Bookmarked #6

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My motto — every year.

 

January. I love it almost as much as I love September. Fresh starts. New goals. A chance to wipe the slate clean and try yet again to be my best self.

My word for 2019 (also, my favorite word): POSSIBILITIES. Too often, I’m trapped with the thought that I’m stuck, that things can’t change, that I don’t have time. I need to see the possibilities and act on them.

January goals:

I’m going to make the top 5 NYT recipes of 2018 (I actually think my family will like ALL of them).

Actually cook or bake out of the dozens of cookbooks I have.  Two recipes a week, at least.

Read 5 books. I’m on GoodReads and my goal is 50 books for 2019. First up, “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson.

Learn something new. Maybe how to make bagels? Sally’s Baking Addiction has a tutorial and her recipes are good and reliable. She also has a monthly baking challenge. That’s also a POSSIBILITY.

Or maybe I should move beyond food and try a watercolor class?

Do a social media tutorial to get better at my job.

Check out some TED Talks.

Other thoughts:

If you can get beyond the annoying unattractive illustrations (not what I want to look like in 2019!), there are some good goals here: 11 ways to be a better person in 2019 (especially 5, 6, 8 and 11). I’ve mastered 3 and 10, have zero interest in 4, and am afraid of 2, which means I should focus on that.

So true. The pitfalls of working from home.

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Bookmarked #5

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The Sunfire Series

Recommendations, reminiscences, and other things on my mind.

Growing up, I loved reading historical fiction with strong female characters. This hasn’t changed. There was a particular series — The Sunfire Series — that I loved and I still have some of the books. I would have loved the American Girl store not for the dolls but for the books. If you are young and miss that world, here’s a list of book recommendations based on your favorite AG character.

Speaking of reading: One of the most inspiring, interesting, out-of-my-comfort-zone things I’ve done this year is become a Shady Lady as in the Shady Ladies Literary Society. The third Shady Ladies event I attended this year is the one mentioned in this interview (check out the amazing photos of the Belle Isle Boathouse!). The group, in its second year, hosts an emerging female writer with her debut novel in a unique Detroit location, partners the book reading/signing/Q&A with a custom cocktail crafted by a female bartender and a meal inspired by the book created by a female chef. The society’s motto: Empowered Women Empower Women (it looks great on a T-shirt and will be a must-have for me next year when the group resumes).

More reading: 2019 is almost here. For those of us looking to be more thoughtful in our reading choices, Modern Mrs. Darcy has a reading challenge packet of downloadables full of great ideas. This site is terrific if you’re looking to enhance your reading, need a fresh idea of what to read next, or are simply into books and bookish things.

OK. I guess this whole post is about reading. I wonder about this often (part of a great piece on Bruce Springsteen — and as a man and an artist, he really knows his way around words): “This is the central tension of Springsteen on Broadway: the self we feel doomed to be through blood and family versus the self we can—if we have the courage and desire—will into existence. Springsteen, as he reveals here, has spent his entire life wrestling with that question that haunts so many of us: Will I be confined by my DNA, or will define who I am?”

7 amazing books to add to your TBR list

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So far, 2018 has been a memorable year for books. I suppose, if we were being generous, February could still be considered the start of a new year.

I’ve just so loved the seven (!) books I’ve read so far that I wanted to share my recommendations.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward: This gorgeously written National Book Award winner is a Southern gothic story of family threaded through with death and the remnants of violence. I loved the imagery of light vs. dark. As a parent, the novel was painful to read. As an English major, I wanted to write a paper. Jojo is being raised by his loving grandparents and shoulders the responsibilities his drug addict mother, Leonie, and imprisoned father abandoned. Leonie and Michael are devoted to each other and drugs. There isn’t room for more. Leonie sets out on a road trip with her children and an addict friend to pick Michael up from prison. Ghosts unable to break from their earthly ties haunt Leonie, her children and her parents. The multiple narrators shed light on the characters and their heartbreak. All the characters struggle with the need to belong, to be wanted and to be cared for.

“The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne: Helena was born the daughter of narcissistic, violent man and the teenage girl he kidnapped. Growing up, she has no idea there is more to the world than her isolated, incredibly rustic U.P. home. She also has no idea her adoring father isn’t who she thinks he is. After layer upon layer of manipulation and lies are revealed, Helena and her mother escape their U.P. heaven/hell, an event that sends her father to prison. Now an adult, Helena discovers her father has escaped and it’s up to her to track him down and put him away for good. This is a fabulous read, especially for Michiganders. Dionne juxtaposes her narrative with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” the tale of a girl who must choose between the good and evil sides of herself.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin: If you were told when you were going to die, would it affect how you chose to live? Four siblings visit a mysterious (and not wholly believable) psychic in 1970s New York as children and their lives are forever changed by what they hear. Was the psychic right or were her predictions at the core of self-fulfilling prophecies for the siblings? On a whole, the family’s story is pretty sad. The reader is left wondering if the fate of the family would have been the same had the siblings not been given those dates? “Thoughts have wings,” says the guilt-ridden Daniel, the oldest who orchestrated the visit to the Romani fortune-teller that set the siblings’ futures into motion.

“The Final Girls” by Riley Sager: Three girls each survive mass murders. Now, one by one they are being picked off. Just what happened that night to the latest survivor (who can’t remember important details of the attack on her and her friends as they partied at a cabin in the woods) and whom can she trust? Great plot twists.

“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng: Having loved (all caps, exclamation points) “Everything I Never Told You,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Ng’s follow-up. It doesn’t disappoint. In a planned neighborhood in Cleveland, there were rules and “everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lies on the inside.” The Richardson family — long a symbol of this belief system — benevolently takes a new tenant and her daughter under its wings. Mia and Pearl harbor secrets and unconventional ideas that change the Richardsons. Without meaning to, Mia and Pearl fuel the fires of discontent lurking beneath the surface.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn: Of the many books recommended for fans of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on a Train,” this one absolutely lives up to the hype. An unreliable (but sympathetic) narrator with a predilection for film noir (a plot strand is straight out of “Rear Window”), prescription drugs and copious amounts of red wine, psychologist Anna Fox is homebound by agoraphobia. Her human interactions consist of consulting “patients” online, flirtations with her basement tenant and spying on her neighbors. As she gets more and more involved in what she thinks she sees across the street, the pace picks up and nothing is as it seems. It’s no surprise this is being turned into a movie. Please read the book first.

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee: This page-turner of a Korean family saga spans the 20th Century. The novel digs deep into the effects of war, separations, scandals, tragedies, and sacrifices on the individual. Rising above everything, though, is a commitment to family and country. In the end, the characters find that you can’t escape who you are.

 

My favorite books of 2017

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While I didn’t top last year’s 37 books, I read far more in book form and listened far less on audio in 2017. The end of my 2-plus-hour commute helped with that.

So, for 2017, I read 36 books with two being on audio. In comparison, of 2016’s 37 books, 15 were on audio. I’m taking this as a victory. For 2018, I am going to try to focus more on nonfiction and new writers.

Without further ado, my favorites of 2017:

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen: A beautifully written and insightful autobiography.

“Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye: A retelling of “Jane Eyre” with a decidedly darker heroine and delicious writing. For more on Faye: http://bit.ly/2nxuP3N

“Did You Ever Have a Family?” by Bill Clegg: A haunting story of a family tragedy and its aftermath.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte: I cannot believe it took me so long to read this. Loved, loved, loved it. For more: http://bit.ly/2CoEH7y

“Marlena” by Julie Buntin: I’m so glad this has raked in the accolades. If you’ve ever been a teenage girl — or if you’ve ever wanted to understand the drama and the push and pull of female friendship — give this debut a try. It is fabulous. For more: http://bit.ly/2tXXNJ8

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gaasi: Gorgeously written, this story of two half-sisters who never knew each other traces the slave trade and its devastation in Africa, Europe and America. The novel comes full circle after following generations of the families through 300 years of history.

“Beartown” by Fredrik Backman: A violent act tears apart a small, struggling town united in its adoration of its promising youth hockey team.

“Mischling” by Affinity Konar: I’m drawn to books about World War II and the Holocaust, especially those dealing with the human impact and lesser-known heroism. But lately it seemed like the books I had chosen were lackluster. Not this one. The heroines of the novel are twin girls saved and ruined at Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele. This historical fiction is also about the costs of forgiveness and revenge.

“The Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom: A white servant girl from Ireland finds herself cast with slaves on a plantation and later as the mistress of the house. It’s a story of families, the ones you make and the ones you’re born into, and loyalty. If you liked “The Invention of Wings,” you’ll like this.

And the biggest surprise was how much I liked “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” by Matthew Sullivan, a recommendation from my independent bookstore. I figured it to be a light story about quirky characters who frequent a bookstore. It’s so much more: a  murder mystery, a story of friendship, a heartbreaking search, and the damage families can do. The characters were mostly compelling and there were enough twists to make this a page-turner.

What were your favorite books of 2017? I’m always looking for great recommendations.

 

Saul Black thrillers: Not for the faint of heart

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Fans of Gillian Flynn and Karin Slaughter: Get to know Saul Black.

Dark, gruesome, creative, twisty, his two novels — “The Killing Lessons” (2015) and “LoveMurder” (2017) — won’t disappoint.

“The Killing Lessons” introduces us to Detective Valerie Hart, who, like most interesting characters, is flawed and complicated and often unlikable. Two psychopathic predators (one haunted by the abusive Mama Jean, the other a poseur tagalong who wants a friend) leave a trail of bodies — most of them abducted, tortured women left with objects inside of them — and a lone survivor: A 10-year-old girl who holds the key to finding them. There’s a rhyme and reason for the murdering pair’s madness and as Hart slowly unravels the mystery, it’s a race against time.

Hart returns in “LoveMurder.” Six years have passed since Hart helped put the mesmerizingly smart and beautiful Katherine Glass in prison for a series of gruesome torture murders. But her partner in crime was never found and now he’s back — his style tweaked a bit — and he’s letting Hart know it. The detective, struggling to commit to a future not tainted by the worst of mankind, knows the only way to solve the cryptic puzzles the killer sends her in the mail is to go toe-to-toe with Glass.

Hart and Glass are drawn to each other, which scares the detective and amuses the convict. The verbal interplay between the two is great. Hart — and her colleagues and family — fear the collaboration spells nothing but trouble.

Valerie thought of her grandfather, the last member of her family for whom the Devil was a real entity. What had he said? First the Devil lets you know there are terrible things. Then he tells you which room they’re in. Then he invites you in to look. And before you know it you can’t find the door to get out. Before you know it you’re one of the terrible things. 

There is witty repartee between Glass and Hart. Glass cajoles, flirts, ridicules, condescends and verges too close for comfort.

“I’m not saying we’re the same,” Katherine said. “I’m saying we’re close. You see the world for what it is and do everything you can to make it otherwise. I see the same world and do everything I can to make it work for me. We’ve both looking at the same blank canvas. It’s just what we paint on it that’s different.”

The killer’s MO is personal for Hart, but she wonders if survival would be worth it to the victim:

Weren’t there things you’d rather not survive? Weren’t there things that someone could do to you that would leave you so changed, so unrecognizable, and so immune to love that you’d wish you hadn’t survived?

It’s a story of love and betrayal, God and the devil, truth and lies, life and death. Just like Glass and her Man in the Mask, from whom hope “was their aphrodisiacal drug of choice,” pleasure and pain are intertwined.

The best part: Huge twists that I didn’t see coming (and I’m usually really good at predicting whodunit).

The writing is clever and creative, the crimes brutal and unnerving. An abducted woman, thinking back to what Bede, a monk in 8th-Century England said about life:

A little bird … flying through the night flies in one window, through the bright hall, and out the window at the other end. It takes no time at all, just a second. That’s your life. You’re the bird and the world is the feasting hall. You have to make sure you see everything. All of it, as much as you can. You’ve got a moment, that’s all.

 

 

 

The lost girls: ‘Marlena’ and ‘The Girls’

Julie Buntin and Emma Cline immerse the reader in the female teenager psyche. I highly recommend these debut novels.

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“We all want to be seen. ”
― Emma Cline, The Girls”


Female friendship is fraught with opposites: loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, envy and sympathy, ego and insecurity, and power and submission.

Two recent books dig deep into girls and their need to belong. “Marlena” by Julie Buntin takes place in the not-so-distant past in a fictional town based on Petoskey in northern Michigan. Buntin nails the us vs. them, the mansion vs. trailer undercurrent. “The Girls” by Emma Cline, a favorite from 2016, is stunning in its imagining of just what would lure girls to a Manson-like cult in the late ’60s.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. The writing, the characters, the immersion into the female teenage psyche.

Both Catherine (trying to reinvent herself as the more risky Cat after moving away from all she knew in Pontiac) in “Marlena” and Evie in “The Girls”  are lost. They are children of divorce whose parents are absent — physically, economically, emotionally or all three. The girls’ mothers are struggling to find themselves, Cat’s mom in a dead-end town with few options and Evie’s stylish mom trying to break out with a career when women were just starting to look beyond the home. The fathers are on the fringes.

Evie says of her mother: “There are ways I made sense of my mother later. How fifteen years with my father had left great blanks in her life that she was learning to fill, like those stroke victims relearning the words for car and table and pencil. The shy way she looked for herself in the oracle of the mirror, as critical and hopeful as an adolescent. Sucking in her stomach to zip her new jeans.”

Cat and Evie are desperate to fit in, to feel the pull and security of a friend. They have drifted from their other friends. They are easy targets for girls they wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Both become accomplices to girls who are worse off than they are — underfed, without direction, neglected, victims of sexual abuse. But to each girl, they are stronger together.

In “Marlena”:  “Together, we had power.… Nothing could hurt us, as long as we weren’t alone.”

“I felt a grateful wonder at the fated-ness of our friendship.”

Cat and Evie are prey to girls eager to feel power and influence. Suzanne, a motherly figure and favorite of Russell (think Charles Manson), knows just how to lure Evie in.

“Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”

The attention doesn’t go unnoticed by Evie: “I was already starting to understand that other people’s admiration asked something of you. That you had to shape yourself around it.”

Evie and Cat are on the edges of violence. Close but never consumed. They are leery but thrilled by the danger.

Both writers craft beautiful sentences and infuse their characters with empathy. For example, Buntin writes of the cold winter sky: “The sky had turned hard and nickel gray, a color that, if you knocked on it, would make a tinny sound.”

One thing I loved about “Marlena” was the imagery of houses and home. Marlena stores her drugs in a little pin shaped like a house. When her lost pin is returned to her, damaged but repaired, it’s the beginning of the end. It’s the only home she’s been able to count on. While Cat believes her rundown trailer is “unutterably pathetic, the sum total of my family’s failures,” the motherless Marlena finds solace in it and in Cat’s mother. Marlena’s barn of a house reeks of rot and decay and the malevolence forged by her violent father who runs a meth lab in the woods.

The NY Times review calls Marlena and Cat’s friendship “a collaborative work of imagination.”

Marlena romanticizes Cat’s life in some ways because it’s something she’s never known. In her reminiscing, Cat wonders if her memory is accurate or romanticized by Marlena’s death and Cat’s regret:

“Why do I keep doing this? Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal. She could be such a bitch. She could sense what you hated about yourself, and if you pissed her off she’d throw it back at your face, she’d make sure you knew she thought it, too. Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I’m trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fists, and the quicker it all escapes.”

Both Cat and Evie return to the past that they can’t quite leave behind by the emergence of people who remind them of what was and could have been.

Suzanne keeps Evie from being swept up in Russell’s actions (as if she knows Evie isn’t of that world and was just tagging along) and the latter spends decades wondering what she would have done if she would have joined the others. She’s adrift and stunted.

“Only after the trial did things come into focus, that night taking on the now familiar arc. Every detail and blip made public. There are times I try to guess what part I might have played. What amount would belong to me. It’s easiest to think I wouldn’t have done anything, like I would have stopped them, my presence the mooring that kept Suzanne in the human realm. That was the wish, the cogent parable. But there was another possibility that slouched along, insistent and unseen. The bogeyman under the bed, the snake at the bottom of the stairs: maybe I would have done something, too. Maybe it would have been easy.”

Both are unmoored by the sense that they were left behind. Cat says: “I made it out, just like I wanted, and not once have I stopped looking back.”

After Marlena dies (no spoiler here), Cat struggles for decades with her grief and sense of guilt, that she didn’t notice or heed what she should have. She refuses to let herself off the hook:

“I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be.  … Let the record show that I was smarter than I looked. And anyway, I touched.”

 

Jane and her Mr. Rochester

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know them sooner.

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Reader, I’m sorry to say it’s taken me this long into adulthood to read “Jane Eyre.”  If I had known what a fabulous story this was, I would have gotten around to it much sooner. I had just figured it was dated, gothic, dreary and a long slog.

I was so wrong.

Jane Eyre is a heroine worthy of being called such. She stays true to herself, no matter her trials and tribulations. And her Mr. Rochester? Well, he’s a brooding, complicated, adoring man. They get their fairy-tale ending, although it is tempered by tragedy.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte has it all: an orphan and a neglected heir, both terribly misunderstood; an English family manse steeped in history; a crazy woman hidden away; superstitions and the supernatural; witty dialogue; beautiful descriptions of the moody, isolated moors, and, of course, the love story.

I read the recent “Mr. Rochester” by Sarah Shoemaker first, and I think it made me love “Jane Eyre” even more. Shoemaker tells the story from Rochester’s point of view, fleshing out his story, the root of his misfortune, and the abandonment and loss he endured as a child and young adult. Just like Jane, he wonders why he has to face such misery and challenge. While he comes from money, he is no less alone in many ways.

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. They weather each other’s flaws, flirt, cajole and play hard to get. When it appears Rochester is going to marry, Jane knows the beautiful, money-hungry Miss Ingram is not the best for him:

“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point — this was where the nerve was touched and teazed — this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.”

(Reader, be prepared for punctuation the likes you don’t often see outside of 19th-Century literature.)

Both the reader and Mr. Rochester know just who is capable of charming him.

Just as it appears that the two will live happily ever after despite the misgivings of others, Rochester’s past comes to light in a shocking chapel betrayal. Jane could have acquiesced to a life of contentment but that would cost her dignity and honor, so she turns from happiness:

“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Both Shoemaker and Bronte give their characters depth and nuance. Together, the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester is much fuller. Written more than a century after Bronte’s story, Shoemaker adheres to the former’s voice and vision while fleshing out Rochester’s past.

A very poignant part of “Jane Eyre” finds Rochester bemoaning his fate and feeling unworthy: “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard. And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?”

Jane’s response: “You are no ruin, sir — no lightning-struck tree: you are green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not; because they take delight in your bountiful shadow; and as they grow they will lean towards you, and wind round you, because your strength offers them so safe a prop.”

In each other, they find home and companionship and refuge.