Looking for Betty MacDonald
This is a loving and thorough biography that gives insight and context into the writer behind Ma and Pa Kettle, the country bumpkins in nine movies made in the 40s and 50s. There's much more to Betty than those characters. Becker narrates the audiobook herself.
I came across The Plague and I in Grandma Kunze's book closet when I was 9 or 10. No book jacket, no way to know what it was about, but the title was intriguing. Grandma Kunze - actually my dad's second wife's first husband's mother - didn't tell me anything about it either, but she said she thought I'd like it and I should take it home for keeps and read it. I still have it, and I read it probably four or five times in the next few years. It sounds dreadful: a memoir of the time the author spent at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the 1930s, when treatment was mainly lying down in a cold bed and not talking. But it's actually darkly funny and peopled with all kinds of wonderful characters. I'd already read some of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, which are written for kids, but didn't figure out till much later that it was the same Betty MacDonald who wrote both. Years later, I read her first book, The Egg and I, which was on the NYT best seller list for years in the 1940s.
Becker's biography is fascinating. For someone like me, who already knows the bits of Betty's life she showed in her memoirs, the biography fills out the details. Like - why would a girl from a sociable, intellectual, lively Seattle family tie herself to a grumpy older man on a chicken farm in the middle of nowhere? But even if you've never encountered Betty MacDonald before, the picture of life in the times she lived in, particularly for a successful female writer, is enlightening. For instance, in the 1950s her style was too bitter to be palatable; I was born in the 1950s and it's always surprising to me to realize how that Puritanic and patriarchal father-knows-best tra-la-la decade differed from what came before. Writers like Jean Kerr, Peg Bracken, and Erma Bombeck followed in MacDonald's footsteps, writing humorously about their lives, but seemed to fit the rosier outlook readers (or publishers, at any rate) were looking for in the 50s and 60s.
Becker started with research in publicly available sources, but she eventually got up the courage to contact Betty's family, who had saved boxes full of letters and generously shared their own memories to help fill in the gaps.
A gem. Perfect. Deep and thoughtful and not a single wasted word.
I'm too old to have encountered this as a child, or even when my daughter was a child. I came to it without knowing anything about it except that it won the Newbery and everyone seemed to love it. So it unfolded for me the way books did when I was a child - every page a surprise. I was reading on Kindle in a version that contained an afterword by the author plus her Newbery acceptance speech, so even the fact that the book was about to end came as a surprise (it was at about the 85% mark). If you haven't read it, I recommend reading it that way.
It's a bit like 1984 for children, or maybe Fahrenheit 451 or The Dispossessed: a community that should be a utopia - everyone is happy, everyone gets along, everyone follows the rules, everyone has the perfect career and the perfect family life - but isn't, because of all the things people had to give up to achieve ripple-less equilibrium. There are no suggestions that any malevolent forces are at work; there are no bad guys, just a structure put in place generations ago. It's a cautionary tale, and it's a reminder of all the glorious things in life we might miss if we somehow found a way to take all the problematic bits out of human nature.
I'm glad to have read it although I didn't exactly enjoy it.
Shevek, a physicist from Annares who is developing the theory that will lead to the ansible (which made me feel I was witnessing history being made, because of the ansible's importance to science fiction ever since this book came out in the 70s), goes to Urras where interaction with other physicists and students will enable him to complete his work. Annares and Urras are twin planets that orbit each other; Urras is earth-like and full of life, while Annares is dry desert barely capable of sustaining humans if they work nonstop. 160 years ago, followers of a revolutionary Urran philosopher - a woman named Odo - settled on Annares and closed the door behind them. A few times a year a supply ship visits for an exchange of resources, Annares' contribution coming from its mines.
The story is a mechanism for exploring the opposing social and economic systems on Annares and Urras. Annares is intentionally anarchist, Urras has a strong state supporting a capitalist system in the country Shevek visits (there's also another strong state on the planet, analogous to the US/USSR world order that seemed like a permanent feature of our world at the time this was written). The story is told in alternating chapters: Shevek's visit to Urras in present time, and his life on Annares from childhood to the decision to leave.
Annares has its own invented language, eschews property including the idea of "my" family (babies are even named by a computer), and has no money or official government. Individuals are meant to be free and make their own choices of what to do, what to produce, what to use, and where to live, although they're expected to pitch in and rotate through the unpleasant jobs, with the rotations coordinated by a computerized labor bureau. Children don't live with their parents but in communal creches. Adults live in dormitories, although they can use private rooms for sex. Women and men have equal status and responsibilities to the community. There are no prisons.
Urras is decadent capitalism at its worst. Women are glittery toys who tell themselves they control the world by controlling their men. The people Shevek meets officially live in luxury, while the masses live in miserable poverty and when they seem likely to protest are sent out to be distracted and killed in a war with the planet's other state. Shevek soon figures out that state wants him for the power it can get from his finished work.
Although the Urras sections get as much page-space as Annares, Urras itself isn't the subject: it's here to provide the contrast with Annares, show what Annares settlers were rebelling against, give a reason the people on Annares accept the hardships of their lives, and give us readers the chance to see how Shevek explains Annares to outsiders. The question explored through everything that happens in the book is whether people can deliberately create a better way to live through a systematic, intentional, philosophically driven anarchist community.
Le Guin subtitles the book "An Ambiguous Utopia" and that's exactly what she shows on Annares. Instead of government, there's social pressure to do the right thing, and shunning and even beatings for bad behavior. There's a mysterious clinic where people go if they don't fit in; this is supposedly voluntary but it's clear that people can be sent there against their will. There are people who have power and influence, like Sabul who sabotages Shevek's position as a researcher and teacher, suppresses the important part of his work which is a new way of thinking about time, and takes credit for the acceptable part of Shevek's work. Bureaucracy is growing in response to temporary needs, like the need to assign everyone to certain kinds of work when the planet has a particularly dry period, and not disappearing when the temporary need is over.
This is what makes the book less than fun to read. It's brilliant, and it's all too real. At the time it was written, lots of people were thinking about better ways to live, and some were experimenting with retreating to bucolic communes while others were active in movements that tried to change society. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land had come out a few years back, with Valentine Michael Smith giving the outsider's view of our culture in contrast to what sounded legitimately utopian on Mars (if I remember it correctly, which I might not; I haven't read it since the 70s). There's a page in the last Whole Earth Catalog from about the same time The Dispossessed was written, with a picture of a doll in a birdcage, with a sign saying "I did not wash my dish." The caption is "Discipline on the Hog Farm." Reading The Dispossessed in 2019, when it's clear that racist and sexist attitudes the movements tried to wipe out fifty years ago are still as strong as ever, was depressing because of the way it articulated and highlighted the fundamental problem that makes any effort to make the world a better place seem to be a Sisyphean task. That rock is rolling back down, no matter how hard we push.
Bottom line, I guess, is that you're always going to have human nature to deal with.
For a better take on the book, including a bit about its Taoist motifs like the idea that apparently opposing forces are part of a unifying whole, and each thing carries inside it the seed of its opposite, see https://io9.gizmodo.com/ursula-le-gui...from i09.
A psychological, complex mystery where what's going on in the detectives' psyches is as much a part of the story - maybe more - as solving the central murder.
Cassie is a former undercover cop in Dublin who used to work in Murder but after an earlier case messed with her head, switched to Domestic Violence. When a body is found that looks just like her and has identification with a name she used to use when she worked undercover, her former boss from undercover (Frank) urges her to go undercover as the dead girl to identify suspects in her murder. Cassie's boyfriend, Sam, still works in Murder and is in charge of the case, and doesn't like the idea, but she agrees to do it. She moves in with Lexie's roommates, who are a pre-Raphaelite brotherhood kind of household: Daniel, who inherited a big house in an Irish village outside Dublin and invited his Trinity College friends to live with him; and Abby, Justin, and Rafe. The household is weird and compelling and dreamily appealing - they cook together, they study together, they play cards and discuss intellectual topics, and they present a united front against the outside world. As the story unfolds, we learn a little more about the Irish village; the students are outsiders, but there's also the history of Daniel's family's relationship with the village. And then there's Lexie, the dead girl: who is she, why did she take Cassie's undercover identity, was there something in her past that led to her murder? The four roommates slowly become more individual; they have a rule not to talk about their pasts, which suits Lexie fine.
Let me get my comparisons to In the Woods out of the way. I found this one more satisfying, because there were fewer loose ends left for me to wonder about at the end of the book. One of the things I had trouble with in In the Woods was also present here, although to a lesser extent: the main character's behavior in a couple of spots was frustratingly irrational. Cassie struggles with divided loyalties and conflicting motivations throughout; she gets sucked into her undercover role and falls in love with Lexie's friends, for one thing, but she's pretty aware of that, and mostly her inner battles over her job versus the undercover role felt real. The thing that was too far for me to go along with her was where her loyalty to Lexie and identification with the dead girl and sense that she's on a mission from a ghost drove her to take irrational risks. But like I said, this was only in a couple of spots.
If you're wondering whether you need to have read In the Woods first - I don't think so, and in fact I think I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn't, because I couldn't remember enough about what happened to Cassie in that one, and if I hadn't read it I wouldn't have spent time wracking my brain every time Operation Vestal was mentioned. I read ITW as an audiobook I got from the library and thanks to all the kind people avoiding spoilers, couldn't find any explanation of exactly what happened and how it messed her up. If I hadn't read it, I'd just accept it - okay, a previous case disturbed her and made her switch from Murder to Domestic Violence, let's move on and read the current story. On the other hand, since I don't remember ITW well enough to know, it's possible it would have added depth and nuance that I totally missed, if I'd read this right after I read the other one. (If anyone has an opinion and would like to mention it in the comments, I'd really appreciate it!)
The Library Book
I love libraries and I loved this book.
The event that ties it all together is the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library, which didn't destroy the building but caused an enormous loss through fire and water damage. Chapters scattered throughout the book tell the story of the day the alarm went off and the aftermath, from the viewpoints of staff, patrons, firefighters, and the guy who was accused of setting the fire.
Mostly, though, it's the story of the library itself. Ocean tells the history of the library, in the context of the history of LA and the history of libraries, and the stories of the people involved in it, like the newspaperman who walked across the country to take the head librarian job. Part of the context is the history of women in the workplace: the colorful character who crossed the country on foot took that job from a professional librarian who had the misfortune of being female.
There's so much in here. Architecture: the Goodhue building was designed to tell a story through the building design, murals, sculptures, and even lighting fixtures. Forensic science: some of the techniques used by arson investigators are not much more reliable than old wives' tales. Social issues: libraries nationwide are havens for homeless people because libraries welcome everyone for free, so many libraries work with other agencies to help people sign up for needed services. The present and future of libraries: the 19th-century librarian who wanted to loan tennis racquets and board games, right up to present-day language and citizenship classes, computer labs, and maker spaces. The questions people still call the library with, some of which could easily be answered with Google - and then there's the patron who wanted to know which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets. The branch libraries and the shipping department that handles 32,000 books a day, 5 days a week.
Orleans starts by telling her own story, how she used to go to the library regularly with her mother, but stopped when she left home. Researching and writing this book rekindled her own love of libraries. "All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library's simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen."
This is my first book by this author. After I finished it, I went to the library and checked out two more.
Prison novels aren't my usual cup of tea but boy, this was a good story. Jess wakes up in a hospital room with no memory of who she is or why she's there. When she finds out, she's horrified at what she seems to have done. Fellside is the name of the women's prison where she ends up. Jess is like that relative everyone has who can't seem to straighten out her own life, a bundle of weaknesses and bad decisions, but there's more to her than meets the eye.
I read this without knowing anything about it except that it's by the author of The Girl With All the Gifts which I remembered as one of those books you can't put down once you start. That's what I was looking for after finishing a frothy memoir, and wow, this delivered.
It's suspenseful and well crafted - you feel like you're always a step ahead of Jess, whose thinking is clouded by guilt, because of subtle hints that make you wonder just before you find out that yeah, what you were thinking was right. Very satisfying feeling. It's a ghost story and a mystery. And at its heart, it's about atonement. What do we owe to other people? How far would you go to keep a promise? And it's about good and evil - are you really good if you've never been faced with a temptation or a threat that could send you down the other path? At what point does the balance tip? And how much do you really know about the other people you're making judgments about?
It's definitely a prison novel. Fellside is a private prison with a CEO-style governor (we'd call that job warden where I live) and a mix of good people and bad ones on both sides of the warder (correctional officer)/prisoner divide. It's uncomfortable to read sometimes, but it feels like there's a lot of truth in it. It's obviously well researched. I hope it inspires some readers to feel a little more compassion for the people caught up in the system.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
The title says it all.
Eric Idle had a grim childhood in a horrid boarding school, and various other troubles - divorce, addiction, people grasping for money - but he doesn't spend much time dwelling on any of those darker parts of life. He's 75 and his milieu is 1960s-70s era rock and roll, so he's lost a lot of friends, but he focuses mostly on the happy times he spent with them. At the same time, he's philosophical about death - you can feel his deep sadness over his friends' deaths, but as he says in the song, "life is quite absurd, and death's the final word."
This is a fun and cheerful autobiography. There are appearances by a vast array of musicians and actors, with photos throughout. There are glimpses of the jet-setter life, with luxurious travel on friends' private planes and yachts. Even more, though, I came away impressed with the boundless energy Eric Idle brought to his work. Movies, plays, silly songs, live performances with and without the rest of the Pythons. He seems to be constantly in motion.
Sadly, I also learned from this book that my idea of having Always Look on the Bright Side of Life played at my funeral is not the least bit original - turns out, it's the number one requested song for funerals, at least in England.
This enormous novel is satisfying in so many ways. I read it in paperback concurrently with listening to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Nadia May.
Dorothea, a young idealist in the early 19th century, ignores advice and marries a dry stick of an older man. We can all see it's going to be a disaster and make her miserable, but she's determined, and her amiable uncle doesn't stand in her way.
Lydgate, an ambitious doctor who has new ideas about medicine, comes to a small town where a wealthy banker offers an opportunity to start a new hospital where he can do his research and test his ideas. When he gets tangled up with the mayor's daughter, the beautiful Rosamund, it's not so obviously destined for trouble, but trouble follows.
And then we have Dorothea's more ordinary sister Celia and her ordinary destiny; Rosamund's brother Fred who starts out feckless and impulsive but learns some things through the course of the narrative; Mr. Bulstrode the banker who has more in his past than we knew; the admirable Caleb Garth and his daughter Mary; the mischief-making Raffles; the exotic Will Ladislaw whose grandmother was disowned by Dorothea's dry-stick husband's family because she married a Polish refugee; and a whole enormous cast of various clergy and townspeople and business people and farmers.
Big political changes are afoot - this takes place in the early 1800s, just after the French Revolution, and Reform is in the air, which seems to involve more people getting the vote and Catholics being possibly considered to be people as well. The town has a surprising-to-me number of clergy and more variety of religions than I would have expected, given that everything I know about the English countryside comes from reading novels where the Church of England is the only game in town. (Or maybe I just didn't notice before.) Journalists and politicians seem to be new kinds of people. Money is as always a big deal, and it's incredibly complicated for the kind of people who don't expect to get jobs and get paid for them. Like, Lydgate doesn't get paid for his work at the hospital. He only gets paid by his patients, and since he disdains selling them pills, which is what they're used to paying for - nobody pays for the doctor's services - he gets into big financial trouble.
Running throughout though is the theme of what women are capable of doing, and the constraints the law and society put on them. Dorothea is strong-willed and intelligent, but believes the only way she can do good in the world is to marry a man whose work she can support. Mary Garth is just as smart and useful as her father Caleb, but it's obvious she can never do the kind of work he did. Rosamund embodies the feminine ideal, with her expensive finishing-school education, and her highest goal is to be admired by men (although we eventually see that even for her, that's not going to be enough).
And then there's communication, lack of communication, miscommunication, and gossip. Nobody in the upper classes ever says what they think, even to their spouses, except in a couple of special cases. People are constantly making assumptions and misreading others' motives. And then there's the catastrophe where some information from the past comes to light, and is blown up through gossip to ruinous levels.
On top of the story are the narrator comments sprinkled throughout. Pearls of wisdom. I was too caught up in the story to copy them out as I went along. Next time I read it, and I'm sure there will be a next time, I'll try to do better.
But a friend was enthusiastic about this one, and said it was different. There's a traveling theater and music troupe; there's an insane religious cult; there's a dreadful flu that kills 99% of humanity in the space of a few weeks; there are scattered settlements among the abandoned cars; and there's a good amount of pre-apocalyptic story about people who are or are somehow associated with the post-A cast of characters. The timeline bounces around a lot.
So what's different about it, and why five stars? For one thing, there's a lot of art in it - Shakespeare, classical music, and the comic book that's set on Station Eleven in space, not to mention the movie star world of one of the characters. There's an appreciation for the things we take for granted; not just the big things but the ordinary daily life stuff we hardly notice. A message about skimming across life without paying attention, buried in smartphones and speaking trite office jargon to each other, runs through the pre-A segments. It spans a period of 20 years after the flu plus an undefined time before, and the progression through breakdown of civilization to what comes next over that long period seemed plausible.
The spirit is hopeful, on the whole. I think that might be one reason I, at least, lost interest in dystopia and post-apocalypse: I stopped wanting to read anything that was going to make me feel hopeless and miserable. And the writing itself is masterful; it pulled me into the world of the book and never bumped me out.
I'm glad I read it.
This is classic Stephen King, and this is why I read almost everything he writes. (I haven't read Gerald's Game or the Dark Tower series.)
A decent police officer and a politically ambitious DA, a horrific crime, a popular teacher and coach, seemingly overwhelming evidence - but things aren't what they seem. Eventually the detective agency from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy gets pulled in.
I'm not going to try to summarize beyond that; other GR reviewers are much better than I am at summarizing without spoiling.
As always, the characters are real. The good ones have a bit of heroism mixed in with a lot of human flaws. The bad ones have resentments, self-pity, and anger that can be manipulated to make them even worse. We spend most of our time with the good ones, which is what makes it possible for me to enjoy reading a book with such terrible things in it.
And the plot is a page-turner. I read half of it Thursday night and got to about fifty pages from the end on Friday; finished Saturday morning. It's satisfying and wise.
I noticed a couple of places where a pop culture reference is explained, in contrast to earlier King where references are dropped in and readers are expected to pick them up without help. I wonder if it's because pop culture is more fragmented now - we don't all see the same tv shows and movies - or because King's older now, so his references are drawn from a bigger pool of time that younger readers might not be familiar with - or if it's just a new editor with different preferences.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Inspiring, entertaining, interesting, informative. Hadfield did the narration on the audiobook so I got to hear it all in his own voice.
I'm so glad there are people like Chris Hadfield in the world: hard-working, down-to-earth, smart, can-do, humble, friendly, and helpful. His book is a memoir with bonus lessons for living. There's all kinds of interesting stuff about things like the 40-minute process to collect urine for a research project he participated in on the International Space Station (Peeing For Science), and what it's like to adjust to gravity again after spending months in space. It's all in the context of the importance of the space program, and with a little coda about the importance of protecting the Earth.
The lessons for living are down to earth and practical, too:
* Enjoy the process - the only thing you can control is your attitude. If your sense of self worth depends on achieving your ultimate goal (like space flight), which is affected by lots of things outside your control, you'll never be happy. Study, learn, and appreciate every day.
* Practice negative thinking - visualize the worst and figure out how to prevent it
* Be humble - he calls this aiming to be a zero. Be competent and don't get in the way while you observe and attempt to learn, rather than trying to impress others.
* Sweat the small stuff - we all know how important this is in the space program, where a tiny error can lead to tragedy.
* Appreciate and recognize other people's efforts and sacrifices that enable you to work towards your own goals.