out in the large house and has set traps all around it. There is the Frazier family of large brothers that are the town's royalty. Sara's mother is the mayor. the plot all comes together at an annual fair, for which Sara has sewn many of the costumes. There are tarot cards involved - painted by a local artist, an impromptu wedding that borrows flowers from a wedding the next day, and Scarlet Nights refers to a perfume Sara's mother has concocted for special occasions.

I knew I had read something by Deveraux, as when I chose this from the library shelf, my hand first went to Heartwishes, and starting to read the cover I knew I had read it. Thank goodness for this blog, as I did not realize that that book was part of the Edilean series, where Collin Frazier is involved. The second book about this small town that I read was Lavender Morning, which I had totally forgotten about. That was about Joce and Luke, who are landlords to Sara and are expecting a baby.

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2018)

What a great book to read in these crazy times. Historian Goodwin takes a look at Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson. She looks at how each of them grew up, what their influences were, how they were educated, then she takes us through some of their early ventures into politics and leadership roles. Each of them faces some personal tragedy that he has to overcome. Lincoln lost an election and went back to practice law. Teddy Roosevelt lost both his mother and wife at the same time. We all know how Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with Polio, but I did not know how he formed a community with other polio patients and created a rehabilitation center in Georgia that not only looked for ways to improve physical health, but also mental and social health. LBJ had a heart attack. Each took time off and learned from their losses, gained skills in working with people.

Goodwin takes us through the rest of their political careers, culminating in them becoming president. Teddy and LBJ became unexpected presidents from a vice-president's role, when their presidents get assassinated. Both of them had their own agendas that they could now put into place. All four took the country through some very difficult times. Lincoln managed to hold the country together through the Civil War. I did not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential executive order changing the legal status of millions of slaves to be free. Wow! And then to come out of it with one country. Not an easy task. I probably should read up on the South and why they continued being part of the union. Teddy Roosevelt faced a major coal miner strike and though the president was not supposed to interfere in conflicts between labor and business owners, he did step in to negotiate an end to the strike, as people around the country were beginning to freeze without the coal supplies. Franklin Roosevelt took over as the country fell into the greatest depression in its history. He had to come up with the "New Deal" to get people working (and develop our national parks in the process) and prepared for war. LBJ is best know for his ability to pass major legislation insuring civil rights, voting rights and much more in his plan for a "Great Society." Unfortunately he did not understand foreign policy as well as he did domestic policies, and was responsible for getting us deeply involved in Vietnam. I was in 4th grade when Kennedy was shot, so I am sure I was mostly oblivious to Johnson's reign, but I have a much higher respect for him. He got amazing amounts of legislation passed in the first year and a half of his presidency, because he knew how to work with congress. It just makes me sad to see how dysfunctional our congress is today. People with different opinions were able to work out practical legislation for the good of the country. And it took strong leadership, that took into account everyone's needs.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016)

I like Melanie Benjamin's historical novels and this is of a time and place close to my own history, though the first meeting of Truman Capote and Babe Paley and some of the other "Swans" of New York was the year I was born. 

I have to say that this one I had a harder time reading, as the goal of being beautiful and perfect by itself just sounded so empty. The energy that Babe Paley put into making herself and all her homes beautiful, and her husband Bill Paley's (founder of CBS) life go smoothly, would easily qualify her to run her own company or foundation or something. All the ladies in this circle of friends had their main goal to look fabulous, marry rich, send their kids off to boarding schools, maintain numerous abodes and attend lunches and galas. One sentence just got to me - that they elegantly pushed their fancy French meal around on their plates, because to fit in those designer clothes, they of course could not eat it. Ugh! What a waste. I grew up in the generation that rebelled against this. In high school, I would go with my parents to the City Opera at Lincoln Center. You could go in a sequined gown or torn jeans.

But somehow, the socialites were befriended by Truman Capote. He had a lousy childhood and obviously did not fit in Alabama as the precocious gay boy. His one friend from home, interestingly enough, was fellow writer Harper Lee (of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, which is about their home town and the two of them used to go to court hearings for entertainment.) Plus the courtroom provided material for stories that Truman told all his life - some true, some imagined. Capote ended up in New York and began to write stories and scripts. So by the time he met the socialites of New York, he was a known author with a flamboyant flair.

When he met Babe Paley, while tagging along with a friend on the Paley private plane, he and Babe connected. He would tell great stories, loved to gossip, but also really listened. Over the years he gained the trust of Babe and her socialite friends. He did also work on writing, and became obsessed with a murder of a family in Nebraska - going out there to interview the townspeople, the cops, the murderers, and wrote the whole story up in his most famous book In Cold Blood. (Maybe I should read it.) After the success of that book he threw his famous Black and White Party in 1966, where he invited his 540 closest friends -  a combination of writers, artists, socialites, politicians, movie folks and also invited a family from the Nebraska town. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. Unable to write anything else, he ended up writing about his socialite friends, and Babe and Bill in particular, and was outcast from their society.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin (2018)

Fascinating look at the early years of movie making through the (fictional) eyes of two of the first women that were involved. Mary Pickford, who even I have heard of, and Frances Marion, a screenwriter of the times that won two academy awards. They were very close friends for quite a while, as Francis wrote parts for Mary where she could be a little girl that movie goers loved. Mary married Douglas Fairbanks, a swashbuckling hero, though neither did very well when silent movies went to talkies, but they were a beloved Hollywood couple around the globe. Melanie Benjamin takes all the facts she can find about historical characters and then weaves a tale of how these people might have felt and what they might have thought and said. I understand it is fiction, but it works for me.

I found it fascinating to hear about how the early movies were made, how the film companies evolved. Mary, Frances and Charlie Chaplain founded United Artists and were founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts. Though I am not a movie buff, I would really like to see how movies are made one day. If my son continues to live out in California, I just might get around to it.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (2016)

Thank goodness this is just a duology. I thought things ended pretty well for the good guys and not so well for the bad guys. but I did want to read it soon after the Six of Crows, as this was a complex world with a lot of characters and I was afraid to forget them, if I waited too long.

The gang, led by Caz, has returned from the Ice Palace, but were cheated out of their reward and now they are all being hunted by various factions. Things look desperate, but Caz Brekker again thinks up a most convoluted scheme with a lot of moving parts, all of which need to happen close to perfectly, for all of them to be safe and relatively undisturbed, with funds in their pockets to follow their dreams. And the bad guys, while still alive, having lost their reputations and empires, whether they be merchants or Barrel lords.

(Another abbreviated note, as I seem to not be finding the time to write these up, but at least I have a touch point to what I have read. This one was read in June, but I occasionally upload a draft as is.)

Friday, October 04, 2019

Drift by Rachel Maddow (2013)

(Written around 2014-15, so forgive the old references - but interesting to see how I thought.)

I like Rachel Maddow's news show on MSNBC, though there are times it just feels like too much, so I go back to Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert, that have a similar stance, just with more humor. I was not sure I wanted to listen to a book about our military, but I wanted to see what Maddow had to say, and was very glad that I did.

Maddow had done extensive research and then strung it together in a cohesive narrative taking us through the military history of the U.S. throughout the 20th century to today. I didn't realize that the constitution had set it up, so that the president could not declare war by himself, but this declaration had to be made by congress, so no one person could get us into war. This power has now been relinquished by slowly chipping away at the concept till today the congress is out of the loop.

Unfortunately I never finished my thoughts on this book, but since she has a new book out that I will be reading soon, thought I might as well get this up there. I will also note that I now prefer Rachel Maddow's show to the comedians, though I still watch them at times. Trevor Noah is now my favorite, as he has found a lighter touch on the disastrous news of the day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Cafe by the Sea by Jenny Colgan (2016)

I could live in these rural worlds that Colgan spins forever. No, I don't want to live there, just visit and hang out during her stories. This is about the fictional island of Mure off the northern coast of Scotland. Yes, there are plenty of islands out there and somebody lives on them and tourists go visit them.

Flora grew up in Mure, but went to live in London and works in a law firm, where she is in love with her workaholic boss Joel. But, they have a rich client Colton, who wants the law firm to help him win a case to move a wind turbine field away from the island, so it doesn't ruin the view from his new exclusive resort. 

Flora is sent up there to be a liaison with the town. She does not want to be there, as she left in less than ideal circumstances after her mother died. After failing to feed her father and brothers with fancy food from the city, she discovers her mother's cookbook and starts recreating her mom's wonderful recipes and healing herself.

When she meets Colton, he is nice enough, but he has totally ignored the town and its inhabitants and is not liked there. Flora starts mending the relationship and one example is that he owns a storefront that he has kept empty, while young islanders go off the island to find summer and permanent jobs. Flora is put in charge of opening up a cafe in the storefront, which becomes very successful with the locals and visitors. Anyway, a nice mix of people and lives. I also like that Colgan doesn't just rip her character out of the city life and plop her in the country, but she keeps contact with her city friends and keeps them involved in her life. Next book please...