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John Wilcock New York Years, 1954-1971, Ethan Persoff & Scott Marshall. A collection of comic strips from Boing Boing, illustrating the career of John Wilcock. He started the Village Voice and knew a lot of interesting people so this is quite entertaining, and I like the drawings. Current strips are here.

The Wild Party, Joseph Moncure March, Art Spiegelman illustrations. A narrative poem from 1928 describing a night among louche theater people. It was widely banned but still a big success. It's powerful not just for being daring but also wonderfully written, and I say this as someone who doesn't like poetry much. I can't stop thinking about the ending. Art Spiegelman did expressive illustrations for this 1994 version in a woodcut style reminiscent of Lynd Ward.

My Mistake, Dan Menaker. He worked for the NYer for years and later was in publishing. He has a wry sense of humor and I like how the book blends him talking about his family history and some tragedy and insights into himself with descriptions of work and the interesting people he worked with. He confirms that Shawn was an asshole and that William Maxwell was wonderful (I'd have cried if the latter wasn't true - So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of my favorite books.)

After I finish the Menaker book, I think I'll read another of Diana Athill's memoirs.
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Uh oh, I'm way behind, so here's what I've been reading:

The Patrick Melrose Novels Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn. Five stars. I'm not one of those people who can't enjoy books where the characters are un-likeable, luckily, because so far nearly everybody in the first book of this omnibus is horrible. But they're all interesting and entertaining so I'm really enjoying it.
Mother's Milk started out a bit too twee but is getting more interesting as it goes along. Right now I'm feeling like the theme is how everybody is trying to recover from their parents.

Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. Five stars. Breq continues to kick butt and take names in her quest to exact revenge and promote justice in the universe, and does a great job of it. By the end of the book I was pretty much in love with her because of her intelligence, bravery, and sense of justice. What I also liked in this one was the emotional bonds and conflicts among the characters, and I was genuinely worried about a character I'd come to love who isn't human. That was part of the point of the book, I think.
The ending felt just a bit rushed and tidy, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the series as a whole.
Although apparently in the other books it was made clear that there are two genders in the Radchaai universe, though "she" is used for both of them, and other reviewers felt it was clear that Seivarden is male, I continued to think of everyone as female and got a kick out of that.

A Slight Trick of the Mind, Mitch Cullin. Two stars. Either I'm missing something, or this went nowhere. Probably the former. It was also one of the saddest books I've ever read. I knew it wasn't an actual mystery, but I guess I expected more. It was very atmospheric and I couldn't put it down but ultimately no answers, no resolution. Very disappointing.

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, Steve Luxenberg. Three stars. One of those book length magazine articles, though it kept me reading.
His mother always described herself as an only child, but in her last years her kids discovered she’d had a sister who spent most of her life in a county hospital for the insane. Since this son is an investigative reporter he researched the family secret.
He got his aunt’s medical records and learned she was diagnosed as both retarded and schizophrenic. Professionals he consulted agreed she was certainly low IQ and clearly was paranoid and unstable, though “schizophrenic – undifferentiated” isn’t a category used today.
Other documents led him to a cousin who knew both sisters. He’d never known her because she and his mother had a falling out. This woman survived the Holocaust, the only one in her family, with false papers and worked as a translator for the Nazis. After the war she came to the US and got to know his mother. They fell out because she didn’t approve of how his mother treated the sister.
There are a lot of twists and turns, some more interesting than others. He’s shocked by some things that seem mundane, like his grandparents being first cousins. At the end he tries to tie Annie’s fate to the Holocaust somehow, which didn’t really work.
Despite medical records describing how difficult his aunt was, he sometimes seems ashamed and judgmental of his mother’s choice to keep Annie a secret. As the daughter of someone with two siblings who caused a lot of family grief and who distanced herself from them, I'm not shocked by this story or by the mother’s decision.

A Quiet Life, Beryl Bainbridge. Five stars. Stunningly great depiction of a dysfunctional family in grim post war Britain, from the point of view of the repressed and awkward teenage son.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel. Four stars. Another book length magazine article, but one I enjoyed very much. This traces the history of "the longitude problem", the need for sailors to know their location as they traveled across the globe. Calculations could be made using the moon and stars but they weren't accurate and this method was useless under cloudy skies. In 1714 England's Parliament offered a huge prize to anyone who could devise a device to measure longitude. So many useless ideas were proposed that the board managing the reward didn't even meet for 23 years. Then John Harrison, an uneducated clock maker, submitted his invention. Although championed by Edmund Halley and other astronomers and scientists, it took years for him to be recognized.
This book is about that process, which had more twists and turns than you'd imagine, rather than about clock mechanics. I would have enjoyed learning about that but I can see it's outside the scope of this book. One thing I enjoyed was mentions of the longitude problem in popular culture - Gulliver's Travels mentions various impossibilities such as the discovery of perpetual motion and of the longitude, and one of the plates of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress shows a lunatic in an asylum writing a solution to longitude on a wall.

Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Forster. Five stars. I enjoyed this very much - Forster is a writer whose other work I've liked, and De Maurier was an interesting, complex person who Forster does a great job of interpreting. du Maurier's family cooperated fully and she lived in the era when letters flourished.
She grew up in an artistic family. Her grandfather was the writer and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier, best known for the novel Trilby. Her father was the actor-manager Gerald du Maurier who happened to be brother of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies whose sons were the models for Peter Pan. Her parents had a happy marriage and her mother tolerated Gerald's dalliances with actresses; when Daphne became aware of this at the same time her father was becoming strict with his adolescent daughters, her hatred of this hypocrisy helped to drive a wedge between them.
All her life she felt she was a boy but consciously put that aside and referred to the "boy in a box" in letters. Later in life she became interested in Jungian psychology and the idea that we all have a shadow personality that drives us and must come out some way, which she found meaningful to explain the "boy in a box" and how it helped her writing. She made real people into fantasies, then wrote stories about them. At the end of her life when her creative muse left her, she became deeply depressed until her death.
She deeply loved her husband, who she married after they'd known each other three months, yet craved solitude and their happiest years were during and after the war when he was overseas or working in London and she was nearly alone in Cornwall. When he retired, tensions flared. After writing Rebecca she became obsessed with a house there and was able to get a long term lease on it, though she never owned it, and eventually had to move, which was a blow.
She had passionate feelings for several of women, most notably the actress Gertrude Lawrence, and Ellen Doubleday the wife of her publisher, and although letters make cleaer that the relationship with Lawrence was physical, she was vehement in letters that she was not a lesbian. This makes me think that if she'd lived in a later time she would not have come out as trans or bisexual. In some ways she was very straight laced - shocked at her son feeding and doing diaper changes for his kids, very disapproving that her daughters both divorced and remarried. She had stuck it out through her difficult marriage so why couldn't they?
She and her family have all kinds of special slang, like the Mitfords, so that's fun. Lesbians are Venetians, sex is waxing, and the act of intercourse is Cairo - she writes a friend that Cairo is now over between her and her husband and she never liked it anyway (but later seems to be trying, in her writings, to figure out how important sex is in relationships.)

At Last, Edward St. Aubyn. The last of the Patrick Melrose novels, in which we find our hero at his mother's funeral. Finally. He's come through some more self inflicted damage, this time alcohol related, and spent a while in rehab. We see the action from the point of view of various characters and there's more action than you'd expect at a funeral, but it's all satisfying and a lot of it's funny. Underlying it all is seems to be the point that a parent's cruelty, or love, is the thing that lasts forever.

Instead of a Letter: A Memoir, Diana Athill. I'm starting a project to read down my many unread biographies and memoirs. I'm not familiar with Athill but will read just about any memoir that looks interesting and am enjoying it a lot. She writes about her family and the privilege in which she grew up with an awareness of how lucky she was both to be unaware of poverty till her family's fortunes changed (and it was genteel poverty at that) and to have had the memories of time spent at her grandparent's estate.
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I finished Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and really enjoyed it. Claudia is dying, looking back on her long and eventful life. She's prickly, not much of a mother. She's always been a woman who's done what she wanted. She thinks about history, people she's loved, people who were part of her life and have become part of her. Some relationships were difficult or unconventional but all part of life's rich tapestry.

Her memories of childhood, war years when she was a correspondent in Egypt, motherhood, her writing career - all are vivid and evocative. I loved this book.

Then I read The Girl with All The Gifts, M. R. Carey. I usually hate zombie stories but this one had so much more going for it. The relationships among the characters were what make it so good, and I'm still thinking about them, wondering what happened to them. It reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I had some problems with the ending that I won't detail. I feel a bit bad that the gruesome and cruel aspects of the story didn't bother me much but I had a hard time with the road trip part, where there's so much danger and suspense.

Now I'm reading The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn. I'm not one of those people who can't enjoy a book if the characters are unlikeable which is a good thing because nearly everyone is horrible. But very entertaining - why are they doing the things they do? what are they going to do next?
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Finished this: Now You See Me, S. J. Bolton. I do like a good psychotic killer but somehow this one strained my credulity. It was a good read, though, and the twists and turns (a couple I saw coming, others were surprising) were very entertaining. I'm enjoying going back over the bits where an omniscient narrator shared information, though in the very first one there was foreshadowing that didn't actually pay off.

However I have a hard time overlooking these annoying cliches:
- The detective protagonist and narrator is messed up, disturbed by something in her past. No friends.
- She takes stupid chances (NO DON'T GO AFTER THE KILLER ALONE!), conceals info she should be sharing (but that's kind of the point of the book, I suppose.)
- She and another detective immediately take a dislike to each other so you know they're going to hook up.

It's hard to imagine Lacey Flint as a continuing character after this book though apparently it's the first in a series. I may be curious enough to look for more by this writer. I may not.

Last week I started Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively but have not got very far with it. I'm liking it so far and I want to finish so I can read The Girl With All the Gifts which a friend just lent me.
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Now You See Me, S. J. Bolton.

I do like a good psychotic killer but somehow this one strained my credulity. It was a good read, though, and the twists and turns (a couple I saw coming, others were surprising) were very entertaining. I'm enjoying going back over the bits where an omniscient narrator shared information, though in the very first one there was foreshadowing that didn't actually pay off.

However I have a hard time overlooking these annoying cliches:
- The detective protagonist and narrator is messed up, disturbed by something in her past. No friends.
- She takes stupid chances (NO DON'T GO AFTER THE KILLER ALONE!), conceals info she should be sharing (but that's kind of the point of the book, I suppose.)
- She and another detective immediately take a dislike to each other so you know they're going to hook up.

It's hard to imagine Lacey Flint as a continuing character after this book though apparently it's the first in a series. I may be curious enough to look for more by this writer.

Not sure what I'm going to read next. Last night after I finished this nothing looked appealing. I'm leaning toward fiction.
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I finished Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, Jonathan Gould, and give it five stars.
Yes, I'm that person who "hates" the Beatles. Well, I don't exactly hate them. I like some of their songs, but I've heard them all way way way too many times. If I could not hear them for 20 years or so they might sound fresh again. In fact occasionally I hear one I haven't heard in a long time and like it - that happened last week with "Hey Bulldog". Mainly I hate how people, especially those my age, think they're the be all and end all of popular music. They're good, but there's a lot of music I like much more. I'll admit, there are a lot of their songs I do hate. Mostly ones by Paul.

So they came along when I was 8 or 9 and I instantly loved them and along with my friends obsessively listened to their records and argued over which was the cutest. But then I discovered the Rolling Stones and the Beatles went into the big pile of "other stuff I like". By that time my mom was saying how cute they were, like choirboys, and that kind of put the kibosh on them.

It's been interesting, as an adult, to look back on that time and learn about adult stuff that was going on. I knew Elvis had caused a ruckus but he was old hat by the time I was aware of music. This book describes all of that - the music that influenced the Beatles, the political and social zeitgeist. It has short biographies of everyone involved and how the relationships among the group functioned - how their original presentation of themselves as a group instead of individuals spoke to young people; how for a long time they each felt understood only by the other group members; the breakup.

It has a lot of information about how their songs and albums are structured, and about John and Paul's writing process, which I found really interesting. The author was a working musician and it shows.

I still don't want to hear any Beatles for another 20 years, though.

Things I have learned:
- John was the most middle class one - I'd thought he grew up in a slum, the child of a single mother. He fooled me with that working class hero album.
- Pet Sounds didn't do well commercially, though it made up for it later.
- I thought John sang "I Get By With a Little Help from my Friends".
- Richard Lester is American; Nik Cohn, British.
- The Beatles all admired The Band and their music.
- John was an even bigger prick than I'd though.

Now reading One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd, Jim Fergus. Here we have an interesting alternate history - apparently a Cheyenne chief really did suggest to the BIA that if the US would send 1000 white women to marry his braves, it would result in peace between the nations. This speculates on what would have happened, in the form of a journal and letters by one of them.

I'm afraid her voice isn't that of a 19th century woman, even one who has been sent to an asylum by her family for her promiscuity (living as the common law wife of a man whose status is beneath her and bearing him two children.) She's far too wordly and liberal minded about a black woman in the group and about the Indian spouses. One reviewer suggests the book would be more interesting if it were unclear whether she was unfairly persecuted by her family or if she was really crazy, and I agree. But I'm going to finish it.
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The Night Watch, Sarah Waters. Stories of several intertwined people. starting in post-war London and going backwards. In 1947 they're adjusting to post-war life. Someone remarks on how during the war, everybody was so kind and helpful to each other, just as in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the Rebecca Solnit book I read recently. As the book moves backwards in time various things are revealed. Each of the characters has their own secrets and I liked seeing how relationships changed – had changed – in ways I didn't expect. There were also great descriptions of wartime life – ambulance drivers, a huge fire.

I liked it a lot, though at the end I was frustrated, hoping it would circle back to 1947 and we'd see what became of the characters, if changes hinted at the end of the first section came to pass. I'm still thinking about all the characters, comparing now and then, and re-read the earlier chapters to glean hints. I like feeling this engaged by a book.

Spoilers here!
The scene where Kay is certain that Helen has been killed by a bomb, and rushes to the scene, is very exciting and well written - the way Mickie helps her, the description of the fire and the firefighters. But don't we know, the whole time, that she's going to find that Helen is perfectly fine - because she's with Julia? So it's kind of an anticlimax.

One thing that was really wrong was the suicide scene. It didn't work because we hadn't seen Alec before this, hadn't seen anything of his and Duncan's relationship. Had he always been impulsive, always been able to convince Duncan to go along with his harebrained schemes? And beyond that, it just didn't feel believable. "I've been called up - what am I going to do? I know, I'll kill myself - you too - and that will convince them that war is wrong!" "I say, that's a wizard idea!"

He's portrayed as an utterly passive character. After Fraser re-enters his life, we see him putting on Brylcream and leaving his shirt open, the way Fraser does. He moved in with Mr Mundy and is having some kind of sexual relationship - that he doesn't like - with him. So it's possible that his relationship with Alec was the same, and going along with the suicide idea is in character, but it wasn't written convincingly.

It's possible I missed it in the earlier chapters but I didn't quite understand what happened after Alec made the cut. What did Duncan do - get hysterial? make an attempt that failed? lose his nerve entirely? And because he'd signed the note he was able to be prosecuted for attempting suicide? I'm skimming through it again to find out.

Other reviewers complain about something else that I think she got absolutely right: how Viv and Reggie were still together in 1947 despite how he abandoned her at the hospital after the abortion. Why is she still with this cad? Because that's exactly what people do, make excuses and stay with someone even though they do awful things. Maybe she likes the excitement, maybe she likes having the freedom she wouldn't have in a full time relationship, maybe she really is in love with him. Now in 1947, maybe seeing Kay and remembering why she gave her the ring is going to galvanize her to end it. She does say to Fraser "...what she'd done for me, you see, made me think of something else, that I didn't want to remember." and she feels like she could do anything.



Now I'm reading Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, by Jonathan Gould. Yes, I'm that person who "hates" the Beatles. Well, I don't exactly hate them. I like some of their songs, but I've heard them all way way way too many times. If I could not hear them for 20 years or so they might sound fresh again. In fact occasionally I hear one I haven't heard in a long time and like it - that happened last week with "Hey Bulldog". Mainly I hate how people, especially those my age, think they're the be all and end all of popular music. It's mostly that there's a lot of music I like much more. Though I'll admit, there are a lot of their songs I do hate. Mostly ones by Paul.

So they came along when I was 8 or 9 and I instantly loved them and along with my friends obsessively listened to their records and argued over which was the cutest. But then I discovered the Rolling Stones and the Beatles went into the big pile of "other stuff I like". By that time my mom was saying how cute they were, like choirboys, and that kind of put the kibosh on them.

It's been interesting, as an adult, to look back on that time and learn about adult stuff that was going on. I knew Elvis had caused a ruckus but he was old hat by the time I was aware of music.

This book has a lot of great background about music and social stuff in the culture and how the Beatles picked up on it. All this time I thought John was the working class one - he fooled me with that album title - that he was illegitimate and grew up in a slum. Come to find he was the most middle class.
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Life Mask by Emma Donoghue took a while and I give it two stars, sadly. It's a long novel set in the 18th century, centering around three people who share a character trait of being indecisive and boring. Anne Damer is a an aristocrat and a sculptor; she's friends with Lord Derby who has for literally years had a chaste relationship with actress Eliza Farren who has risen from the lower classes to stardom on Drury Lane. Eliza is unwilling to make an arrangement with him while his ailing wife still lives. Anne and Eliza become friends but scurrilous rumors suggesting they are Sapphists threaten both their reputations.

The problem with the book isn't so much that it's long and boring, but that the characters aren't brought to life. Anne's thoughts and feelings are described more than the others. It's hard to see why Derby is so besotted with Eliza that he's willing to wait for her and why Anne is so drawn to her - we're told of her beauty and grace and Derby and Anne's delight in that, but beyond that she doesn't have any particular appeal. She's a comedy actress but doesn't come across as clever or funny, and her personality is vague - she says she's never felt love for anyone. She just goes through year after year of performances with a few thoughts about her fellow thespians, but there's no insight into how she prepares for a role or her feelings about acting. A character who's the center of admiration needs to sparkle. The backstage scenes are lifeless, and if Eliza is so appealing, why doesn't she have other stage door Johnnies?

Part of the plot is one of the character's lack of self knowledge, which accounts for some of the vagueness. This was mildly interesting to me in the sense of wondering in times when sodomy and Sapphism were judged harshly, how would would a person who realized they were drawn in that direction come to terms with it. But as a story, it was unsatisfying. There's much much more intrigue about various characters as the book winds along, but after a while I just didn't care.

Oh yeah they're based on real people, and the politics was interesting enough to make me go to Wikipedia for more background - so was Hugh Walpole - but that wasn't enough.

Now I've started The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey which I've had around for years. I don't know much about Richard III but in light of recent events, would like to learn more even if it's fiction.
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I finished My Side, Ruth Gordon's second autobiography, and enjoyed it very much, again. What an interesting life. I was impressed by how hard she worked and how open to life she was. There's a section about worrying and wishing for more that I found very moving. I don't think I'll read her third one which I have but haven't read, because that one looks like mostly anecdotes.

But I did feel like reading another book I've had around, Jed Harris, The Curse of Genius by Martin Gottfried, because of his relationship with Ruth Gordon and their son, Jones Gordon. Skimmed it, but it was interesting.

If the name isn't familiar, he was a theater producer and director, the wonder boy of the late '20 with four consecutive hits. But his career faltered and flamed out, eventually. He was a mean SOB who took great pleasure and pride in being a mean SOB - tormenting playwrights with false promises about producing their plays, insulting and belittling actors. He directed Laurence Olivier in "The Green Bay Tree" and on opening night he whispered to Olivier waiting in the wings, "Good-bye, Larry. I hope I never see you again." Olivier got his revenge by basing his portrayal of Richard III on Harris' movements, expressions, and appearance. George S. Kaufman famously said that when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have somebody throw his ashes in Jed Harris's face.

It's interesting to wonder what attracted Ruth Gordon, a woman of huge kindness, sweetness, and kindness to him. Probably some of it was his intelligence, and vice versa. He was hugely successful and Ruth liked the finer things in life, and in 1928 he was at the top of his game and sexy. She had Jones with him because she was afraid it was her last chance to have a baby after several abortions. Ruth got smart and moved on, but there was no shortage of women who were willing to put up with him. At least two who were involved with him suicided and he was blamed.

He was hateful to Jones, too. When Jones was four years old his father told a friend, "That kid's no good." Later, as a young man, Jones lived with him and endured constant criticism and thrown ashtrays.

Anyway, this book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Harris and I ended up enjoying it, while feeling sorry for anyone who ever tried to do business with him or be in any kind of relationship with him. What a monster. Of course he lived to be almost 80, the stinkers always do.

Now I'm reading Peter Pan because Ruth Gordon made her debut in it in 1915, and I've never read it though I saw the Mary Martin production several times and probably saw the Disney version. It's a bit twee for me, seems like it's more for nostalgic adults than children, but I like that there are truly scary parts.

After that I think I'm going to read Life Mask, a historical novel by Emma Donoghue. I didn't like her Slammerkin much but Room was one of the best books I've ever read.
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Now reading My Side, Ruth Gordon's second memoir. This one's more of an autobiography, starting with her first real job as an actress in a road company doing one night stands and travelling by train, trying to learn how to act. Marriage to a fellow actor who helped her, finally roles where she knew what she was doing and proved she could act. Lots of abortions, train rides, love affairs, funny stories, other actors. Loving this.
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I read this one on vacation, finished it on the plane coming home:

Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields, Simon Louvish. Five stars. A detailed biography that tries to get to the truth of all the stories Fields told about his origins, and to the man behind the persona he created. Louvish had access to voluminous scrapbooks that Fields kept of all his appearances and to family papers, and he did exhaustive research in to archives at the Library of Congress and other places to seek out old scripts for vaudeville skits, studio correspondence, etc., etc. There are a lot of transcripts of routines (some reviewers didn’t like this, which I found puzzling – surely if you’re reading this, you like Fields and get a kick out of these.) There are great portraits of Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, and others not well known today.

I hadn’t realized that Fields had such a long career as a juggler or that he’d traveled the world in that role for years before he became the comedian we recognize now. I liked it a lot and it was a perfect airplane and poolside book. The last part of Fields’ life wasn’t as well described as I would have liked but overall it was great. Apparently this was the go-to Fields biography for several years but now it’s been superseded by James Curtis’ W. C Fields. I’d like to read that one too.

Then I read this for the rest of the flight:
Swallow the Ocean, a Memoir, Laura M. Flynn. So-so memoir of growing up with a mother who was paranoid schizophrenic. Her father left and wasn’t able to get custody for several years. She does a good job of describing daily life with her mom and sisters, her mom’s many restrictions based on paranoid delusions, and the girls' ambivalence about wanting to get away and live with their dad. A running theme about a story the sisters make up about their dolls who are captives and the dolls' schemes to escape became a bit tiresome.

I had a lot of questions that didn't get answered: How did they learn to live "normal" lives where people have clean houses and don't have arbitrary restrictions on what they can eat? How has her childhood affected her life now - was she able to cast off much of the abuse, or does it haunt her? When her mother rammed her father's car after he got custody, did anyone press charges? (It didn't sound like it - why wasn't she prosecuted?) And finally, why do the girls still maintain contact with their mother? People I know who have relatives with this kind of intractable mental disease seem happy to have them out of their lives. I know it's complicated, but...

Not really "read" but enjoyed very much:
The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs and Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers, Robert Flynn Johnson. Anonymous and strange photographs of the sort I collect at flea markets and estate sales so what's not to like? I liked the first one so much I ordered his other books of photos.

Mad forever; a new collection of the best from Mad magazine. A Christmas gift from my dear husband who knows my unhealthy love of MAD magazine. I have a hardbound anthology from 1958 that was my dad’s and didn’t know there were any others till he got me this one from 1959 and another from 1960. I've read all of it before, many times, but the drawings still have the power to make me laugh.

Actual book I'm reading right now: Myself Among Others, Ruth Gordon. Gordon’s acting career started in 1915 and lasted till her death in 1985. She was smart as a whip and a keen observer of all the interesting show people she met, and all her friends were as interesting as she is. This memoir (the first of three), is a collection of anecdotes about them. I first read some of it in Vogue in 1970 and have read it several times; I guess it’s a comfort read for me. I thought of it after finishing the Fields biography because it covers some of the same years though their careers didn’t intersect at all.
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Today I finished The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. One of the best books of the year for me.

A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy live in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. Well, from the wisdom of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to tell grownups my thoughts, so I'm thinking "just tell them you don't want to _______" or "why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???"

Still, even as time passes, he keeps doing stupid shit and not being honest with people who could help him. Despite all that, it's a terrific read with a lot of great characters. Hard to read because there's so much loss and sadness; his mother's death pretty much guts him and that's just a start. I got frustrated by the slow pace which was partly my fault for reading it a bit at a time instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. Near the end the pace suddenly picks up and I could barely put it down, and the ending was utterly satisfying.

I just want to note that I loved Boris, and that I really liked how she used the dog that he had in high school who's still alive years later to show how little time has actually passed despite so many things happening, and how terribly young he really is.
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Burial Rites, Hanna Kent. Wow, what a great, evocative novel.
It's 1828 in Iceland. Three servants have been convicted of murdering of their master and another man, and condemned to death. Each has been sent to stay with a farm family to work as a servant until the details of their execution are settled.
Agnes Magnusdottir, older and more experienced in the world, is the one the others claim was the ringleader. She's assigned a priest to prepare her for her death.
This book is based on a real case. I gather that Agnes is kind of a Lizzie Borden figure in Iceland, in the sense that everybody's familiar with her. Some see her as purely wicked; others see more nuance. This book takes that stance. The author was an exchange student from Australia as a teen who learned about Agnes and got interested in her life. The story takes place over the months that Agnes stays on the farm, getting to know the priest and the farm family, helping with harvest and lambing, gradually telling her story to the priest and to us. It's very evocative of the hell of peasant life with all its hard work and misery. The weather, and ravens, are huge parts of the atmosphere, too. I couldn't put it down. Some mysteries are solved, others are not. Is Agnes a reliable narrator?
I had a few language quibbles: one character is named "Natan" and people are always remarking that he might as well have been named "Satan". But wouldn't they be speaking Icelandic? There are a couple of other things like this but not a problem.

Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo. Good mystery; a complicated plot with a lot of interesting characters. I'll be reading more of his books.

Innocent Blood, P. D. James. Reread. Psychological mystery about a young woman, adopted, who traces her parents and finds that they murdered a child. Her mother is about to released from prison and the daughter suggests they rent an apartment together for the months before she goes to Cambridge. There is more going on that she doesn’t know.
This is a great, suspenseful thriller but I have to say that the emotions of many of the characters are really weird and don't make a lot of sense. The ending, emotion-wise, was a mess that strained credulity, and I'm not talking about the sex. I didn't notice this the first time I read it. I ended up giving it 3 stars, down from 5 midway through.
Oh yeah there is also a carefully knit, meaningfully given sweater that is destroyed in a fit of anger, and this bothered me more than the child murder.

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Box Brown. A rather interesting graphic novel biography of the wrestler with acromegaly, with a lot of info about the mechanics of pro wrestling, some of which I knew, some I didn't. Andre wasn't a very nice guy, it seems, but he didn't have a great life because of his size and constant traveling for his job. He was one of a kind, that's for sure. It's not the kind of detailed art that I like but its rough style suited its subject.

The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo. A great, complicated mystery/thriller set in present day Norway, but the story has roots in WWII. I had to go to Wikipedia to read about what happened to Norway during that war: they were occupied by the Germans, and the Royal Family fled to England. Some Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Germans on the Eastern Front, or to work as nurses in their hospitals. After the war nine hundred of them were sentenced to jail as traitors.
Harry gets drawn into a mystery involving some of these people while doing surveillance tasks, and there's plenty more going on besides that. Betrayal, heartbreak, loss… all that and a fast paced mystery.

A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor. The objects are from the British Museum. I'm reading the essays at random. They're interesting little slices of history, many of regions I know nothing about. Very pleasant.

Hawaiiana: The Best of Hawaiian Design, Mark Blackburn. It's a book of values for collectors. I don't care about that but I love looking at pictures of old travel brochures with Hawaiian maidens, Hawaiian shirts, souvenirs, pineapple shaped ukuleles, etc.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy life in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. From my perspective of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to talk to grownups, so I'm thinking "Use your words! Just tell them you don't want to _______" or "Why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???" The slow pacing is partly my fault for reading it thirty minutes at a time during exercise instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. There are so many great characters. I'm enjoying it despite my gripes.

Now I Remember: A Holiday History of Britain, Ronald Hamilton. Brief histories of the rulers of Britain. I'm learning a lot about the Medieval ones that I don't know much about.

I'm still reading the last 4; I don't usually have so many books going at once.
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Faithful Place, Tana French. A novel posing as a mystery, very absorbing, dark, haunting. Sad, sad, sad, about broken people, broken families, what might have been. Disturbing for me because of horrible, horrible family stuff that I was lucky to miss but can barely stand to read about. I guessed the killer right away but had no understanding of the nuances of motivation until the very end when they were horribly made clear.

One of the best books of my reading year, although I wish I could stop thinking about the characters and their fates. I read a lot of mysteries and true crime and almost never am touched by them. Perhaps because for me the saddest thing is the haunted feeling of what might have been, and if only. This one hit me hard.

Now reading Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook, Andrew Doughty, because we're going there in January. I have a Maui guidebook by the same author and can barely stand his stupid jokes, smug bragging ("we're the ONLY guidebook that will tell you the truth about...", and opinions (things he raves about sound awful to me, things he dismisses are things I've enjoyed.) But despite that it has tons of maps and useful stuff.

After that I may read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which I just got at Goodwill.
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Fairyland : a memoir of my father, Alysia Abbot. I really enjoyed this. I lived in San Francisco during the years she describes and liked the way she anchors the story on Haight Street, and shows its changes by describing businesses that came and went. More than that, it's a beautiful account of growing up with a gay dad who may have done some irresponsible things but who loved her, completely and unconditionally. She does a good job of showing how her adoration of him as a little kid turned to self consciousness as she became a teen and wished he wasn't so, well, gay. And how despite his love, she did long for a mother and found surrogates. I was glad when she went off to her own adventures at college and could feel her ambivalence about having to come home and care for him as he was dying.

Now I'm reading Faithful Place by Tana French. Gripping so far.
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The Fault In Our Stars, John Green.

I can't say how well this book portrays teenagers with cancer because I'm not one, but a friend whose niece did have cancer really liked it and said he got it right. It really felt like he did - the guilt that Hazel, the 17 year old narrator, feels about that pain her death is going to cause her parents; her parents' smothering and hovering; her wise-beyond-her-years cynical attitude.

I liked it; both Hazel and Augustus are utterly charming and dear (and yet feel realistic because Augustus reminds me of my godson) and it's a sweet story. I was glad it was more than that, too, with some twists and turns and suspense.

The one thing I didn't like, ironically, was Augustus' feelings for Hazel. To instantly fall into a crush and after what, three or four get-togethers, want to do a life-changing thing for her - it's certainly romantic, but for me that's not love. They don't even know each other well enough to really be in love. It was almost like Twilight though not as creepy because at least Hazel is smart and interesting in ways Bella can only dream of. But at this point in the story, Augustus doesn't even know her well enough to know how smart, etc., she is.

I think you have to know somebody for a while and see them at their worst - these two don't even have any fights, for god's sake. Maybe this is a YA convention I'm not used to. Hazel's doubts and slow realization of her feelings felt more right. So the ending wasn't the glorious climax for me that I suppose it was for other people. That's okay, I found plenty to like. But I don't think I'll bother re-reading this and a friend's son wants it, so that works out fine.

Now I'm reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, and I'm really enjoying it. Been a while since I read a history book.
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Still feeling coldish and in need of light reading so I turned to graphic novels:

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir, Nicole J. Georges. Nicole finds out from a psychic that the father she thought was dead is actu-ally alive and her family has been lying to her all this time. It's a great premise that got me to buy this, but the actual story isn't that interesting. She jumps around from her troubled childhood with an abusive mom and stepfathers, her current unhappy relationship, and eventually the story of who her father really was and why it was a secret. The drawings are in the naive style that I like from Aileen Kominsky-Crumb but find annoying by anyone else, though she can really draw faces well.

The Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot. A well done story of a girl fleeing sexual abuse and looking for heaing in the Lake District, home of Beatrix Potter, whom she idolizes. Beautiful art.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel. Complicated, dense, fascinating memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional fami-ly with unhappy parents. Her father was ap-parently gay, but closeted, and seems to have been manic depressive. Bechdel describes her own childhood neuroses and her eventual coming out, and wonders if that triggered her father's death, which could have been a sui-cide. I read Dykes to Watch Out For for years (when I lived where I could pick up papers that carried it) and already loved her drawings but this is on a whole other level as she finds connections between various family events, literature, her own coming out, gay history, and more.

Stitches: A Memoir, David Small. Beautifully drawn coming of age story of a boy growing up in a loveless home. He has an operation for a cyst on his neck and finds out his parents have lied to him about that, and other things.

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama, Alison Bechdel. Probably not fair to compare them, but I can't help it. I didn't like this one as much as Fun Home. It was a lot more wordy and cerebral, and I admit that I just didn't understand a lot of the psychological terminology she used to tell the story. Also I read To The Lighthouse a few years ago and for me it was eh, so I didn't have that connection. I mean, I got the main point - and it was very poignant for me - that her mother just didn't have love to give and Alison figured out early that the best thing she could do was to not need anything. That's pretty much my relationship with my mother, so it meant a lot to me, but in some ways it was a simpler and less interesting story.
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I finished a couple of books I had going, because I've been sick and they were pleasant light reads. First Canary: The Story of a Family by Gustav Eckstein. An odd but charming book about a family of canaries and their relationships and experiences. Gustav Eckstein was a psychologist who studied animal behavior and I don't know if these canaries were part of his research or simply laboratory pets, but he observes them with both scientific interest and fond affection. It's sweet to think that in 1936 somebody could write a book about his family of canaries and get it published.

Today I got done with Hello World: A life in Ham Radio, Danny Gregory and Paul Sahre. Gregory got interested in ham radio after finding a scrapbook of QSL cards, the postcards hams send each other to confirm they talked, at a flea market. They're graphically appealing, usually with a picture or something about the place where the ham lives, and information about the call. This book is both a history of one man's multi-decade hobby, and of radio and amateur radio in general. It's interesting and the cards are fun to look at.

I was mildly frustrated that they didn't explain why it's called "ham radio" until pretty far along. Wikipedia has this: "The term "ham operator" was commonly applied by 19th century landline telegraphers to an operator with poor or "ham fisted" skills. Early radio (initially known as wireless telegraphy) included many former wire telegraph operators, and within the new service "ham" was employed as a pejorative term by professional radiotelegraph operators to suggest that amateur enthusiasts were unskilled. In "Floods and Wireless" by Hanby Carver, from the August, 1915 Technical World Magazine, the author noted "Then someone thought of the 'hams'. This is the name that the commercial wireless service has given to amateur operators...""

There are also various folk etymologies including one that the first radio station had the call letters HAM, etc.

Anyway, I enjoyed the words and pictures and it was a good read on hot days and when I had a cold and couldn't read something more demanding.
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Fledgling, Octavia Butler.

(Probably most of you have read this but if not, there will be spoilers.)

A young girl wakes in a cave, injured and in pain, with no memory of what’s happened to her. She slowly heals and makes her way outside, and uses her hypercharged senses to orient herself. Eventually she (and the reader) discovers she’s a vampire with the appearance of a young black girl.

The device of someone with amnesia is useful – she narrates her re-entry into the world. It’s fascinating to watch her slowly recover some of her memories of what she needs, how to care for herself. Later, when she encounters others of her kind – Ina – they explain everything to her about her family, her past, her people. I liked that too. They’re white, but she was a genetic experiment to combine human genes with Ina to create an Ina whose dark skin lets her tolerate sunshine and who can stay awake and think during the day. She’s 53, almost mature in Ina years.

She finds out she’s lost all her whole family, her male and female relatives who live in sex segregated communities, and her previous family of symbionts. She remembers nothing about them. There’s interesting suspense about who’s doing the killing and why. The twist: it’s not villagers with torches but racist vampires.

Along the way I realized I was uncomfortable with the relationships. Ina form families with human symbionts by biting them and using their venom as an addicting drug. After Shori leaves the cave she’s picked up on the road by a guy named Wright. She bites him in self defense and it’s pleasurable for him and draws him to her. That’s how it works. Once a human is bitten, the Ina can kind of control their mind, and after more bites they can be bonded to each other. Symbionts age more slowly than humans and don’t get sick, but they’re tied to their Ina and can die if their Ina does. They live wherever their Ina chooses, in a family of other Ina and symbionts. Many keep the same nocturnal hours. They might marry other humans in the Ina family and have children, though apparently there are Ina who see their symbionts as lesser creatures and who don’t treat them well, though we don’t see this.

There’s a lot of talk about how the symbionts have free will and can leave but we never see this actually happen. Wright accepts the bond without really understanding its implications. Shori bites Celia and Brook because they need to be taken in by one of her kind after they’ve lost their Ina (her father) but again, after enough bites they’re tied to her too. They had to choose to let her take them on but it didn’t seem like much of a decision for them – do each of them really want to do this? It feels like they just go along.

Theodora was the different one: Shori uses her as a random food source when she’s still learning what she needs, but realizes she’s drawn to her – her scent, her cluttered office etc. Theodora loves her, too, but how much of that is simply because of Shori’s venom?

Perhaps this is an allegory of slavery. Ina love their symbionts, they’re family, and they protect and care for them. But Ina need their blood to live, and symbionts aren’t free to go. Not really. So I think discomfort is what Butler wants us to feel.

It’s surprising to read reviews where people are offended because she looks like a child and has sex with human adults (and seems to be experienced with sex, I guess? It’s not really clear) which to them is pedophilia. I didn’t even think about this. I wasn’t visualizing her, I knew she was actually 53, pedophilia isn’t an issue for me, and this isn’t pedophilia. I think even if I had visualized her – something I rarely do when I read – it wouldn’t have bothered me. She’s 53, nearly mature. I guess the case could be made that she’s more like a young girl who hasn’t reached menarche – we know she’s not quite old enough to mate with other Ina, but old enough that her scent makes males uncomfortable. Not enough information.

What did make me uncomfortable was all the touching: hugging, snuggling up together in bed, back rubs, her need for constant touch from her symbionts and their willingness to give it. I felt skin fatigue just reading about it. But that’s my problem, not a problem with the book.

I was hoping there might be a twist, that her amnesia would turn out to be hiding something from her and from us. But once you get used to the Ina and their world, the plot is straightforward. I didn’t like Shori very much, truth be told. She’s sure of herself in a way that sometimes comes off as arrogance – that trips her up in the book, too, a few times. I didn’t like that she has this New Agey-name while nearly everybody else in the book has regular, familiar names. Maybe her mothers and other ancestors we never get to meet had similar names, but it was jarring.

It was an interesting, thought provoking book that I’ll be processing for a while. I’m sorry that Butler died before she could write a sequel. I’d very much like to know what happens to Shori and her family next.

Then I read nearly all of Child's Play by Reginald Hill on the plane. British mystery about a strange will and missing son and other complications, with Inspector Andy Dalziel.
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I finished The Crossing Places, by Elly Griffiths, a mystery from the POF of a woman archeology professor who gets involved with solving a murder. I liked it at first, interesting archeology stuff and gripping myster, though I was kind of irritated by a lot of mentions of her thinking about how fat she is. Probably not unrealistic but maybe a little too much. Anyway now that I've finished I have to say it was a big disappointment. The mystery just was solved a little too easily and with clues that the Mary Sue-ish protagonist discovered; there were some emotional things that didn't feel right (when she realizes someone she trusts may be untrustworthy, the description of her reaction didn't have the resonance I thought it needed; there are all these times when she's in danger but stupidly blabs to lots of people about her wherabouts and other things; something bad happens to a pet (and it was obvious this was coming) but she doesn't do anything to protect another pet. Finally it contained my most hated trope every and I'm going to say what it is because I think this book is so bad it should be spoiled: people have sex one time and a pregnancy results. At least the man isn't on his deathbed which is usually how this works.

Bah.

Then I started Fledgling by Octavia Butler which is fantastic and which I do not expect to be disapponting.

After that I think I'll read another mystery - I'm in Hawaii and I brought a Reginald Hill and a P.D. James (that I read years ago and have forgotten.)
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