Book Reviews

Review: Our Last Days in Barcelona: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

My Interest

If, like me, you loved Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba likely you’ve wanted to know more of the Perez sisters’ story. When I saw that this book was that “more” I was soooooo excited!

WARNING: If you have not read Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba, this review will have spoilers!! Sorry, it just isn’t very realistic to review a sequel without them!

The Story

It’s now 1964 and the Perez family is settled into life in Palm Beach after fleeing Castro’s Cuba. In spite of the passage of a few years, they are still morning the death of their son/brother, Alejandro. Beatriz is in Barcelona and her sister, Isobel, married for the good of the family to an older husband, Thomas, is worried about her. Isobel goes off to Barcelona to find her sister who is still working for the CIA. The second story line is of their mother, Alicia, a young wife and mother running away from her husband’s betrayal to Barcelona in 1936–her visit overlapping with the start of the Spanish Civil War. 

Like in When We Left Cuba, the Perez sisters in the present, and their mother in the Civil War years, face a variety of dilemmas that test their character, beliefs, and family pride. Love or rejection, personal growth, and an awakening of their souls are to come.

My Thoughts

Aside from one modern use of “agency” that just HAD to rear it’s ugly, out-of-place, head, this was a fabulous story. I loved Isobel coming to terms with the fact that her world had been so “insular” and all that that realization did for her. I also loved that Alicia did the “hard” thing [no spoilers]. Are there coincidences that beggar belief? Well, yes, but don’t let them ruin such an excellent read. With each book, Cleeton’s characters get more believable in spite of necessary coincidences to pull the story into shape. I think this is my favorite of Cleeton’s books (so far!).

My Verdict

4.2

I can’t stop at just 4 stars, but maybe 4.5 is just a tad over the limit.

Our Last Days in Barcelona by Chanel Cleeton

Book Reviews

Review: The Puma Years: A Memoir by Laura Coleman

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My Interest

I think this was a World Book Day freebie for Kindle. Anyway, it has cats. No matter the size, they are cats. It sounded like “Peace Corps With Cats.”

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The Story

I came to Bolivia wanting to transform. I wanted to be a butterfly. Maybe I should have been hoping for something else. A botfly, perhaps. (p. 217)

Laura comes from an apparently privileged background. Nothing wrong with that. She is afraid of life (or so it seems). By her own admission, she quits everything. Eventually she lands in Bolivia at an animal sanctuary–a very primitive animal sanctuary where howler monkeys and big cats are among the animals being “saved” through good-faith efforts at therapeutic rehabilitation. The animals have been wildly inappropriate pets (pun intended) and then were dumped or rescued. The shelter has a few Bolivians who run it, but it relies on the sort of young volunteers typical of Peace Corps. (FYI: My Peace Corps group was a-typical. We were mostly over 30 and had professional experience in addition to our degrees (sometimes multiple degrees). Laura has never had a cat–only dogs. When she meet Wayra, a Puma, she falls in love. So much so that she extends her trip. And, then returns again and again. Warya helps Laura conquer her fears and feel connected.

“‘MeowI copy tentatively.” She meows back….I collapse next to her. “That’s the first time she’s ever meowed at me!” I exclaim. I push my arms through [the cage] and she grinds her face against me, starting to purr….(p. 218).

My Thoughts

In my ancient day, the teachers (I was not a teacher) in Peace Corps, often went to very remote schools in places much like Laura’s animal rescue park. Isolated. Remote. Primitive. Like Laura, those who didn’t quit often “found” themselves and had a professional epiphany and got their lives together. I liked seeing Laura grown in this way–she found a way to go home and be successful

But, I loved reading about Wayra more–how utterly cat-like she is even though she is so much bigger than my own cats. even bigger than a Maine Coon Cat. The snuggles, the bathing and grooming, the preening, the little noises, the ‘squinching‘ (as I call it) her paws, the  ‘kneading” with her paws, the desire to just be with her person–so real. The “meow” scene was so wonderful. Back when my little cat was young enough to stay outside all day (she loved it and don’t worry she had food, shelter, water) she would be on her steps to greet me when I got home. A meow, a head butt against my leg, then she’d grab at my pants with her claws (nicely). I’d pick her up and she’d rub her face against my chin and then hop down. She still does these things, but in the kitchen before blasting outside to tour the yards. Her sister has similar rituals, but those have always happened on my bed because she is shy. I loved all the “normalcy” of Wayra’s relationship with Laura and the few glimpses we were given of the other cats with their volunteers.

My Thoughts

I rejoiced when Laura called her Mom on the eve of going home and said she wanted to stay. I rejoiced with each bit of understanding of herself and of cats that she gained. The world isn’t so scary any more once you’ve gone swimming with a Puma! Her love for Wayra was real–I felt it, too, as was Wayra’s love for her. I loved the trust she developed with “her” big cat and how she was welcomed back after her trips away. While Wayra wasn’t Elsa of Born Free (if you are too young to know this reference then please Google it), but with Laura’s help and love Wayra, too, stopped being afraid of everything.

Animals are so amazing in the ways they interact with us. The certainly can “heal” in my belief. Not in any weird way, just by letting us feel loved and growing through that.

I was saddened by only one thing. When Laura went home and moved to an island off Scotland, Laura got…a…D-O-G for companionship. I felt that was a slap in the face to poor Wayra, but I know it was most likely that she couldn’t bear to have another cat. Wayra was her one and only. 

My Verdict

4.0

The Best “free” book I’ve had for Kindle. Don’t miss the photos at the end of the book–they are superb.

The Puma Years: A Memoir by Laura Coleman

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Secret Life of Alfred Entwistle

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Thank you to #NetGalley for giving me a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

#TheSecretLifeofAlbertEntwistle #NetGalley

My Interest

While their stories are vastly different, this story made me think of a distant cousin who came out at age 70. It also fit my goal of reading (in this case listening) to more books written by men. Plus, there’s a cat mentioned in the blurb. 

The Story

First a tiny problem: I thought this was modern day. Everyone has cool phones, wifi etc, yet it says Albert is retiring at age 65. Fine–that would make him a year older than my brother. Here’s the problem: In the story he uses 1953 in his password and he leaves school in 1969. Hmmm. If he was 65 today, he’d have been 12 in 1969.

Now the story….

Albert has spent his whole life living in the same town, in the same house and has only had the one job–as a postman (mailman). Back when he was a teenager, when being gay was still a crime in the U.K. [“England” not the University of Kentucky], he fell in love with a new boy in his school named George. Now he is facing retirement and lonely. He looks back on his life and what went on in those days. His police officer father who spoke so derogatorily of the men who hooked up in the public restrooms, the teasing and even bullying of effeminate boys at school. Today, things are different. Albert is a kind soul. He does good in his life. But there is one act that act he can’t forgive himself for and he needs to right that wrong.

Meanwhile, on a nasty housing estate (i.e. a bad government housing project), Nicole is a young, single Black mother trying to bring up her daughter after the father deserted them (somethings are the same the world over). She is struggling to get thru her Cosmetology School and get a job as a stylist and nail technician. She has big plans–she wants to have a mobile salon (I’d love to have that come to my house). Her new guy is a college student (“at Uni”) and is suddenly giving her a song-and-dance about his parents and the allowance they give him.

Albert and Nicole come to be friends when Albert asks her to help him with his new phone. He advises her on the boyfriend, while she helps him find his old love. Together they find companionship and true friendship and have a good bit of fun together.

My Thoughts

I wasn’t sure how this book would go down with me. If it was uber-woke, I’d toss it. Thankfully, it was delightful. I learned that those who fought for gay rights, cared for and watched friends die of AIDS, and advocated for new laws, may not be so terribly thrilled when someone like Albert (or my distant cousin) comes out after the “hard work” is done. That surprised me, but only because I do not live in that culture and, until last year, I’d worked in a very conservative college and was a tad too sheltered. (Take today: I had to Google what “DEI Skills” meant. Turns out my very conservative former employer actually HAD them, just didn’t call them that. And yes, of course they could have done way better at it, but that’s a different post).

I liked Albert–the writing about his loneliness, his fear of reaching out–I totally understood that. It was so well put that I got teary a few times. And, oh his sweet Gracie-cat! Oh! I felt for Nicole–the guy can always leave. Always. I’ve been a single Mom, but I was one by choice. It sucks even though for my kids I’d do it all over again any time. I’ve also been her boyfriend’s parents–advising my kids to skip, or at least go very slow, with potential partners who already have kids in your 20s. It’s that hard to be a young parent–and the single parent has a ton of stuff to work out.

Small Spoiler (sorry, I just have to)

But, it was George I liked most. I’m not really into drag Queens–they’re fun in their way and I loved Julie Murphy’s books with them in them, but I can take it or leave it. George, though, is a drag queen now and a fairly well-known one. And, George was my favorite character. He never let anyone stop him from being who he was. He fought to change the world for teenage boys (and girls and other genders) just like him–marginalized for seeing things differently. He was true to himself. He took the risks knowingly, while Albert stayed home and delivered the mail, took care of a mother he came to loathe and loved his sweet, wonderful, cat. Albert did many sweet and lovely things for people, but George fought for the common good and didn’t compromise. I liked that. I liked Albert, too. Anyone who does what he did for Edith–well, he’s a good guy. In fact, I liked all the characters. This was a really good read.

 

My Verdict

4.0

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain releases on May 31, 2022, but is available for pre-order. 

(I do not make any money from Amazon).

 

 

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Book Reviews

Review: River of Earth by James Still

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“Father looked darkly at her, and she ran out of the garden, ashamed of her vain-wishing”

My Interest

On my new job another librarian told me about the Kentucky Virtual Library and mentioned author Janice Holt Giles, whose book The Believers I admire (and recommend to anyone visiting Kentucky’s Shaker home), so I decided to check it out. I was browsing the University of Kentucky Press’ holdings on the KYVL and ran across author James Still. I wasn’t interested in poetry, but took a look at this book and in a few minutes I was hooked. It was a strange coincidence that, at the same time, my audio book for my commute, How Green Was My Valley, also looked at the devastation of coal mining on the land and on the soul.

A lot of it sounded similar–though not as in plagiarism. And, no surprise there. Much of Appalachia was settled by the Scots-Irish and Welsh (my ancestors). In the 1980’s PBS series, The Story of English, it was revealed that some of the dialect STILL spoken resembled the English of Shakespeare’s day. Hmmmm….maybe by really old folks. Mostly today that dialect is a mess of bad grammar and what we used to call “cussing.”

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Map of the USA showing Kentucky, The coal mines are mostly in the eastern counties.

The Story

“‘I was born to dig coal,’ Father said.” (p. 241)

Seen through the eyes of the elder (eldest at the start) son of a a Kentucky hill family, River of Earth tells of the struggle to make a living in the coal mining region of Kentucky seemingly at approximately the end of the 19th Century or early in the 20th (no cars, telephone, etc). His mother Alpha, and his father, Brack, have a good marriage and, at the start of the story, 3 sons and a daughter: the unnamed son who tells the story, Euly, the only daughter, Fletch and Green, the younger sons.

“This [meat] box holds nothing but a hungry smell.” (p.59)

Alpha longs for a real home–a homestead, where she can always be sure of having a garden to provide food for her family, and to have a cow for milk for her children. She wants to have a home inhabited just by her own small family-herself, her husband and their children. Brack, though, has coal in his veins. He lives to mine coal and takes satisfaction from it. He also feels the ties of family very fiercely and likes having relatives with them even when they eat them out of house and home. Time and again Alpha builds up the supplies, growing a nice garden and puts it up for her family only to have the mines reopen and Brack haul them all away from the parcel of rented land again to another company house at a coal mine.

Both parents want their children to have an education–at least in keeping with their time. But too often, when they move to the mine the school is shuttered and the children get nothing. But they learn through the folklore of the tales their ribald uncles tell. And he wants to read a tract that the tract lady sells for a donation–that’s all the literature he knows can be bought.

The environmental devastation of coal mining is represented in the burning slag heaps that cause a fog and miasma around the company town. The fetid air, made worse by poor sanitation, poor hygiene, tobacco spit (still a problem in Appalachia in spite of all the Mt Dew bottles pressed into service as spittoons today).

My Thoughts

I can imagine in 1940 this book probably set some people off–much like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy did a few years ago, although one is a novel, the other a memoir. The “charming” folksy dialect would make some back then cringe–especially those who have just escaped that life and made their way to a high school and possibly a decent job outside the mines.

Today, we appreciate that the dialect is “folklore”–possibly the most maligned academic subject ever, especially belittled by Conservatives who see it as a “do-nothing” degree that never leads to a job. But part of folklore is the way language is used and changes. It also looks at kinship patterns, a food, at superstitions and at traditional medicine. All of that is in this book to some degree. Language, too, is part of folklore. No one today may say “Mounty-cat” for a [animal] catamount, for example, but that is just one example from the story.

This is an incredible story. It truly does make a fine pairing with How Green Was My Valley–the themes, the people, the values–all of it works so well together.

My Verdict

4.0

River of Earth: A Novel by James Still

 

 

 

Historical Fiction

Book Reviews

Review: Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay

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My Interest

An epistolary novel–a story told in letters, that concerns friendship, mentions many books, and tons of great food? You bet!

The Story

The less we cement ourselves to our certainties, the fuller our lives can be.”

Joan is a young woman in Los Angeles stifled by her job as a secretary for a drugstore. She reads a colorful column in a magazine about clam digging on the coast of Washington near Seattle. [The column is included after the author’s notes]. She writes to the author, Imogen (“Immy”) and Imogen writes back. A friendship is born.The time is October 1962 (when I was 7 months old!). The friends become early “foodies” and try new things and learn to cook fresh, exciting food. They share their hearts with each other about life, their men, world events, changes in the world and more. Imogen is 10 years older than Joan’s mother, but she feels like Immy could be her sister.

Note: Don’t skip over the author’s notes or the surprises at the end! So good. There are even recipes!

My Thoughts

A little disappointing. It’s hard to write too much about the story–it would all be spoilers. I must say this book was partially a disappointment–and I had truly expected to love it. An historical fiction pet peeve or two reared its/their head(s) [this ambiguity in counting is dependent upon how you view them].  Times were changing in the early to mid 1960s. but some attitudes expressed in the story were dangerously close to modern. 60 years ago was not today. At one point one of the ladies all but admits she discovered her “white privilege.” Lots of people were waking up to racism, its true, and women’s liberation was getting a great start, but it was laid on a little thick in this instance.

Also, there were things that were a bit prescient–mentioning how Scoop Jackson and others were said to be working on civil rights legislation and how cool it was to be alive at that point in history is an example. Those were a bit much. There were a few others–but that’s sampling enough of that sort of thing. I also felt having Joan, who wrote about food, being given an assignment to interview [no spoilers] had too tenuous a tie. That one was an eye-roll.

What I Loved. I liked the friendship that developed and though, probably due to today’s page limits, it had to develop quickly I did not find that difficult to accept. I liked the way Joan’s career progressed in a believable way from secretary to writer since she had the education necessary from Stanford and UCLA. I do wonder how her male friend felt about her new career (no spoilers) since he sort of got her started. I liked their relationship, but …[no spoilers]. I thought the Tijuana story, while it’s ending was the one I hoped for, did him a grave injustice.

I’d love to have know Joan, her mother, her male friend, and, especially, Immy, and Francis–and their University foodie-friends in real life. I shared Immy’s angst over the Pike Place Market in Seattle being threatened. Indianapolis’ City Market was reduced to a food court for a number of years–great lunch spot, but not what it was meant to be, so I loved the discussion of that. Urban Planning and “Urban Renewal” were very hot topics well into the 1970s–I have a great memory of that I’ll share another time.

I would enjoy reading the author’s other novel and her Vietnamese travel and cookbook and will request them from the library. She tells a good story. And, I’m in awe that she got to work at Elliott Bay Books! I loved that she, too, had an inspiring great aunt (I had more than one) who shared the New Yorker and more with her as mine did with me, and that her aunt was the model for Immy.

My Verdict

3.0

Love & Saffron by Kim Fay

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Book Reviews

Review: The Windsor Knot: A Novel by S.J. Bennett

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First, Happy 95th Birthday, Your Majesty. I know you aren’t one for hugs, but you need one this week, so I’m sending you one.  I know this man is gone now, but it is too soon to leave him out. I’m sure he’s with his sisters, parents, friends, your sister, and all the others now. If only he were by your side today.

Second, Prince Philip’s funeral was absolutely perfect. The music was beautiful and I LOVED his carriage with the Fell ponies and their “pot” of sugar lumps. How my own father would have loved that! But, oh, it was so sad to see the Queen sitting all alone, but I know she would never have tolerated any exceptions being made for her. I read that she supposedly had one of of his white pocket squares in her purse as well as a favorite photo from long ago of the two of them.  That was so sweet. I do hope she gets to see baby August Brooksbank since he lives nearby and have cards from George, Charlotte, Louis, Mia, Savannah, and Isla. That would make any Great-Granny’s day.

My Interest

A new royal novel with the Queen as the sleuth? Yes, please! It’s a series? Even better. I’ve written before about an apparently new genre of famous people turned into Agatha-Christie-types. The Mitford Sisters, mystery writer Josephine Tey, even Eleanor Roosevelt has been made into one. So, why not the Queen?

The Story

A “dine and sleep” with the Queen at Windsor Castle is an honor whether the invitation is as a guest or as a guest who entertains the others. But when one such guest is found dead the next day, does Her Majesty clutch her famous everyday pearls? Indeed not. She survived the Blitz and servicing Army vehicles as well as two difficult daughters-in-law, a fire at this same castle, and now the granddaughter-in-law-from-Hell. She’ll deal with this once she’s had her morning tea and cereal from that famous Tupperware container, walked the corgis and dorgis, ridden her Fell Pony, and taken the first crack at the Red Boxes full of state papers. Once a fictitious and well Prince Philip has been launched with and dispatched to his own interests, then, yes, then, she will get down to the business of solving a murder. One has one’s priorities.

Her Majesty is aided in her regular work as Sovereign by a rotating team of Ladies in Waiting, a Private Secretary (Diana’s brother-in-law held this post for years), an assistant Private Secretary, and more. In her “secondary” work investigating murders, Her Fictitious Majesty is aided by a smart, young British-Nigerian former Army officer, former investment banker, Rozie Oshodi, who comes in for most of the legwork on the case. Whether it is setting up meetings that “never happened” with experts, clandestine meetings with old hands who have formerly helped H.M. with murder cases but are now semi-retired, Rozie handles the gumshoe work while Her Maj does the adding up of clues. Rozie is Watson, to the Queen’s Sherlock Holmes.

This was a fun, well-done book. It was in no way disrespectful to the Queen or the Royal Family. The titles were right, too! One teensy-weensy error: The Privy Council has always (or “long” at least) met standing up. This is not an innovation of Elizabeth II’s. It keeps the meetings short and sweet. More organizations need to adopt this format.

My Verdict

The Windsor Knot: A Novel (Her Majesty Investigates, Book One) by S..J. Bennett

Other posts about Real Life Figures as Detectives

More Real-Life People Turned into Fictional Sleuths

Two Real-Life People Made Over Into Fictional Sleuths

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Survivors: A Novel by Jane Harper

My Interest

I’ve enjoyed Jane Harper’s previous books so of course I wanted to read this one! I like listening to the Australian reader, too. I do not read or listen to that many thrillers/mysteries so this was a step out of my routine too.

The Story

A hometown tragedy reasserts itself when Kieran and Mia come home with baby Audrey to help his mother cope with selling her seafront home and care for her husband with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. While there a new tragedy strikes the community. Old rivalries and jealousies flare. Is there a connection between the tragedies?

My Thoughts

This was a good story, but not as good as the other two books by Harper that I’ve read. I found myself getting confused–which might not have happened if I’d read it instead of listening to it. I could have flipped back to a past chapter and sorted it out. It is still a good read by an author I now consider a “must-read.”

My Verdict

3.0

The Searches: A Novel by Jane Harper

 

My reviews of other books by Jane Harper:

 

Force of Nature

 

 

 

The Dry

 

Book Reviews

Japanese Lit Challenge # 14 Review: Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

My Interest

I have been succeeding in reading only short books during COVID. This novella fit the page limit, and fit the Japanese Literature Challenge, and I loved the cool cover, AND I loved the sound of the story!

The Story

Coming of age is never easy. It’s even harder when you have a single Mom who is “Westernizing” your grandmother’s house while Grandma (Mom’s mother-in-law) is slowly dying in her bed. Our unnamed narrator is a boy in the 4th–6th grades. He falls hard for the lady who packages and sells the ready-made sandwiches at his local supermarket. She is a controversial figure. Ice-blue eye shadow is her trademark. The girls (who frighten him) whose parents put dancing class over cram school say they’d rather die than look like her. But oh the feelings are so real! And then there is this: “Grandma’s who’s asleep and Grandma who’s going to die Are these the same Grandma?“A boy needs his Grandma–even if she’s barely “there,” especially if his Mom always has her head in her phone.

“So I decide to pretend the three [dancing class] girls don’t exist, and to pay attention to the tiny leaves in front of me, and take my brush and dab them with bluish-green paint. This moment, this feeling. When you first look at it, the surface of the drawing paper looks totally flat, but if you look carefully there are bumps and pits in the surface. Like the bumpy, rocky surface of a mountain. Colored rain pours down on it, and before you realize it, the surface has completely changed” (p. 45).

Our boy escapes from his less-than-perfect home life and his Ice Sandwich lady dreams into his art> First his school project of a landscape and then his labor of love: drawing Miss Ice Sandwich until the finished product is as perfect as he can make it.

My Thoughts

This is such a sweet story! Finally, a Japanese novel I’m positive I understood. Not since Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford have I bee so moved by a coming-of-age story. This was just about perfect.

My Verdict

For the second time in a year, I am awarding:

4.5 Stars

Miss Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami. Translated by Louise Heal Kawai

Here is a link to all the information on the Japanese Literature Challenge #14

My earlier book review for Japanese Literature Challenge #14

after the quake by Haruki Murakami

Book Reviews

Wintering Book # 2: Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

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This week I’m reviewing two books with the same main title: Wintering. Monday, I reviewed Wintering: A Season With Geese by Stephen Rutt.

My Interest

There is so much interest in this book in our COVID-stymied world that I pulled up the Amazon sample and read it. I thought it was essays–that’s why I bought it. Essays, like short stories, have been “working” for me for a change. That it is more memoir turned out to be just fine.

“Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of outsider….However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful. Yet it is also inevitable.”

(p. 10, Kindle edition)

The Story

The subtitle–The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, really spoke to me. Rest (sleep) and retreat (stay home) is what I, an introvert, naturally do in difficult times. I’ve never been upset to miss a party or an event with crowds. COVID, were it not for the people dying, would be pretty much perfect life for me.

“Winter is not the death of life cycle, but its crucible.” (p. 14)

Katherine May’s “winter” begins when her hale, hardy, husband is suddenly hospitalized and nearly dies. Now, wait! This isn’t an Oprah book! That’s about as depressing as it gets. Katherine’s struggles are along the same curve as most of ours. She is a mother of a little boy, was a college professor, is a writer, and has a struggle with depression. She begins to identify ways people survive their “winters”–whether physical winters (weather) or sad, lonely, or depressed times (mental). By telling these stories and, in the best womanly fashion relating her own trials and tribulations to those stories–even trying their methods of coping, we get the full picture.

I highlighted so many quotes, made notes, nodded and “yes”-ed and “yep”-ed all through this book. She strayed over into what I call “the precious” only a very few times, and only when discussing her little boy. (His name is “Bert” which in the USA would be a “please kick me sign” of a name, but “Bertie” is a very popular name in the UK–like “Archie” or “Wilf” or “Alfie” all of which dumbfound Americans).

The story that meant the most to me was a woman who suffered so badly from depression and hypermania her life was all but unlivable to her. Wanting to be “fixed” by medication she sought a revamp from her doctor. He told her he could “tweak” meds but it would not “fix” her.

“This isn’t about you getting fixed,” he said. “This is about you living the best life you can within the parameters that you have.”

(p. 182)

This statement profoundly changed her life. She stopped trying to be like others. She discovered by chance that it severe cold offered her the greatest relief. Cold, icy water swims–frigid water swims, to be exact. The kind of swims air force pilots the world over are trained to “survive” are what gave her back her life.

My Thoughts

I absorbed, as much as “read” this book. The stories moved me, educated me, and connected me to the season of winter. One of the beauties of reading seasonally, like eating in season, is that as I write this I am looking out my home office window at my snow-covered front yard. It increases the connection. It also moved me that author Katherine May [things may be labeled differently in the UK–I think in the USA we may not be using this anymore] has a diagnosis of Asperger s Syndrome and lives the life, as much as possible, that works just for her. This is a rare gift. Too many people cannot do this (not only do to financial realities–which impact the author), but through real or imagined pressure to conform to a societal norm that may not even exist.

My Verdict

4.0

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

 

Book Reviews

Review: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

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My Interest

Well, let’s see–horses and books, horses and libraries, a librarian on horseback–take your pick! Add to it, the WPA, injustice, and the hollers of Kentucky, and well, I’m in!

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The Appalachian counties are in the eastern end of Kentucky, boardering Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee

The Story

Cussy Mary Carter is a “Blue,” a person with a rare condition that turns her skin blue. In Appalachian Kentucky in the 1930’s such a person was seen as “colored” or “Negro,” and subject to the former border state’s segregation laws. FDR’s New Deal brought a lot of new thinking and new programs to this area, among them the Packhorse Librarians. Cussy Mary is one of the great horse-riding book women of this program.

Her life in the area of Troublesome Creek illustrates why the New Deal wasn’t just the boondoggle its critics labeled it. Daily Cussy May sees the unfairness of life–of children dying of pellagra, “The Kentucky Disease.” Her father, a coal miner, works in unsafe, unhealthy conditions, and is dying of black lung disease. He and his fellow miners are kept in debt by the company store and the script miners are paid in to keep them from going elsewhere. Unions for miners are in their infancy.

As Cussy Mary and her mule Junia, deliver the donated books and magazines to her widely scattered patrons, she sees first-hand what education, entertainment, and broader horizons can do for people. I loved the idea of the scrapbooks–collections of local recipes, household and health tips, sewing patterns and all manner of little items, tucked into books made by the librarians themselves.  Perhaps she included her Mama’s recipe for Scripture Cake–I love the sound of that. A cake that teaches a child her Bible verses while she also learns to bake would be a good thing! What a great resource those scrapbooks would have been! In those days a Vertical File (file cabinet) at the library would have housed those. How wonderful to make the idea so easily transported.

Along the way, Cussy Mary agrees to be tested to see if a cure can be found for the blue skin problem. This takes her out of her word to exotic Lexington, Kentucky. I was pleased that the author included a note on her slight change of medical research dates to fit the story, but it all worked so well.

My Thoughts

The violence of life in the hollers, the cruelty, the desperate poverty, were all some of the things the New Deal, progressive education, the TVA, and similar ideas were meant to rectify or improve.  Sadly, most of the problems were still there when JFK and RFK toured Kentucky and West Virginia a generation later. In fact, some of the problems are still there.

Librarires came to this region via the WPA and, later, with various federal programs for educating the disadvantaged. Today there are prek–12 public schools, public universities and community colleges and libraries throughout even the poorest parts of Kentucky. The ravages today are not pellegra but lung cancer, black lung, and opiod addictions. All sorts of government programs try to help, but I doubt if any have brought the same personalized service and goodwill that the Pack Horse Librarians brought.

My Verdict

3.5 Stars–a good read

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

For More On the Pack Horse Librarians, or on traditional Appalachian life see:

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Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt, is a book for any age. My review is here.

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That Book Womanby Heather Henson, is a children’s book on the program.

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Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera Cleaver is a young person’s story that tells of a mountain family collecting medicinal plants.

 

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Christy by Catherine Marhsall is the story of a young teacher at an Appalachian mission school. There was a television series based on this book several years ago.

 

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The Foxfire Series are full of mountain folklore, crafts and what-have-you from Appalachia. I answered my first “professional” librarian reference question from these!