life between the pages

“I spent my life folded between the pages of books.
In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
Tahereh Mafi, Shatter Me

Monday, April 08, 2024

Book Review: Riding Shotgun, by Rita Mae Brown

Interesting emotional romp thru the centuries. The ending was a bit of a let down, but otherwise the story is very good.
The reason I say the ending was a bit disappointing is because it feels as if the author expended all of her energy writing the book until the last 50 pages or so, and then rushed through to get it finished. Where for most of the book we get exquisite detail about situations that range from fox hunting to traveling through time, with well-developed characters a reader can truly want to get to know, and deliciously detailed descriptions of places and events, toward the end after a major, life-changing turn of events is starting to be reconciled, the story becomes little more than a quick by-rote narration of events, including some that are chaotic and emotionally damaging. Gone is the depth of feeling coupled with careful thought and analysis, in favor of a hair-raising churning through a family and friendship-wrecking series of experiences, galloping to an ultimately unsatisfying ending - all at once too brief and almost painful. It would have been better if the author perhaps took a break, thoroughly re-read the book to the point of the return from the multi-century foxhunt, and then carefully continued toward bringing the book to a satisfying close. If the point is, as it seems to be, for the main character to apply lessons learned from history, the same care and attention should have been paid to this portion of the book as was clearly taken in the first two-thirds.
The main character, a middle-aged woman named Pryor (which is a historical name in her family), but for some unknown reason goes by the nickname "Cig," is believable and interesting. She's widowed, self-contained, strong, and raising two teenagers with more than a little aplomb. But she's not perfect - far from it - but her flaws are not unmanageable, nor do they detract from her likability. The ensemble cast of characters is varied and authentic, and the plot for the most part flows smoothly and is easy to follow. Even when the story becomes a bit implausible, it is still very well written and therefore believable, which is the point, I believe.
The conflict that becomes the heart of the story between two sisters is very real, and Cig has long believed there is a truth that her sister Grace is hiding about what happened. In the end, the truth surprises everyone, and I'm not sure it's fully realized or acknowledged. There's a lot of crying and screaming and fit-throwing, which may or may not be cathartic. There are promises made, but whether they are fulfilled is anyone's guess. Some of that truth remains elusive, I think. There could have been more to this story, in that way, as well as others.
The historical characters were endearing and not stereotypical. The scenes during this time were very well done - you can feel the snow on your cheeks, the cold, the sunny breeze on a warm day. There are no laments about the clothing, thank goodness (a personal pet peeve). Cig sees a lot in this time to appreciate and is respectful of the differences, so she learns and adapts very well. I really love this part of the book. You can really see her starting to grow, especially as she feels herself being drawn to the people she meets, some perhaps a bit more than others. She is really good at giving people their due, and is able to develop true friendships, bonding with not only her family members but with several others.
Unfortunately the author attempts to bind the historical story with the modern one in an ultimately dissatisfying way.
Violence is depicted realistically in the book, especially in historical context, where the author shines with not only making it believable, but applicable to the plot and characters. Sadly, the depictions of violence seem either dated, gratuitous, or just wrong in the modern-day (1999) portion.
The title of the book, "Riding Shotgun," is quite dated, trite, and really doesn't apply to anything that happens in the book other than one or two references to "riding shotgun through history" - and what does that even mean? Especially in the context of this book. The main character travels back in time on horseback, where there is no "riding shotgun." It's an inept analogy at best. Books have been re-titled and this one needs to be.
I honestly wonder if the author might revisit the story and write the ending differently, too. If so, the entire book would make a fabulous movie. As a writer, I'm tempted to pen a bit of transformative fiction myself here. As it is, the last quarter of the book brought it down from an otherwise five stars to four. Still a very good read, as I said, but the story that could have been written - like the truth that Cig seeks - is still out there.

Content Warnings:
Moderate: Domestic abuse, Emotional abuse, and Physical abuse
Minor: Emotional abuse
There is minor emotional abuse that I attribute mainly to plot devices that are extremely dated now. However, toward the end, there is a violent physical altercation between two members of the Hunt Club, a married couple that is extremely disruptive, dangerous, and ends up involving others.

No one remarks on the fact that this altercation is essentially an attempted murder right in front of everyone. No assistance or health care is even offered to the injured person, who bears heavy marks and is clearly injured; they all just get on their horses and begin the event after the fight is stopped. As I said, this part is very dated and unsatisfactory all around.

Friday, April 05, 2024

The Legend of Billie Jean's Heartfelt Brilliance: A Retrospective

I found this gem that can be watched for free on the YouTubes: The Legend of Billie Jean

Now, if you haven't watched this movie recently, or heaven forbid you never heard of this movie, run, don't walk, and WATCH IT RIGHT NOW.

This movie has aged incredibly well. In the day, I don't think certain people took it seriously. But if you were a traumatized young woman, and there were a lot more of us than perhaps people realize - Billie Jean was like a bolt of lightning. She shone like a gilded arrow soaring straight into the heart of the patriarchy. And we loved her for it.

The first five minutes of the movie are like a cold water bath in lost memory: the skinny clothes, the easy acceptance of poverty, the sweat, the feel of the wind in your hair on the back of a speeding open two-wheeled vehicle. I'd forgotten none of us wore bras. I'd forgotten we used to run around half-naked because there was no such thing as central air-conditioning. I'd forgotten how much of life we spent outside. (Would you have stayed inside those brown-paneled, dimly-lit, cigarette-smoke-filled, claustrophobic rooms? Me neither.) I also forgot just how inundated we were with sexual harassment that crossed physical boundaries, and how little equipped we were as young women and girls to deal with it. But it's there, right there, in all its obtuse ugliness.

This movie was one of the most realistic depictions of what life was like for people like me who grew up in the South in the 1970s in cinema - right up there with Virgin Suicides. Some people missed that. I read somewhere that "girls wouldn't have cut their hair like that just to be like her. That's unrealistic and made the movie seem [more trite etc etc]." Of course this was written by a male. And tell that to the thousands of people who watched the movie and then went straight into their bathrooms and cut off their own locks. Like I did. I hadn't had short hair for nearly a decade at that point, but something about BJ's shorn head called out to my recently bereaved soul: I had given a baby up for adoption, and almost no one knew how much I still grieved, nearly two years after the fact. Cutting my hair defiantly in the mirror did lead me to a beautician's chair to clean up the mess I'd made but the gesture meant something. Not for nothing did people in past centuries shave their heads when something awful happened. There's something purifying about this act, a ritual casting out of inner demons, a denial to the world that "everything's all right."

Sometimes everything is absolutely not all right, and this is one way to get people to pay attention and look a bit closer. Sometimes it's the only way to signal things are not all right. Sometimes we don't have words. Sometimes we just feel compelled to do something physically to ourselves, and we may not even know why, but it's a call we absolutely must answer. It's more than a "new look;" we're ready to step into a new identity, and take on the world.

Brava, lady. You go.

A reviewer took issue with Billie Jean's response to the 14-year old Putter's beginning of her period. The writer clearly completely misunderstood Billie Jean's advice to "lie down and take it easy" as "fear"?! Nothing of the kind. Unlike many depictions of this event in cinema both before and since that reflects the negativity about it more common in the real world, Billie Jean celebrated Putter's getting her period. "That's wonderful!" she crowed, and promptly took Putter to the dock for a ceremonial (and practical) bath, wrapping her tenderly in a big towel. When she said, "Lie down and take it easy," it was a way of saying, "Job well done! You've earned some well-deserved rest after that crazy thing we all just went through that you handled amazingly well." There was not a trace of fear in any of their responses. To think otherwise shows how little that reviewer was paying attention.

Paying attention is exactly what Billie Jean was doing. The things that happened to her and to her brother caused her to stop, pause, and consider carefully a most human and reasonable response. She shrugged off the violence that had been done to her own person (and god did that feel familiar); she just wanted the people who were responsible for wrecking her brother's scooter to pay for the repairs. It was that simple. She didn't ask them for respect, or admission of guilt. She just wanted her brother to have his scooter back in working order. But in so doing, she forced people to look at themselves and consider their actions. To recognize they had done wrong. And unfortunately, when some people do that, they lash out at the messenger: in this case, Billie Jean and her friends who supported her.

Sound familiar?

Some people have learned nothing in the nearly 40 (!) years since this movie was released. That damn film was ahead of its time; its themes of social justice, anarchic movements, and anti-capitalism seemed pragmatic and real at the time. After all, "Fair is fair!" And the fuckers eventually got what was coming to them. It's almost eerie how the youth as depicted in this movie instantly got the message that Billie Jean was sending. Surely these were lessons the world was learning. Right? Right?! ... Then again the whole damn 80s were a tease that things would be better and life was going to make more sense in the coming years. But not all of us were evolving. Not everyone wanted fairness and freedom and happiness. We underestimated the sheer tenacity and meanness of the patriarchy, unfortunately.

At the end of the movie, Billie Jean and her brother are taking off for long-talked-of Vermont. Christian Slater's character notices a red snowmobile that quite obviously reminds him of his lost Honda Elite, and he stops to admire it, proving that in spite of their troubles, his interest in fast and shiny things hasn't been destroyed. Billie Jean has her eyes on the road. She seems to hope things are going to be all right, but there's a wariness, a hard-won wisdom that she wears like a veil. She's beautiful and strong and represents all things good. But she's alone, except for a younger person she'll have to watch over and keep out of trouble. She's every single-mother and older-sister out there. One wonders where Lloyd is, what their parting was like. One hopes Putter and Ophelia are okay. But we don't know. All we can do is hope.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse 1808–1890 French novelist and editor)

Remembering Legend of Billie Jean: The First Great Female Superhero Movie
28 Things We Learned from the Legend of Billie Jean Commentary
44 Facts About the Movie The Legend of Billie Jean
Cult Classic Legend of Billie Jean Still Relevant Today
Wikipedia entry "The Legend of Billie Jean"

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Book Review: Greta by J. S. Lemon

A sweet coming-of-age story about a young girl who experiences some of the things we all do growing up, and some very unusual things indeed. Greta and her best friend Lotti share a deep bond of friendship, and are joined by their creative friend Astrid in navigating some of the trials and tribulations of middle school - social events, homework, and boys. They feel the thrills of being noticed by someone they like, and then the disappointment and stress when things may not go the way they hoped. One of them is even sexually assaulted by the person she thought was a nice admirer, which coincides with changes that start inside her body but are soon noticeable to everyone.

The theme of the story is growth and change, sometimes painful, and in a small way, loss of innocence and becoming more aware of the dangers that can beset young girls. Greta feels herself growing stronger and more able to deal with teasing and ostracizing, and even defends - loudly - her friend Lotti when she is called names by some cruel peers. While in some ways Greta is finding change hard to deal with, especially the prospect and preparations for the upcoming family move to a larger house, the ways that she adapts and even embraces the visible and invisible changes happening to her body and personality are admirable and engaging.

The language of the book is simple and relatable, and I think middle grade readers will really enjoy the story. Thanks to NetGalley and publisher MacMillan for the advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Book Review: The Salt Bairns, by Cynthia Tidrick

The Salt BairnsThe Salt Bairns by Cynthia Tidrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of THE SALT BAIRNS and have to say, it was one of the most meaningful and insightful fiction reads I've been privileged to find in a very long time. Cynthia Tidrick has constructed a magical world, full of shadows and vice, and yet the colors and characters within the narrative surround each other and the protagonist with genuine feeling and knowledge. The reader cannot help but become swallowed up in their world, traveling onward in a rich and memorable adventure as the story unfolds. The author's unusual turns of phrase are yet clear and so beautiful, with atmospheric descriptions that enable the reader to grasp deeper meaning and understanding of the many layers in this tale. Skillful and sometimes shocking illustrations add to the fantastical quasi-realism of the work. Five glorious stars.

*Thank you to the Author for the advance read copy.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 11, 2023

Book Review: Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury by Drew Gilpin Faust

Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at MidcenturyNecessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury by Drew Gilpin Faust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Parts of this book seemed like a mirror to my own past, even though I am at least ten years younger than the author. However, I did grow up in Virginia and the attitudes and experiences she describes are so familiar that I could hear them in my head as I read the words. Her writing could have been just as applicable to my older cousins, who also participated in some of the civil rights volunteer work as Dr. Faust. I looked up to them as if they held all the wisdom of how to navigate the rapidly changing world.
But, alas, of course they did not.
To her credit, the author was very often in the right place at the right time to be a part of some history-making events, such as the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and Dr. King's commencement address to the Bryn Mawr Class of 1966. She convincingly portrays her own engagement with civil rights and anti-war efforts in language that is authentic and compassionate. I do try to hear the voices of baby boomers who may be the exceptions rather than the rule because as a whole, this generation largely abandoned those early dreams for capitalist-inspired ones.
And though the author clearly has her faults, I am grateful to be able to read her story in the context of the times it describes as events unfolded. The writing is crisp and self-aware, even self-critical at times. Through it all this is a story of a young woman coming of age in an era of unquestionable privilege, who slowly realizes that it is her call to do what she can to do better. She fearlessly travels with a student group behind the Iron Curtain to wage peace and converse with real individuals living in completely foreign situations. She takes what she learns and applies it, even realizing that college may not be her best option for ultimately fighting for social justice and peace, but she does it anyway because it is expected, and she does sprinkle those at-the-time radical ideas throughout her college papers and essays.
I like this young near-radical Drew Gilpin. Seen through the lens of years, Dr. Faust does a remarkable job of making her real and relatable. I'd just like to know what comes next, how she navigated the years after graduation, as she assumed her career as a historian and author. Perhaps she'll humor us with that story soon.

Thanks to NetGalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for offering the free review copy in exchange for an honest review.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Review: Five Rules for Tomorrow's Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change, and a Disappearing Middle Class

Five Rules for Tomorrow's Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change, and a Disappearing Middle Class Five Rules for Tomorrow's Cities: Design in an Age of Urban Migration, Demographic Change, and a Disappearing Middle Class by Patrick M. Condon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I participated in a workshop of Dr Condon's back in 2020, and purchased a copy of his book as a result. Although his ideas, radical they may be, seem to be based in common sense, in my opinion he places an unrealistic amount of confidence and reliance on the practice of urban design. He makes an excellent case for letting communities grow and prosper organically. He makes absolutely no case for urban design offering any sort of relief from draconian zoning and other controls that make it next to impossible for organic economic livelihoods to prosper - other than to state his belief that it should.
Well, maybe it 'should,' but it simply isn't likely.
Having worked in land use and zoning most of my adult life, and finally breaking free of it a few years ago in favor of a more useful career in parks planning and improvements, I fully agree that zoning is the problem. But hidden behind these codes, and strongly backing them, is the belief by many politicians and other decision-makers that in order for communities to prosper, and even survive in many cases, we must bend to the wishes of the wealthy and powerful. Land owners, bankers, developers, builders, real estate brokers. Zoning conforms exactly to what these power-wielders want, and the actual needs and goals of the community be damned. See, it is relatively easy to change zoning to allow what the powerful desire. All you need is a couple of public hearings and a relatively skillful technical writer. But to change it to meet community needs? To address a lack of viable commercial space for small producers and artisans? To build a school? To - gasp - require affordable housing? The well-funded powerful will rise up and fan the flames of fear, distributing "studies" and "information" and suddenly your public hearings are full of angry voices shouting that their tax dollars do not support such changes. The fearful can be manipulated like sheep, and almost never disappoint. And so, time and time again, proposals that would actually improve the lot of the not-so-powerful fail, never getting past the starting line of a majority vote in favor.
Condon barely acknowledges these truths, and so his argument is missing a major component: that of a real solution. Urban designers can potentially design all sorts of small spaces and interlinked uses, with lovely gardens and aesthetically pleasing structures that assuredly take into account the health, safety, and welfare so jealously guarded under the purview of zoning. Still, his examples are interesting, even if they could never be transmogrified to the modern US without a failure of the powerful. Which, unfortunately, means we are still looking for answers.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Review: The Snow Hare

The Snow Hare The Snow Hare by Paula Lichtarowicz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a magnificent story.

Generally, I shy away from stories about people during war, especially if it seems there may be character death. I’m easily triggered by famine, torture, and painful things involving children, so I was a bit anxious from other descriptions and reviews, and as I read, there were hints that these things might be ahead.

The writing was so beautiful I could not stop, however. Lena is a rational, intelligent woman who grew up quickly under circumstances not of her own making. She shakes her fist at a world that continues to deal her shock and disappointment, and endures buffeting by winds of a changing world. But she is rarely afraid, and stands up for herself, choosing her own path when she can - rightly or wrongly. She finds joy and sorrow, love and laughter, and even in her regrets she is still true to her own way of looking at life.

The characters are endearing, even when they’re mildly frustrating. You can clearly see the life they live.

I do not want to spoil and it’s difficult to write about this story without doing so. Do yourself a favor and dive in. Like Lena, Grigori, and the ones they love, you will learn that the secret to life is to fully live in the present moment. To capture the sight of a bird soaring up to the clouds, to savor the taste of delicious food on your tongue, to wrap yourself in the warmth of your loved one. The author delivers these heady experiences and more, and you will not regret living in their world for the time you spend there.

Five glorious stars. This is how literary fiction is done.

***Thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown, and Co. for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.***

View all my reviews

Monday, April 03, 2023

Book review: Funeral Songs for Dying Girls

I absolutely loved this book. It was written with a clarity and authenticity that is simply too rare these days.

Winifred Bright lives with her father in the cemetery where he works, among quiet tree-lined paths, headstones, and ghosts - real and perceived. When her 16th birthday plans don't quite go over as planned, she encounters an actual spirit in the cemetery, who leads her on an inner journey to self discovery and the opportunity to find closure over her mother's death.

A coming of age story, beautifully crafted, with unique plot twists and finely drawn characters. I was absolutely enchanted with this book and will definitely be looking for more by this author.

***Thank you to NetGalley and Tundra Books for the Advance Reader Copy***

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Finding Hope in a Confusing, Sad, and Painful World

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying TimesThe Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times by Jane Goodall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was definitely a needed read, for me at least, at this time. So much to worry about. So much to consider and sometimes it seems so overwhelming.

But Goodall's calm, reasoned, considered responses to the interview questions that became this book and the format it is written in bring the reader into her world. You can see the beautiful trees outside, feel the quiet hush of water flowing in a nearby brook. You can feel what worries Jane, too, and observe as she works through it with patient persistence.

Jane describes her five reasons for believing that we will survive as a species and the planet will recover and thrive, in spite of everything that is going on with climate change and desperate conditions everywhere. They are logical and make a lot of sense, and will give you a lot of food for thought.

Highly recommended for everyone who cares about the planet. It will give you renewed hope, which is what we all need right now. And it will show that like little drops of water that eventually wear down whole mountains, it's our collective actions that will save this planet.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 19, 2022

Book review: Evening in Byzantium, by Irwin Shaw

Evening in ByzantiumEvening in Byzantium by Irwin Shaw
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A writer's book, Evening in Byzantium is an excellent story. In spite of what others have said, this work provides an elucidating window into the turbulent yet laconic past, to a time when, even as now, people thumb their noses at good advice, and act out against their own interests. Highest recommendations.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Book Review: Late, Late in the Evening, by Stephen Grant


LATE, LATE IN THE EVENING, by the British philosopher Stephen Grant, is a beautiful book, a fast-moving but thoughtful and thought-provoking read. Imprisoned for his writings, the poet Gabriel Dorfman is allowed out on a sort of work-release program, and becomes the chauffeur to an influential party boss on his wealthy estate. The Britain of this story has become a fascist totalitarian state, with all of the hard-line and predictable but nuanced issues you'd expect, presented in lyrical but simple prose. Robot armies and microchipped prisoners. Thugs who "keep the peace". Desperate members of the resistance. And the secret lives of those in power. Gabe is swept up in a whirlwind of competing interests, but finds himself torn between loyalty to the past and his principles, and a new love that satisfies not only his body, but his mind. Through it all, the goal is to just to stay alive - or is it?  I don't want to give anything away, but the skill with which the author handles the knife's edge upon which his characters walk is quite breathtaking. A deeply satisfying read that has continued in my mind since I read it. Highly recommended.

Originally posted at Goodreads.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Book Review: Potager, by Georgeanne Brennan

PotagerPotager by Georgeanne Brennan

A gloriously lovely book, full of recipes and ideas, illustrated with lush photographs of provincial gardens and simply prepared foods. Will keep it handy in the kitchen for inspiration when not feeling excited about the cooking ;)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Still Summer Harvest Muffins

It is late in August, nearly September, and even though fall is beautiful and I'm sure I'll relish it when it comes, like always, I do tend to feel a bit wistful this time of year, and savour each hot, humid afternoon like a cat, stretching its paws towards the sunlight playing on the trees outside our window. The berries from the market still give off that lovely aroma of fresh, ripe summer days. There is nothing cleaner than biting into the crisp flesh of sour apples, and crunchy walnuts are my topping of choice, lending a dark smoothness to my summer desserts.

Perhaps these fruit-and-nut emblazoned muffins will entice you to savour the last of summer's sweetness. Perfect for afternoon tea with a slice of melon or a few figs, and a dollop of butter.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Wipe lard into muffin tin.
Chop approx. 1 c ripe strawberries, hulled, into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces.
Chop 1 ripe green apple, mix into strawberries, set aside.
Chop 1/2 c. whole or halved walnuts, set aside.

Sift together:
1 1/2 c unbleached flour
1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp mace (or nutmeg if you don't have it)
1/2 tsp cardamom
2 tbsp raw unbleached sugar

In a separate bowl, whisk together:
2 eggs
2 tbsp plain greek yogurt
3 tbsp honey
1/4 c vegetable oil
3/4 c milk
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp flax seeds

Combine wet to dry ingredients and blend well. Fold in fruit and nuts and stir.

Drop by 1/3-to-1/2  cupfuls into greased muffin tin cups.

Bake for 6 minutes at 400, then reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake for approximately 16 to 18 more minutes until tops are risen and slightly browned.

Yield: 1 dozen