Little Library

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To the joy and delight of my husband myself, Free Little Libraries are all over our city.  As we found more around our neighborhood, we started routing our evening walks so we could stop at each of them and look at the titles, take a book, or drop off a few books, ourselves.  We’ve found some great novels, and one of them was even used for my book club.  Here are the seven books I collected in 2016 that sat on my bookshelf waiting for my other book lists to run their course, presented in order of preference.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The movie version came out two years ago, and I’d wanted to read the book, first.  What a wild ride!  There was a lot of science that I couldn’t understand but accepted with good humor because it was presented so reasonably and backed up with calculations that I wouldn’t have been able to dispute if my life depended on it.  It was good for main character Mark Watney that he did know all of these calculations, because his life did indeed depend on it.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was away from the book, and just wanted to get home every day to find out how he was faring in his struggle to survive on Mars.  Several of my dreams in the interval had me growing potatoes on the red planet.  In the final few chapters my baby started kicking frantically in the womb, responding (I believe) to the frantic pounding of my own heart.

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

I’ve read several non-fiction books that take place during the Siege of Leningrad, plus many fiction books about World War II.  I was expecting this one to be in the same vein and prepared myself for a repeat of what I’ve read before, but it pleasantly surprised me with its freshness, wit, humor, sorrow, horror and coming-of-age poignancy.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

In my high school, we read quite a few books that are commonly challenged or banned, but I don’t think this one would have been permitted.  This book had a bit too much of child rape, incest, adultery, homosexuality, child abuse, spousal abuse, profanity, and vulgarity to fly in our small town.  That being said, it was an incredibly powerful book and compellingly written.  It was an emotional and poignant novel.

The Girl from the Garden, by Parnaz Foroutan

The book I found was an advanced copy for editing, so I don’t know if there were significant changes made from what I read to what has since been published.  There were a few transitions from present day to the past that didn’t run smoothly.  I very much enjoyed the author’s way of slowly presenting new information to build a final tableau at the end, but it still left me with a lot of questions.  Mahboubeh is the ‘main’ character who is reflecting on the intricate history of her family, yet she is also the character we know the least.  On the whole I enjoyed it and found it to be a quick read, but it could also be that childbirth and child-rearing in old Persia was especially interesting to me at this moment.

The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

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This is a book that I’ve been meaning to read since high school, so I was glad to stumble upon it in a Little Library.  The timing was good, as living in China for a year gave me different perceptions than if I had read it 15 years ago.  I read this book more as if it were a collection of short stories rather than an ongoing history of four Chinese women and their four Chinese-American daughters.  I couldn’t ever remember which history went with each woman, especially as it went back and forth between generations.  I did enjoy the writing style, and it was interesting to read about the traditions and adjustments that are made when one immigrates to a new country.

Straight Talk to Men and their Wives, by Dr. James Dobson

This was the only non-fiction book on my list, making it harder to place as far as my enjoyment in the reading of it went.  The most interesting thing for me is that the battleground over gender was heavily described from this book written in the 1970s, and the issues he’s describing are even more relevant today.  It was a  good refresher to read about communication with your husband/wife before my own husband and I embark on our newest adventure; parenthood.

Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman

I started out enjoying it – I love medieval tales, especially with real-life kings and queens.  Then I enjoyed it less and less until I was dragging myself through the text and just wishing it was over.  I complained to my husband that a description of a Crusades battle with the slaughter of 3000 people shouldn’t be boring to read.  In addition to not connecting with the plot or characters, there was just so much vulgarity and crassness.  This book has a sequel.  I won’t be wasting my time.

 

 

 

 

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No Book Left Behind

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After finishing The Harshbarger List and The Dusty List, I set about to make a new list for what I believe will be an impossible task: to have a bookshelf where every single one of my books has been read.

No Book Left Behind takes up the 19 books still left on my shelves after finally reading everything that had been languishing and dusty for more than three years.  They are listed here in order of preference.  Plays and short stories made up almost half of my remaining titles.

The Bartender’s Tale, by Ivan Doig

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This was the first book I read under the No Book Left Behind banner, and it stayed firmly as the favorite through the 13 months that it took me to complete the list.  It was a wonderful book, with great character development and story-line.  I’ve also read English Creek by the same author, and of the two I preferred this one.  Mr. Doig has such a wonderful way with words.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy is an expert plot and character developer.  His battle descriptions are so honest and unlike what I’ve read in any other war novel.  It’s obvious that he spent time with the army.  I wish that the translator/publisher had included a map of the battles, and I wish the Russian names would have been kept instead of the English (Nicholas, Mary, Natalie, Andrew were used instead of Nikolei, Maria, Natalija, and Andrei)  I enjoyed the novel, although I preferred the ‘peace’ to the ‘war’ sections.  Tolstoy occasionally waxes philosophical, which I didn’t mind until the second epilogue, which was 30 pages of it.  Surely one epilogue is enough for everyone?

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

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A compelling memoir of a boy who survived the civil war in his country, losing everything, including his own soul.  His candid story-telling made the book read very quickly, and my heart ached for him.

The Long Walk, by Slovomir Rawicz

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Wow, what a story.  Mr. Rawicz was a Polish man who was captured by the Russians, shipped to Siberia, made to walk to the camp for hundreds of miles in the winter, and then later escaped with six other inmates all the way to India.  The story was well-told and jaw-dropping.  Against incredible odds, four of the original seven men arrived at their destination a year later.  The author has a pleasing, candid style of writing.  The movie version titled this story “The Way Back.”  (If nothing else, watch the trailer to get an idea of the terrain these men traversed.)

The  Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

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I enjoyed this book immensely.  The author made it his mission to take the Bible as literally as possible for a year.  He devoted his first eight months to the Old Testament, and the last four to the New.  I feel he gave better weight to the Old Testament, as he had grown up in a secular Jewish family.  He didn’t have the mind dilemma of going through the motions, even as the rules were pretty strict in modern day New York City.  His biggest set-back for the New Testament is that you actually have to accept Christ as your savior to really get the full experience, which he wasn’t willing to do.  The author is a secular liberal, so he was at odds with a lot of things in the Bible, but I also thought he did a great job of being fair and presenting both sides.  Both atheist and religious alike thanked him for his honesty and transparency.  It’s a momentous task.  I used to be much better about reading my Bible daily, but I’ve fallen off in recent years.  This book was an inspiration to start that up again.

Richard III, by William Shakespeare

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There were a couple of things that didn’t add up for me in the actual historical timeline, but on the whole I enjoyed this play very much, and I tried to stage and direct it the way it would have been done in my high school’s theater, The Black Box.  The part I would have wanted for myself was Anne.  I’d love to see this performed.

I am Legend, and Other Stories, by Richard Matheson

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Richard Matheson was a writer that Stephen King described as influential to his own work.  I could easily see the connection.  This was a collection of short stories:  I am  Legend was the longest and most developed, and while this doesn’t happen often, I preferred the movie to the book.  I loved the visual from the movie of an abandoned New York instead of an abandoned suburban neighborhood. I also liked it set in the modern day.  I never quite caught on to the difference between a dead and living vampire.  The rest of the stories were much shorter, in some cases only one or two pages.  All of the stories were macabre or involved an element of the supernatural.  My favorite was Mad House.

The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels, by Stephen King

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Four short novels made up this collection under Stephen King’s alias, Richard Bachman.  Rage:  It’s a weird thing to say, but this story about a school shooting and hostage situation was a little slow for me.  Part of  it was the language.  I start to tune out when the language is so course. The other issue was that this story about a school shooting written in the 1970s has so little in common with the horrible reality of what my generation knows school shootings are actually like.   The Long Walk:  It started out pretty interesting, and I made comparisons to The Hunger Games.  A group of boys compete against each other in a walk to the death.  After five days of walking, the action was a bit tedious.  They start out walking, and two hundred pages later they’re still walking.  Since you know who’s going to ‘win’ (or at least finish close to the top, otherwise the story ends) you’re just waiting for these boys to die so that Garraty can finally go home.    Roadwork:  This was my second favorite, although it flagged for me through the middle.  I thought it did the best of the short stories towards building up to the finale, and what an explosive finale.  I guess I also have a better association with the characters and the sense of hopelessness one feels as the landscape around your home clears to make way for construction and buildings you don’t want.  The Running Man: This one was easily my favorite of the four novels.  I do love a future dystopian society with a clever and defiant protagonist.  Even more than The Long Walk, this novel reminded me of The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins must have read it and been inspired.  A televised fight to the death, only this time every citizen in the world is fighting for the death of one person.  Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in the movie.  Reflecting back on all of the books, it was strange to read about a school shooting that was written pre-Columbine, and strange to read about a plane hitting a tower that was written pre-September 11.

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Days of Dreams and Laughter: The Story Girl and Other Tales, by L.M. Montgomery

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This book actually should have belonged in my Dusty Book List.  A collection of short stories: The Story Girl, The Golden Road and Kilmeny of the Orchard.  This would have been given to me in elementary school, because I enjoyed Anne of Green Gables by the same author.  The vein of the stories was the same, and it was fun to revisit the world of Prince Edward Island in that time period.  I was pleased that the personalities were completely different.  Anne would remain my literary favorite.  The first story dragged a bit for me, but the other two passed swiftly.

Three Plays, by Thornton Wilderbook three plays

Our Town:  I remember discussing the play in high school.   It was a study in miming absolutely every activity and making it look believable.  The final act gave me chills.  The Skin of Our Teeth:  This was a strange play.  The plot takes one family through the epochs of humanity, starting as cavemen with a pet dinosaur.  There’s hunger, disaster, infidelity, jealousy, and just plain weirdness.  My thought upon concluding?  “Huh.” The Matchmaker:  This one was very amusing and entertaining – easily my favorite of the three plays.  Once it dawned on me that it was the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly! I had the music playing through my head every time I opened the book.  I imagined with pleasure how it would be performed in the Black Box.

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

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It started out with a lot of excitement, and I was reading it with a child-like thrill, but even as the action picked up the story started dragging for me.  The first introduction to the dinosaurs was anti-climatic – they get out of the helicopter, and there they are – no suspense, footprints, strange smells, goosebumps…  I also thought there was no character development.  There were just people with different skills who got killed off.  The two kids were especially annoying, and acted in ways to me completely uncharacteristic for their age and comprehension.  8-12 year old kids who have just witnessed a t-Rex attack are not going to be bickering and whining about how hungry they are with the Rex still in the vicinity.

To Hope or Die, by Edmund Szybicki

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A memoir of the Warsaw uprising and and Sachsenhausen concentration camp, this book dealt more heavily in the aftermath of the war and what life was like as a refugee in Sweden.  It was very interesting to read, especially now with so many refugees fleeing the current Syrian war and flooding into Europe.  Mr. Syzbicki wasn’t a religious, rather a political refugee, but even he still experienced discrimination.  I wondered why he only made one trip back to his native country after being liberated from the camps.  Poland was still under communist rule for a long time, but the wall in Berlin came down in 1989, and he never mentioned Poland again after his one visit  20 years later.  He never tried to get his family to join him as asylum seekers.

Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok

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This book was a good introduction to learning about the sweat shops within the United States in the 20th century, but I didn’t find it particularly well-written.  The ending did surprise me.  I’m so used to the Americana novel where the hero chooses true love at all costs, and it’s a surprise to see it from another culture where money and filial duty are more important.

Sashenka, by Simon Montefiore

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The first section was tedious, the second section finally started to show a little bit of the ‘increasingly compelling’ promise as printed on the cover of the book, and then the third section dove completely into the unrealistic.  Sashenka is the story of an early and passionate recruit to the Communist Party in St. Petersburg and how that played out over her life.  The method of interrogation and documentation were well researched and presented, but I found that the author had an annoying habit of “name and place dropping” – mentioning places and people in passing just to show off how well he knows the city instead of it having any real relevance to the story.  All of the women were sexy and beautiful, and all of the men who met them were consumed by lust.  The descriptions of the children and their antics were more annoying than endearing.  I’d fire the editor of this book: there were a lot of typos where two words were smashed together likethis, words that had hyphens added for no rea-son, and then large spatial gaps in between words                              for the sole purpose of driving me crazy.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

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I knew ahead of time that the author was later blasted for the inaccuracies portrayed in the book, so as I was reading it I was trying to decide which events were made up for the sake of the story.  I was frankly astonished that a travel and humanitarian story of this magnitude could be so boring to read.  I didn’t connect with the people.  The descriptions of crazy cultural misunderstandings read dry for me, and any of my friends could tell you that I love stories about crazy cultural misunderstandings.  I was exasperated with Dr.  Greg on his wife’s behalf for never being around.

 

Lysistrata and Other Plays, by Aristophanes

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The only reason this book scored so low on the list is that so many of the references and symbolism described events and people that had no meaning for me.  It would be like a satirical play about our current politicians, but performed 5000 years from now.  For all of that, there was still a lot of hilarious wit, with situations and morals that can apply to any age. The Acharnians:  One sensible man argues for peace, while everyone else says it can’t be done.  Meanwhile, the government pays ambassadors a huge salary for years to accomplish that peace, but they come back empty-handed.  The Clouds:  A man has incurred a lot of debt because of his lazy, gambling son, so he sends him to to the philosophers to learn how to argue his way out of his obligations.  Predictably, this leads to the son being able to argue his way out of any obligations to his own father.  Lysistrata: The women of Athens and Sparta, sick of the wars that take their husbands away from them at months at a time, withhold their sexual favor until the men can reach a peace agreement.  This was my favorite of the three plays – gender stereotypes are still funny.  All three of the plays had rather bawdy hints and lewd behavior, but this one was the most crass.

Searching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller

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I’ve also read Blue Like Jazz by the same author, and preferred it to this book.  He always seems so apologetic for his opinions, and after dozens of disclaimers it started to annoy me.  He’s really got a bone to pick with Republicans.  Still, there were some good thoughts and deep ideas.

The Firebugs, by Max Frisch (also known as Biedermann and the Arsonists, or The Arsonists)

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What a strange play.  Usually when I read plays I imagine my fellow high-schoolers as the characters, but I had a hard time casting this one.  Mr. Biedermann knows that there are arsonists running rampant, yet he invites a stranger to stay in his home because he’s a ‘humane’ man.   The stranger invites more and more people over, and their blatant connection to arson grows stronger.  I kept wondering what the underlying symbolism was supposed to be.  The evil that we ourselves let into our lives is what destroys us, was my final conclusion.  I can’t say I enjoyed it.  Too artsy-fartsy.

 

Three Famous Short Novels, by William Faulkner

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Three ‘short’ stories made up this collection, but Faulkner can pack a lot of sloth and molasses into a short story.  His books drag by for me, and he has an annoying habit of not making it clear who’s speaking.  His women are colorless and meek with nothing much to say.  Of Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear, the latter was my favorite.  I even read bits out loud to my husband.  A boy goes on his first hunting trip, and the camp tries to subdue the infamous bear who’s been terrorizing them for years.  If Faulkner had ended it in one place, it would have been fantastic.  Instead, he saw the need to carry on with a 55 page chapter with a flow completely unlike the rest of the story, very incoherent, and back to his tricks of making sure his reader can’t tell who’s who.  It was a very complicated family history, and I could see notes on the back where some previous reader had made a family tree to try to make sense of it.  I took the book hiking with me, and when I needed a place to stop I decided to wait for the next sentence break.  That break didn’t come for three pages.  The final chapter went back to the original style, to my immense relief, but I still thought it was superfluous.

 

 

The Book Artist Club 2017

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Two years and 23 books down as we begin 2017!  Lauren, Alisha and I are still going strong with our book club, sticking to our once-a-week meeting times on a mostly regular basis.  One good thing (of many good things) about a small group with close friends is that we’re very flexible when conflicts come up.  We’re a bit more spread out, as two of us have moved in this past year.  Our criteria for choosing a book is the same: it has to be a book that none of us has read before, but as you’ll see with our first pick of the year, I was the first one to break the rule.  It was an accident – I’d forgotten that I’d read it.   That’s probably the first time that refusing to read the back of a book has backfired on me.  Well, it’s a good thing we’re flexible.  Here’s a continuation of the books we read in 2015  and 2016.

 

The Shipping News, by E. Annie Ploulx

Our 31st novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  I don’t read the backs of books, so I advocate books for our selections based on the first paragraph.  I read only a few lines of this book before I announced that it looked like a good choice.  Even though the unusual cadence of the writing gave it a oh-so-slightly rocky start, it was unanimously declared a wonderful story and is our favorite of the year so far.   It was lush and poetic. I kept telling my husband about the unfortunate Quoyle, and how I wanted to just give the poor man a hug and tell him that everything was going to be fine.  My husband told me he would substitute himself for any hugs I needed to administer.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

Our 30th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  We had discussed picking up this book several times, as we loved the title, but each time we passed it up because the store had so many copies in stock.  We always try to find a book that has exactly three copies.  If they have an abundance of copies, we figure that not many people liked the book and so returned it after they were finished.  There were a lot of philosophical musings in this book, and I’ve never been much interested in philosophical musings.  As the characters developed, the musings did get more and more applicable and realistic.  All of us agreed that the plot line started flagging until the appearance of Monsieur Ozu.  The ending took us completely by surprise.  It wasn’t a bad book, but it won’t be one that stands out for me among all of the other books we’ve read.

The Road Home, by Jim Harrison

Our 29th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  I got this book on my kindle because I knew by the time we finished it I’d have a newborn in my arms, and that it would be a lot easier to read in kindle form.  Our habit is to meet once a week to discuss our novels, but this summer we only met twice. A new baby for me and travel plans for Alisha and Lauren interfered with us meeting on a more regular basis.  We kept up the reading, and met once the book was finished.  All of us enjoyed Mr. Harrison’s writing style.  He has a wonderfully expressive, clear way of writing.  The book was beautiful in it’s simplicity of plot.  Of the three of us, I enjoyed the book the most.  I appreciated the simplicity, but the other two would have liked more of a broad story line.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

Our 28th novel, both recommended by my mom and a book that had been on a list of Books I’ve Wanted to Read for a While.  We picked it up with great eagerness and interest after the disaster of Me Talk Pretty One Day.  “Ooh, a serial killer at the world’s fair in Chicago!”  I enjoyed it the most of the three of us.  Alisha and Lauren found that the architectural descriptions got long and boring.  The book led to a lot of great discussions about inventions, mental illness, anti-social disorder,  the modern world fairs and the Olympic games.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris

Our 27th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange as part 2 of our comedy series.  Well, that was a bust.  In unanimous opinion, this book replaced One Hundred Years of Solitude as our ‘Least Favorite Book That We’ve Read Together’ by a wide, emphatic margin.  In fairness to Mr. Sedaris, this book probably wasn’t the best choice for us to begin with, as it was a collection of semi-autobiographical essays and not an on-going plot.  In critique of Mr. Sedaris, it’s the first book that made us want to throw in the towel early because we thought it was so stupid.  We did all finish it, and I will admit that the more we dislike something the livelier our discussions are.  We couldn’t believe the rave reviews on the back advertising side-splitting humor and tears of laughter.  Our reactions were more along the line of pained grimace, wrinkled nose, frequent yawning, and the thought, “I would never want to hang out with this human being.”  As Lauren pointed out, we were bound to hit a bad book, eventually.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

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Our 26th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  This book was recommended as a funny read, and we realized that we’ve yet to read a comedy together.  While we all loved the book, I would certainly not label it as a hilarious comedy.  ‘Poignant’ and ‘bittersweet’ would be my descriptors.  Originally published in Swedish, we’re introduced to the grumpiest old man in the neighborhood, and the more we learn about his past, the more we love him.  We especially enjoyed Ove’s colorful descriptions of his neighbors.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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Our 25th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  All of us enjoyed this dystopia.  I drew a lot of similarities to Stephen King’s The Stand, but it was not nearly as dark.  This book went back and forth from the pre-Georgia Flu event that wiped out most of the world’s population to the ‘present’ time of 20 years after the contagion.  We thought the plot and characters were woven together especially well.  I don’t keep all of the books that we read together, but this one will remain on my shelf, after lending it out to a few other friends.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

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Our 24th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange.  I’d forgotten that I’d already read this book, so I was breaking our first and only rule in our method for choosing new novels.  I had borrowed Her Fearful Symmetry from a friend while we were driving through the deserts of Inner Mongolia in 2011.  (I was a fool and only brought one book to last the week.  Still Life With Rice only lasted me two days.)   I didn’t remember the author or title, but as I was reading the first 20 pages it dawned on me that there couldn’t be too many books taking place in England with a crossword puzzle writer and a set of twins as some of the main characters.  All of us agreed that it was an entertaining read, and we accepted the ghost story as ‘believable’ in the way it was presented, but by the last third of the book it turned abruptly from ‘I could believe that for the sake of the story, ‘ to ‘No…I don’t think that’s how it would work.’

Yak Yogurt

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After a long, dirty, cramped and nerve-wracking ride on an overnight bus from Xining to Yushu, my husband and I were nauseous and exhausted and looking forward to getting out of Yushu as quickly as possible.  When we pulled into the bus station we were quickly mobbed by men who were shouting out different destinations.  It turned out that in these backroads of non-restricted Tibet, there are no public bus services or trains between cities, and the only way to get from place to place is to book a seat in a minivan.  One of the drivers followed us, and when we told him where we desired to go he wanted to charge us more than a plane ticket.  We would have to book every empty seat in the van to go that day.

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While we were standing there forlornly with our map, guidebook and dictionary, a cheerful white man called out to us, asking where we were from.  Hervé was from France, and he’s spent two months every year in China for the past 11 years.  He spends his free time practicing Chinese, and it was such a relief having him take over our travel transactions.  It turned out we wouldn’t be able to depart that day, so we booked seats for the next day, which gives the drivers time to fill up the entire car with passengers.  Transport settled, he walked us over to the cheap hotel where he was staying and we booked a room, then joined him for a day of sight-seeing.  We never would have found this hotel on our own.  Most of Yushu was flattened by an earthquake in 2010, and rebuilding hotels was low on the priority list for a town that doesn’t get a lot of tourists.

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Hervé wanted to go to Dicos (a fast-food chicken sandwich chain) for breakfast.  On the way he popped into several shops looking for yak yogurt.  He bought a carton when he finally found some and ate it along with breakfast.

The jolly Frenchman is the kind of person whose greatest joy is speaking to people and making new friends.  He called up a taxi driver whom he’d befriended and we drove out to see the Princess Wenchang temple outside the city, one of the few buildings that survived minimal damage from the earthquake.  This temple was the Princess’ stopover point when she was being delivered to the king of Tibet in marriage.  This princess is one big reason why China claims sovereignty over  Tibet.  The temple itself was tiny and didn’t take much time to explore.  It was filled with the features that for us had become ‘the usual’: butter lamps, incense, pilgrims prostrating themselves on the floor, walls of scripture, Buddha statues, piles of money placed at the altars, and monks in their scarlet robes.  The beauty of this particular temple lay in the surroundings.  The hillsides are draped in thousands of prayer flags, stretching across the road so you felt like you were walking into a colorful spider web.

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While we were in Lhasa my husband and I tried greeting people in Tibetan. Either we didn’t say it correctly or they were too oppressed to speak it.  I’d believe either.  In the non-restricted areas, we found the Tibetans to be much more friendly and welcoming.  As we walked around we heard a constant cry of “བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།!”, which was pronounced more like ‘tashi delai’ than ‘tashi dalek’ as the guidebook said.  Everyone was very pleased and responded with big smiles when we answered in kind.  As we were walking down the mountain there were many families picnicking along the river, and to all of them we waved and cried out “བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།!”  One family beckoned us down to the river.  About fifteen people were scattered on rugs, eating, socializing and playing cards.  Another foreigner was already sitting with them (the only other foreigner we saw in Yushu) and he said he’d been waved down in the same manner.  We were seated on rugs and handed cups full of yak yogurt and some kind of curry bread.  The bread was dipped in the yogurt and then eaten.  They kept pouring more yogurt into our cups, and also supplied Red Bull, grapes and watermelon.  Protestations that we were full had no effect.

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Some time later we waved our goodbyes and continued on down the mountain.  There was a large monastery at the bottom, and it seemed to be devoid of life except for a few odd yaks roaming around the grounds.  Everything looked very new and clean, and we guessed that the entire temple and grounds had all been built after the earthquake.  A new sight for us was that this monastery was surrounded by tiny, plain houses, and we guessed that these were the residences of the monks.  (There’s a lot of guesswork while traveling through China)  A solitary monk saw us standing outside and beckoned us over.  We followed him into his home, taking off our shoes to enter the very sparse but very tidy cell.  A TV was on against one wall, but it was covered by a cloth so that it couldn’t be seen.  I didn’t know if that was a restriction for all monks, or if he just didn’t want the light blaring.  The program as viewed behind the lace was a monk reading scriptures.  He had a narrow kitchenette off of the front door, then a small living room with a fridge in the corner, and then a small bedroom.  All we could see of the bedroom was that the shelves were lined with religious texts.  The walls and floor were made with simple wooden boards.  It was the first time I’d seen a monk without his outer scarlet robe.  Underneath he was wearing something that was similar to a jumpsuit in a vivid goldenrod color – a sleeveless top and baggy pants.  Lucas said it was like Americans coming home to put on sweats after a long day of work.

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Conversation was limited as he spoke only Tibeten with very limited Chinese.  Hervé spoke much more Chinese than he did, so for the first time that day my Chinese was at the level needed for a conversation.  The four of us mostly just stared at each other and smiled, but we made polite chit-chat about our families and told him where we were from.  We learned that he had a sister with children and that his mother was deceased.  (We wondered if she’d died in the earthquake.  The official death toll was around 3,000, but local officials say it was closer to 20,000 dead.)  Lucas showed him pictures of Montana from our tablet, and he showed us pictures of his family on his smart phone.  The monk went back and forth to his kitchen to prepare tea and serve it to us, and he also presented us with yak yogurt.  When we had finished eating and run out of mutual words we thanked him and went on our way.

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We took Hervé to dinner, finding a Muslim restaurant in the midst of home appliance shops.  We were the only customers in the restaurant and were greeted with great interest and enthusiasm.  When I peered at a worker making noodles in the kitchen, we were encouraged to enter the kitchen and watch how they prepared the different dishes.  I can’t imagine an American restaurant inviting a troupe of foreigners into their kitchen.  The food was delicious, and I’d rate it in our top two meals while we were in China.

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We enjoyed Herve’s company so much, and it was a pleasure seeing the city with him.   It was a wonderful day with new sights and friendly people.  He was a God-sent blessing who came along at just the right moment to save us from a bad day.  We asked him just what it was that led him to wander around the bus station so early in the morning.

“I was looking for yak yogurt.”

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HELLO!!! No! No! No! No!

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When I taught English in Changchun, China for a year, I was told that there are more people going to a private school to learn English than there are English speakers in the United States.

We never seemed to run into those millions while we were traveling.

I speak a little Chinese.  You have to learn a bit out of necessity if you live there.  In my small town of seven million people, the only English speakers I ever encountered in the streets were my own students, so crash-course Chinese started on arrival.  I can order items in a restaurant.  I can bargain for a better price.  I can ask for directions.  I can sometimes understand bits of the conversations around me.   I can make polite small talk for a few minutes before the discussion gets overwhelming.  At my best I could read and write around 90 characters, but you need 3,000 to read a newspaper.  Even with this small arsenal of language, I had a hard time comprehending the people in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan province, as the accent was very different from the clean tones of the northeast.  I whispered to my husband that there was only one man on our minibus en route from Yushu to Ganzi that I could understand clearly: it turned out he was from Changchun.

Sometimes it was nice that no one could understand us.  We could speak ill of our surroundings without the danger of being overheard and criticized for our lack of cultural empathy.  “Disgusting!  There’s a dead pig rotting in that garbage pile!”  “No, no, it’s not dead!  It’s just SLEEPING in the garbage pile by our hotel.”

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At other times, it was really, really frustrating that we couldn’t make ourselves understood, nor could we find anyone who understood us.  We spent an hour looking for the bus station in Shangri-La after I asked for directions.  Each person pointed us further and further away from the actual station.  One man sent us directly into the middle of a construction site.  I’d even given up on trying to ask in Chinese:  I was pointing directly to the question in my phrase book and it was still somehow lost in translation.

Chinese children start learning English in primary school.  The one word that sticks with everyone is ‘Hello.’  We heard this word constantly.   It was used as a shy greeting by beaming youngsters, “Hello!”  It was shouted by young men at the top of their lungs directly in our faces, “HELLO!!!”  It was shouted by guards telling us  not to do whatever we were doing, “Hello!  Hello!  Hello! No No No!” accompanied by violent shooing gestures.  It got to the point when every time we heard the ‘greeting’ we cringed and knew it didn’t mean anything good for us.

We were leaving a park in Beijing on our way back to our hotel.  The evenings come alive, because it’s finally cool enough that people can stand being outside for any kind of physical activity.  I noticed a young man placing a sign on the sidewalk, and it caught my eye because everything was in Chinese except for one line across the middle that said: NO, NO, NO, NO.  Ever the curious tourist with my handy camera, I went over to take a picture of it.  “Helllooo!!!  No! No! No! No”  The young man hurled his body in front of the sign and said, “No!”  I didn’t budge.  I told him in English that I wanted to take a picture of the sign.  He threw himself in front of me no matter which direction I turned my camera.  I asked him why I wasn’t permitted to take a picture of a sign in a public square.  He fumbled with his phone to find a translation service and typed in some characters.  “It is forbidden to take photos of the sign.”  I didn’t budge. “Why?” I asked in English.  “Why?” he repeated it with a kind of desperation.  He fumbled in his brain for any word in English that would explain the situation, never giving up his important sign-blocking vigilance while I sneakily snapped a blurry photo.  I asked him to tell me what the sign said, but all I got was the same desperate insistence that I not know anything about it.  If he hadn’t been so adamant about stopping me, I wouldn’t have had any curiosity whatsoever as to what the sign actually said.  After several minutes of this I finally turned on my heel and walked away while he was still stuttering, “No, no, no, no.”

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Now updated with a partial translation.  It’s nice having friends who live and work in China!

“Something about financial investments through state-owned banks.”

I can’t stop laughing.

 

 

 

The Water Element

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Water.  That crucial element, necessary for life. It ebbs and flows.  It’s magnificent and microscopic.  It’s both a zillion drops and one ocean.  In our journey across China we encountered water in many forms…

  • drinking water: It’s not safe to drink, so you have to buy bottles of water.  The bottles get thrown in the river, making the water not safe to drink.

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  • expectorating water: You’ve got crud in your throat from the Beijing smog?  Spit it out!  Watch out for all of those wet globs on the pavement.

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  • passing water:  As we opened the curtains for the first time on our first morning in Beijing, it wasn’t ten minutes before we saw someone peeing on the sidewalk.  I smugly told my husband, “See, I told you!”
  • falling water:  A rainstorm cleared out the smog, and to my joy I saw my first clean blue sky over the city.  It only took me four tries!

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  • dangerous water: I wondered if the average Chinese child doesn’t learn to swim in his youth.  Every pond has a drowning warning, and the Water Cube at the Olympic Park has a mandatory swim test for every swimmer.  I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the ponds in any case.

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  • cleansing water: Our fanciest, most expensive hotel was in Beijing, and even they couldn’t stop the sewer smell that filled the bathroom every time we turned on the tap.

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  • boiling water:  All of our hotel rooms came with an electric kettle so we could boil water and make it safe for drinking or brushing our teeth.  Our hotel in Ganzi didn’t have one, so I stole it from the ‘show’ room they’d presented when asking us if we’d like to stay there.  In Litang, the town was such a disgusting hole that we didn’t even bother boiling the water.  We used bottled water for everything.
  • perspiring water:  It was hot.  It was humid.  I came home every evening soaked in sweat, then washed my clothes in the sink for the next day. We smelled lovely.  Fortunately, that was just in Beijing.

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  • powerful water: In Tiger Leaping Gorge we went to the rock from whence the tiger supposedly sprung.  The rock is huge, but the river was so powerful we could feel it shaking beneath us.

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  • holy water: We’ll end on a beautiful note.  The lakes in Tibet are holy, so no one is allowed to build around them.  It was so, so wonderful to see lakes surrounded by nothing but rock and sky instead of luxury vacation homes.

water blog 8 (1) water blog 8 (2)Revelation 22:1 And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.

Breaking up with “People”

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P1010965Our relationship had been tense for a while.  People had been sending me needy messages trying to convince me not to give up on my affections for a long time.  “Why do you keep bothering me about this?” I muttered.  We aren’t scheduled to break up for months.

I initially got together with People knowing it was going to be a short-term relationship.  We’d be together for a while, have some laughs, not get too clingy or dependent, and then we’d wave cheerfully as we headed off for the horizon in different directions.  That’s how it worked for me, but I guess People didn’t see it the same way.  I didn’t mislead People.  I was honest right from the beginning.  “This is a ONE YEAR subscription, ” I said.  “It’s a free subscription, and I’m not interested in pursuing the relationship if I have to put any effort or money into it.”

It’s not that I don’t like People.  I like the pictures of pretty people in pretty clothes, and once in a while there’s a feature article about someone who is actually quite interesting.  But you know, sometimes the connection just wasn’t there.  People chatted endlessly and energetically about some family named Kardashian, but failed to mention just why I should care about them.  People’s feelings were hurt.  Kardashians were important in People’s world.  People gushed eagerly about some “Mad Men” who were competing in this “Game of Thrones” near “Silicon Valley”.  There was something about “The Bachelorette” with an amazing “Voice” singing about how “Orange is the New Black.”  The conversation petered out when I told People that I don’t have television or internet, and unfortunately these stories just didn’t make any sense.  I couldn’t follow the gossip on these young new stars because I’d never heard of these young new stars, and frankly, didn’t see the point.

The last issue came to me with a lot of hostility and drama.  “It’s over,” People said defiantly.  “We’re finished.  We’re through.  I’m never speaking to you again. Please love me don’t leave me I love you please don’t go please please please.”

I feel for you, People.  I really do.  I’ve been on both sides of the break-up and it’s awful.  I also know it’s going to be OK.  There are millions of other People who love you.  Just the way you are.

 

 

Electoral Woes

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“America is a democratic society.  That means that ANYONE can be president.  Look around you.  Maybe you or one of your classmates will someday be the President of the United States of America.” – 3rd grade teachers everywhere

Now as a slightly more cynical woman in my early 30s, I know that’s not *quite* true.  Anyone can be president, as long as they have a lot of money, a famous family with political connections, and an Ivy League education.  This year might prove me wrong, but you also have to be a man.

The 2016 election seems to be more of a circus than usual, with a view towards entertainment and eye-rolling instead of civilized debates.  There were penis jokes, for crying out loud.  Watching these events unfold makes me want to change the whole election process.

donkey vs elephant

My problem with the US election season is fourfold:

1. The primaries are dragged out for too long.

Why should it always start in Iowa?  Why should it start in February and still be dragging on for months?  Iowa sets the tone for the entire election, but why does Iowa get to set the tone?  All of my preferred candidates were knocked out long before Montana got to vote, and there are eight states who never got to vote at all for a Republican candidate.  The Democratic candidate was announced the day Montana got to vote, so there was really no point in voting as both sides had already declared their winner.  We’re stuck with the choices that other states got to make.  What if all of the primaries took place within the course of one month, divided by the four continental time zones?  They could change it up every election: 2020 Eastern votes first.  2024 Central votes first.  2028 Mountain votes first.  2032 Pacific votes first.  One election per week.  Bam.  Done.  Media circus is over, everyone has 10 candidates or so to choose from instead of one or two.  Results aren’t posted until everyone has voted.

2. Campaigns are all about who has the most money and how awful the other guy is:

Ted Cruz’s whole campaign seemed to be, “Well it’s between me and Trump.  You know Trump is awful, so I’m the only one who can stop him.  Vote for me and save yourselves from Trump!  Never mind what I can or can’t do, I’m better than him, at least!”  I can’t imagine a more humiliating, crushing night when it was fully revealed that yes, the country would rather have the world’s biggest windbag than Ted Cruz.  Ouch.  We’re down to Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, so I’d like to see statements highlighting what they will accomplish rather than what their opponent will not accomplish.

I enjoyed an article from The Atlantic about Germany’s campaign season.  It was much shorter, candidates were restricted to a single television ad, and they were required to promote themselves rather than tear down their opponent.  It’s a great article and worth the read.  I’d love to see a cap on how much money can be spent on a campaign.  It seems such a waste.  As president, they will have to oversee a complex economy.  Let’s see how they do in the primaries with a set amount of money.  What are they able to accomplish with that amount?

 3. The electoral vote means my vote never matters:

Usually someone has already won by the time Montana’s three electoral votes have been counted.  My co-worker told me about standing in line for three hours to vote, and when she got to the front of the line the results had already come in and the winner had been chosen.  Who cares about what Montanans think, when you should be worried about what Californians and Texans think?  If you add up the number of electoral votes awarded by all thirteen of the states that only have three or four votes, their total is still less than California by eleven.  I wish we’d throw out the electoral votes and only have a popular vote.  The Californians would still have their say based on their huge population, but my measly one vote would also matter.

4. I wish the president served a single term of six years:

I came to this conclusion after a very interesting and informative NPR radio program about campaigning and money.  It a nutshell, politicians don’t have time to do their actual jobs because they’re so busy trying to raise money to be re-elected.  A president’s first four years also allocates a lot of time to being re-elected, meaning that nothing really gets done unless they’re voted in for a second term.  Instead of wasting four years and getting things done for four years, what if the president only served a single term of six years where they got a lot done?

An added thought:  This interesting point was raised at dinner by someone from another country:  The winner of the U.S. presidential race affects everyone in the world.  Every. Single. Country.  They follow the election closely.  Shouldn’t the rest of the world be able to contribute as well?  Say, 10%?  Of all of my thoughts on the election process, this is obviously not likely to happen, but it’s an intriguing idea.

An additional added thought: Who picked the donkey and elephant mascots?  Can we update that? Donkeys are kind of boring, and elephants aren’t native to this country.  Wouldn’t it be more exciting with..

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Bear vs Wolfbison elk

Elk vs Bison (My husband tells me this is an ox.  But you get the idea.)

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Sheep vs Goat

 

The Borrowers

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It’s a risky thing to pass a book you love into the hands of someone else.  Can you trust them not to bend down the pages, break the spine or write in the margins?  Can you trust them not to crush the cover?  Can you trust them not to put the book in a backpack next to a leaking juice box?  Can you trust them not to lose it completely?  I’m still missing Catch 22 (oh, well…didn’t like it anyway) and The Poisonwood Bible (gave up and bought another copy.  It had been over ten years and it was time to face facts.)

On the other hand, there’s a joy in sharing the stories that have touched your life, and there’s a joy in knowing that a friend would give you a book because they thought of you while reading it.

This list had me collecting the six books on my shelves that don’t actually belong to me so that I could read them and get them back to their rightful owners.  I’ll try to do a better job at returning them promptly (aka, within weeks or months instead of years) in the future.

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

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Borrowed from Mom:  My mom and I don’t have a long history of enjoying the same books, but there are a couple (mostly historical fiction) that speak to both of us.  I enjoyed The Kite Runner many years ago, and I borrowed A Thousand Splendid Suns when I moved to Missoula in 2013.  I couldn’t put this novel down, and I thought about the characters continually.  I was so close to finishing one evening, and I set the book down with regret because it was nearing midnight.  After lying sleepless in the dark for a while I reasoned it was better to just finish the book and find out what happened rather than lie awake and wondering the rest of the night.

 

Flyboys, by James Bradley

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Borrowed from Dad: My grandfather served in the US Marine Corps during World War II.  He died of cancer before I was old enough to be curious about his experiences, but even with his own sons he never talked about it much.  Because of that family history, my father has an especial interest in the Pacific battles and can recommend several good books on the subject.  Flyboys discusses the recently de-classified fates of eight young men who crashed near the island of Chichi Jima and never made it back home, and two who survived, one of whom was President George Bush.  (I’m now quite keen to read his new autobiography.)  The book also discusses the military history of Japan and the introduction of aviation into modern warfare.  There was so much information that was completely new to me, and the author did a fantastic job of presenting the point of view from both sides of the war.

 

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean

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Borrowed from Mom:  Mom came to visit me when I lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, and we did a lot of traveling around the city and soaking up the history.   I enjoy so much that we shared that experience.  Mom recommended this book about the staff of the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad and their efforts to preserve the priceless paintings and treasures.  The main character describes paintings that are hidden in caves across Europe as if they were hanging on the walls before her.  It really brought back those happy hours in the Hermitage, and I was grateful for the legacy the staff had preserved.

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The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as if He Doesn’t Exist, by Craig Groeschel

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Borrowed from my mother-in-law:  (I don’t think she actually knows that I have it.)  I espied the book on her shelf and picked it up, as author Craig Groescchel is a frequent and beloved guest pastor in my own church, Fresh Life.  Mr. Groeschel is the pastor of Life Church, the biggest church in America with twenty-five locations in seven states.  Fresh Life follows their example of a live sermon in one location, with video broadcasts being sent out to many other locations.  The book went over the habits of what many Christians have become: a lukewarm believer who is OK with God as long as they’re not inconvenienced.  Groeschel used a lot of great examples, and I was occasionally laughing out loud and interrupting my husband to share a funny story.  His own faith journey was filled with doubts and failures, and it was encouraging to read a pastor’s humble admission about the times when he too lived as if God didn’t really exist.  The book left me with a lot to think about and a desire to re-examine my faith life and see where it’s going.

 

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Borrowed from Book Club friend Alisha:  It’s the second book in the Little House series, but I enjoyed it more than the first book.  My emotions were more tied to this one.  I felt their sorrow as their beautiful home in the woods became increasingly encroached upon by new neighbors that kept arriving every day.  I felt their uncertainty as they packed their belongings and took off for the unknown.  I felt and understood their fear of the Native Americans who lived where they eventually settled, and then with the gift of hindsight felt a lot for the Native Americans who were also being pushed out of their homes.

 

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

book little house woodsBorrowed from Book Club friend Alisha:  I know I read this in elementary school, but the only scene I remembered was the children pouring maple syrup into fresh snow to make candy.  I also seem to recall a class project where we “churned butter” in baby food jars with Popsicle sticks and spread the result over not-so-authentically pioneer Saltine crackers.  In addition to being a story about a family, it also seemed to be a How To guide for hunting, growing and preparing your own food.  I found myself increasingly grateful for the grocery store down the road.

 

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

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Borrowed from my youngest sister Haley:  Haley knows I enjoy dystopias, so this was an obvious book to recommend.  It takes place years after whatever cataclysmic event threw the world upside down.  The details were incredibly vague, and I was never allowed to connect with the characters in the story.  I understood WHY the author wrote it as he did, but I was so frustrated because I wanted more information.

 

 

 

 

 

The Literary Polygamist

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I’ve never been monogamous in my book relationships.  There are too many wonderful, amazing, fascinating, moving, hilarious, powerful, lovely books out there to read just one at a time.

I’ll be in a steady, committed relationship with a great book, and then my fingers start wandering and flipping through the pages of another missive.  The smooth cover tempts me with new stories and characters.  It’s a type of book I’ve never read before, and I want to know what it has to offer.  I breathe that booky smell deep into my lungs and sigh with longing.  I regretfully put it down if I’m not at least 50 pages in to everything else I’m reading.  I’m a fair book lover:  I’m dedicated to reading all of them in consistent intervals.  I won’t abandon one after I start it even if the next book I pick up is flashier and more exciting.  The relationships have to be maintained so that no one is resentful or jealous, and I can feel my love for them grow when I make time to share special moments with each novel.

My husband won’t do this.  He strikes up a wonderful relationship with a fantastic book, and then I catch him cheating with another book on the sly.  “Hey!  All the Shah’s Men is what I’M planning on reading next!  Are you stealing it away from me?”  “Yeah, it’s really interesting.”  “Did you finish your other book?”  “No.”  “Are you going to finish this one after you start it?”  “No, I’m just flirting with it.”

He was pages away from completing a beautiful relationship with Horns in the High Country when Freakonomics with its bright shiny cover marched in and stole all the thunder.  He finishes those jilted books eventually, but the relationship has suffered and it takes a lot of commitment and reassurances that he won’t leave them again.

When I start a relationship with a book, I’ll almost always see it through until the end.  Maybe it’s annoying me, it’s long-winded, it doesn’t have anything interesting to say…I’ll still finish it and move on with a cry of, “Good riddance!  May you never darken my door again, Thomas Mann and your Death in Venice!”  It’s a very rare instance indeed that I’ll completely cut off a book relationship after making a promise to read it.  I got less than 15 pages in to Don Quixote before I turned down his advances.  “I just got out of a long-term relationship with The Count of Monte Cristo, and I’m not looking to start up anything serious right now.”

My book dating style isn’t for everyone, but it’s served me well.  I don’t look at the end of the love affair and get an overview of what our relationship is going to look like for the next 300 pages.  “Woah, you’re moving too fast!”  I cry out.  “You’ve already picked out a Lord of the Rings, thought up The Marriage Plot, chosen a Little House on the Prairie and named The Children of Men!”  I start from the beginning.  If I don’t like what they have to say in the first couple of paragraphs, I move on with no hard feelings and wish them luck with their next reader.   Friends and family know me well enough to set me up on blind dates with books that they think I’ll like.  “Hey Meghan! You have so much in common with Meghann from The Thorn Birds.  You’ll love it!  Maybe you’ll even name your first child after one of the characters.”

When you’ve been in a few mediocre book relationships it can sour your opinion on the whole concept of ‘book love.’  I want to reassure all of you that it’s important that you never give up.  True love is out there.  Those fuzzy clichés librarians keep spouting with an ecstatic joy are all real, and when you’ve found it you’ll be as giddy as they are.  As a Literary Polygamist, I keep that love and joy coming at me from at least three different books at any given time.  Sometimes four.  Sometimes more.  There are so many books out there to love and ways to love them.

Ah, books.  How DO I love thee?  Let me count just a few ways:

  • Love at First Sight:  Ooh, look how pretty the cover is!
  • Love is Blind: Audio books, for when you really want to keep reading, but you’re too tired to keep your eyes open.
  • Timing is EverythingDeath of a Salesman at age 18:  This is kind of boring.  Death of a Salesman at age 28 with no job or spouse: Ahh, I get it now.
  • Weak in the Knees:  Or, if you’re reading Stephen King’s Misery, “weak in the shins.”
  • Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: When you’re sitting at work and you’d rather be curled up on your couch to find out how Katniss is faring in The Hunger Games.
  • When you know, you Know:  How does a book become your favorite?  You’ll know.  Don’t worry, you’ll know.
  • Opposites Attract:  “What are you reading?”  “Moneyball.”  “Isn’t that about baseball statistics?”  “Yup.”  “Do you follow baseball or care about statistics?”  “Nope, but this book is fascinating.”
  • True Love is Worth the Wait:  When it was 1999 and you read the first three Harry Potter books and realized with agony that you couldn’t keep reading because the next four books hadn’t been written yet.
  • Everything Happens for a Reason:  WHY R. R. Martin?!  Why are you doing this to us?
  • Build your Relationship on a Solid Foundation: When you stack your books wisely so they won’t come cascading down on your head in the middle of the night.
  • It’s Better to have Loved and Lost than Never Loved at All:  Oh, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, why did you have to go back through the wardrobe door?
  • All’s fair in Love and War:  But nothing’s fair in War and Peace.
  • You had me at: “”Hello, ship,” Jake Holman said under his breath.  The ship was asleep and did not hear him.”
  • There’s More than One Fish in the Sea:  But there’s only one fish for the old man.
  • Fall Head Over Heels: When you fall down the stairs because you were trying to read while walking.

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice