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Review: Fire Season: Field Notes of a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

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Thanks to Words and Peace for alerting me to this book.

My Interest

Years ago my great uncle, artist Edwin Fulwider, suggested forest service fire watcher as a possible job for me. I was happy in my own company, preferred quiet, and could cope with isolation. I even looked into it. Alas, it never happened, but I’ve had the indoor equivalent most of my life: solo librarian jobs.

The Story

A man, who seems very like the fabled soulmate I’ve searched for most of my life, ditches his job with the Wall Street Journal (a tough call, but I understand it) to spend about 1/3 of his work year in a fire tower in a national forest. (His wife is so on board with this, she goes to nursing school so she can be the principal breadwinner and even lets him take the dog with him on his fire-watching stints.) Interweaving personal narrative and fire or forest service history, Connors tells a fascinating tale of life in the forest with a segue into his “Where I Was When the Towers Went Down” memory, now seemingly mandatory in any nonfiction story written by anyone in Manhattan that tragic day. I’m not belittling his experience for I understand that moment is seared on the memory of anyone there that day.  I just had a problem incorporating it into this book. True, his New York life was part of the book, but I felt the long foray into 9/11 was a bit forced and very jarring compared to the rest of his big city life memories.

My Thoughts

Aside from the odd clash of the 9/11 story’s inclusions, and truthfully even with it, this book brings the reader into the forest and up that tower. Connor’s prose and the reader’s excellent audiobook performance, caused me to fall in love with the author and to take a step back –seriously, where has this guy been all my life? And now I must wonder “what if?” —what if Uncle Ed’s job idea for me had come to fruition? No matter, I truly enjoyed every word of this book even with my small doubts about that one memory.

This book will be a classic of nature writing–I’m sure of it.

Fire Season: Field Notes of a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors

If you enjoy nonfiction nature writing check out this book:

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Mushroom Hunters by Langdon Cook. My review is here.

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Review: Any Human Heart by William Boyd

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William Boyd is an author I love, but forget to read. That sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. A Good Man In Africa had such an effect on me that I feel like I know this author! (Of course I don’t!). (Note: the movie is good, too). (Note 2: I have re-read that book a few times and always think Prince William of Gloucster is somehow the Morgan!!! Probably because he was a diplomat in Nigeria for a while.) Probably since this book was published several months after my children joined my life I am just now getting to it. I hope to catch-up on more of his books as well.

The Story

Logan Mountstuart starts writing a diary at his lesser public (private) school in about 1920. He and his two best friends decide to shake things up by setting challenges for each other (no spoilers). This seems to be the theme of his life.  Throughout the years of his adult life he often keeps a diary. The story, therefore, is told in chronological oder–something I like. I get tired of either constant jumps back-and-for-and-around in time or of the genre I think of as “Old lady tells her story to incredulous modern young person” which I’ve come to loathe. I liked that Logan’s story just goes forward.

There’s a royal tie-in that made it all even more interesting, even if it is an era that I know quite a lot about. During World War II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were exhiled to the Bahamas, where the former King of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Nothern Ireland and it’s Empire was reduced to administering the few duties as his younger  brother, George VI’s, representative on an even smaller island. The death of Harry Oakes is a big blot on the Duke’s record. His handling of the siutaion as as bad as Boyd makes it out to be in Logan’s diary.

Boyd makes Logan real. The emotions, the aches and pains, the love and lust–all are real. The last years in London left me saying “this is me in 20 years.” (Again, no spoilers).  Let’s just say I’m glad “Bowser” isn’t a brand here. (Read the story) though we all have heard similar tales from that line of goods before.

I also had a fun personal moment when Logan’s story and the characters in one of my books were in the same place, class and time. I had a great time imagining them meeting at a dinner party or on the golf course.

My one complaint on the book is that Ian Fleming drops out of it after the war. I’d like to have seen him in it more after his great financial success with the James Bond books.

A Post Script: William Boyd was at school with Prince Charles and wrote a television play about the experience at fictionalized version of the school Charles called Colditz in Kilts.

This book was also made into a t.v. series shown on PBS Masterpiece. I apparently missed it as we’d just given up television the year it was broadcast! Just my luck.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

 

 

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Review: Still Me: A Novel by Jojo Moyes

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Like most everyone who has read it, I fell so in love with Me Before You–I even liked the movie! Unlike most everyone, I also liked After You. I’ve worked with a lot of Will Traynors–well, pre-accident Will Traynor-types. It rang so true. The third installment of this series, Still Me, keeps the high standard of the series, but like book two, can’t hope to achieve the glorious love-pain of Me Before You.  But don’t worry–there is still so much to love that you will definitely want to read it. Even more than an adorable pug named Dean Martin!

 

 

 

The Story

This time around, Louisa Clark has landed in what at first glance appears to be the Trumps with a side dish of Mrs. Danvers. But keep reading. The Louisa we all love is in there–big time. New York is the perfect antidote for Louisa as she tries to find out who she really is, what she really wants to do with her life and who and what she really needs in that life.

My Thoughts

If you were upset with After You, give Louisa a second chance. You won’t regret it. And, I can’t wait to see who plays Dean Martin in the eventual movie. This book is the Bees Knees! And, yes, that line is important!

 

Still Me, by Jojo Moyes.

 

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Review: Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

 

 

Introduction

If you read their short stories in Fall of Poppies, you’ll understand immediately why I was drawn to Last Christmas in Paris. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb live and breathe the spirit of the World War I era.

The Story

Evie and Thomas correspond throughout the War. Their letters, and occasionally those of other people in their lives, cover the range of emotions throughout the long, senseless war. Along with Evie’s brother Will and their mutual friend Alice, the foursome had planned to spend a Christmas in Paris. The war changed that. There is also a brief, intermittent, story of one character in 1968 throughout the book.

What I Loved

Everything. I just loved this book.  I especially liked the way the couple’s letter show the changes the war brings to them and to their outlook–the maturity in some ways, as well as the ways they are left unchanged. Seeing the notions of masculinity, honor and duty crushed by the senselessness of the war is soul crushing both to the reader and the to the characters, yet the book is in no way depressing–this is a story of mutual encouragement.

“It is March [1915] already You and Will have been gone six months. Half a year. It feels more like half a lifetime. How much longer must we endure this, Tom? How much longer until the enemy is defeated and you can return to England, victorious?” ( Evie p. 70)

“I wonder when my time will be up? Will it be all white-hot pain, or the slow drain of life ebbing away? I keep a last letter in my jacket pocket–a lot of us do, just in case. I think about it often, who will read it first. Will the words have any meaning when I’m only a memory in the ground? …In these moments I wish I had drawn up a will. It was foolish to leave my fate to chance….” (Thomas, p. 77)

Six months into the war and this is how they feel! Wow! Six months. As the years of the war go on, as friends and loved ones die, as other threats arise, their friendship endures.  It is so hard to even give quotes here without giving spoilers!

I loved the way we see the modern world beginning in their stories–the “battle fatigue” cases that today we know as PTSD are one way. The use of women in noncombatant roles,  not only as nurses, eventually grows to place them, in uniform, very near the front.  Women also found some freedom on the home front to take jobs left vacant by the men who were off fighting. Farming, labor, and service jobs all saw women filling roles and doing it well. Women were also writing in the press specifically for other women–this is, of course, the era of the Suffragettes.  In Britain the movement agreed to stop for the duration of the war, but women still made their voices heard. By telling the women’s side of the war, all of Britain benefited and men, even the stuffy club men, had to take notice.  Barriers were coming down in some ways, as well. At the front the men banded together having to trust each other in spite of class differences. Men and women also began to find romance across class distinctions at the front, or very near the front, as well.

My verdict

4 solid stars

This book is a treasure. Don’t miss it.

 

 

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Review: Rare Objects: A Novel by Kathleen Tessaro

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I won this book in a giveaway either at Goodreads or from the publisher on Twitter.

The Story:

Miss Maeve Fanning comes to work at an antique dealer’s shop after a complicated past. Her young life has already met failed love and more, but in the shop she finds a something to latch on to and a chance to start over. Meanwhile, uber-rich Diana Van der Laars also has a complicated past for such a young woman. They become friends and things get more complicated.

Maeve naturally is captivated by Diana’s seemingly suave brother and is entranced by the Van der Laars lifestyle. The glittery parties and exotic nightclubs selling illegal liquor in the last year of prohibition held her attention even more than the artifacts and antiques she was selling by day.

So help me, I kept picturing Princess Diana, whenever Diana was in the story. Maybe because the Princes had just said their mother was the “naughtiest of parents” and that word “naughtiest” suited this fictional Diana just as well.

What I Liked:

One often meets one’s fate on the road one takes to avoid it.” (p. 266).

I loved the story of the antique store and its fascinating owners. I enjoyed Maeve–or “May” as she now calls herself and her harmless flirtation with the largely absent owner Mr. Winshaw. I also thoroughly enjoyed Maeve’s mother and her well-earned knowledge of fashion and how clothes are made and should fit. That reminded me instantly of my mother. I enjoyed, too, finding South Africa as a country of origin–something not often found in a novel about upper-class society. I also loved Andrew (no spoilers).

I liked Maeve’s thought:

“I thought of my own past, layered with different versions of myself. The tricky part wasn’t the roles you played, but which ones you ended up believing yourself.

 

I liked all the ways people tried to guide Maeve. Given other P.C. elements, I was pleasantly surprised that a Catholic Priest was taken seriously in the story:

“Well, aren’t you going to tell me what God wants?” [Maeve] prompted.

“I haven’t a clue what God wants for you, Maeve. He doesn’t talk to me about your life–he only talks to me about mine. If you are interested in what he has to say, you’ll have to listen for yourself.” (p. 266)

 

Possible Spoiler

I also thought the story did a commendable job of portraying mental illness–especially addiction. Often the “cure” suggested does work well for people. Especially those who cannot stand to be alone. I especially liked this line:

[The therapist] “explained to me–that people who aren’t afflicted as I was wouldn’t comprehend the lengths I had to go to.” And that the therapist’s attitude was “strenuously positive.” (p. 274)

The description of the withdrawal from a substance was well done and very realistic. In my personal life I am currently watching someone go thru this–it really spoke to me for its accuracy.

Call me old fashioned but I also thought the dating advice she got from older women was really good. As a parent I’ve lived thru more dating drama than I ever thought could happen in one lifetime. Why? Because when I gave advice like in this book it was ignored!

A man needs to meet the family sooner rather than later. After all the family is what matters! The family tells you everything you need to know about the person. The family is what is left after the roses fade…..All your life Mae, ….you love to live in storybooks and movies. …. But life is no fairy tale. When you meet a man, you have to think, not just feel. Where they ocme from, where they’re going, what they believe…” (p. 303).

But, of course, I am supposed to follow Meave–the heroine, right? Here is her thought on this:

“She didn’t understand. I came from nowhere and had a past not even I wanted to know about.”

You guessed right if you thought she believed she’d just been “unlucky.” Ah youth…

The older lady sums up perfectly:

“They look for roses when they should be looking for indoor plumbing.”

Not romantic? No, but lifelong which matters more?

 

What I Liked Less:

The story felt chopped up–even the opening. Like some small parts of the story had been cut to meet an arbitrary page count or that some parts of the story were cut to make room for the now seemingly obligatory P.C. story lines. These were very minor, but for the most part added nothing but modern day self-righteousness to the story.

One big mistake

I kept reading “Declaration Day.” (p. 284). Is this a now forgotten Bostonian holiday? I’m pretty sure it is DECORATION Day that was meant. Today it is called Memorial Day. Honestly? A Google search would have fixed this. If I am wrong, I’ll happily print a correction.

 

Verdict and Rating

3.5

In spite of my quibbles with this book, I can’t wait to read more from this author! But, sadly, I have to give this book  3.5 stars for the choppiness alone. The P.C. bits crammed in aren’t big enough to take the rating down, I’m just utterly sick of them.

 

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Reading Around the World: Iceland

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Before finding this book thru a mention of the author’s work on another blog, all I knew about Iceland was that it was somehow related to Norway, their economy tanked badly about a decade ago and they knit those fabulous sweaters and make those white-ish coats–both fashions that were popular in the 80s if I remember correctly. I had a professor who did his PhD on the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War–God knows why I remember that! I think there were SALT or START talks in Reykjavik–maybe with Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev? I have never knowingly met anyone from Iceland, but a friend worked for many years with a doctor from there, so I knew their naming convention–how they arrive at their “surname” or last name, was quite different from that of Americans.

Here are a few things I learned:

  1. Icelanders, like Americans, drive everywhere and in big cars.
  2. Everyone goes to school until 20–but they start out with several years of preschool in which they play. I like the play part–much, much better than the drill and kill in our preschools and pre-K/K today. Here’s a great blog post (different author) on Icelandic Preschool–it goes well with the discussions in the book. That’s just fyi in case your book club wants to read this!
  3. Their dietary staples are potatoes and dairy–including buttermilk. Protein comes mostly from fish especially haddock  (understandable) and lamb. They traditionally have preserved certain foods in whey. I’ve never encountered that before.
  4. They used to eat cod liver oil on bread, not because they liked it, but because it had to be to survive. They got used to it.
  5. There are live, active volcanoes and there was an eruption while the author was living there in 2007.
  6. There are people there who believe in Elves–not the cute little Ernie from Keebler or those silly garden gnomes, but huge trolls. They figure into the tourist trade nicely.
  7. Everyone learns to knit in school and many continue throughout life. They knit “openly” in meetings–just like Eleanor Roosevelt and Lilian Gilbreth (“Cheaper by the Dozen”) did  back in the day.
  8. In spite of it “seeming” safer than many other countries, Iceland, possibly due to the long winters,  alcohol, and the tanked-economy, has a very high domestic violence rate that isn’t well known.
  9. Children have freedom to do things without hovering, micro-managing parents. Babies in prams are left outside shops and restaurants routinely. No one bothers them.
  10. Sadly, when the main highway was built it created ghost towns of places that depended on the supply boats coming. Many cannot be reached by road and the boats stopped after the switch was made to trucking supplies.

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Reykjavik

The author, Sarah Moss, is a professor of English from the U.K. who took leave to work in Iceland. She and her husband and two young sons would have enjoyed staying in Iceland, but could not afford it on the salary. Sadly, this colored her views on things. She is very opinionated on the wastefulness of Icelanders in their big houses and big cars. She complains that no one uses public transportation or walks when the weather allows. Cycling isn’t popular either, to her regret. She finds it difficult to locate second hand goods (apparently she didn’t ask the right people or try Facebook or something). She’s a fairly typical expatriate in this regard–not understanding why people “abroad” don’t do as they do “at home.”

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Her harping on such things, plus her total disregard for the culinary culture, economy and logistics of bringing in fresh fruit and veggies got old.  I also thought she should have gone on the trip her husband wanted, but that’s another matter. She seems like she really is a very decent–and often fun person to know and work with. Her complaints are the kind of things that rankle when anyone lives abroad (I know some similar things got to me in Malawi).

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The two most interesting things to me where the knitting and their approach to charity. Everyone learns to knit in school and even men knit in adulthood. But those sweaters I love? There’s no ancient tradition at all! They’re post war! Who knew?  Several of the author’s Icelandic co-workers made themselves such sweaters just to prove to themselves they could–just like a lot of people approach crafts here. That was fun. FYI: There are organized knitting tours in Iceland! Now THAT I’d love, especially this Hiking and Knitting Between Fire and Ice tour next August! But I digress–these weren’t in the book!

With the economy falling apart, many people lost jobs and it became very difficult to pay foreign-currency bank loans for houses and cars. A friend arranged for her to visit a charity that gave out food boxes. Icelanders don’t line up. They honor the order in which people arrived just fine, but they stand apart at bus stops, in stores or anywhere else that a line would form. Most found it hard to believe that people were starving because they wouldn’t admit there were problems. A further issue was that many “foreigners” were getting charity–even if those “foreigners” had been there for a long time and weren’t really that foreign.  That, sadly, is often the case today.

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Overall I enjoyed the book, but had no interest in the Elves–aside from how they are co-opted into Christmas. I was far more interested in daily life and societal norms than in folklore. As a follow-up, I plan to read at least one of the author’s novels.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Want to learn more? Check out this fun Book Riot post on Iceland: A Country of Bibliophiles

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