Posts by challengingthebookworm

Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing

Title: Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing
Author: Olga Mecking
ISBN: 9780358395317
Pages: 250 pages
Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2020.

Many people have asked me, what does niksen mean? Do I do nothing when I browse Facebook? When I sit on my couch and worry about my children? When I’m thinking about an article I want to write? When I meditate? The answer is no. You might call those things nothing, but in reality, they are not. These things are not niksen. To do niks does not mean to work, to perform emotional labor, or to be mindful. (6)

Olga Mecking ends up using synonyms and the words of others to define the concept of niksen, or — as this slim book is subtitled — “the Dutch art of doing nothing.” She quotes Elise de Bres’ explanation of lanterfanten, in that “you can just do as you please and there is no aim in whatever you do.” Another synonym is luieren, which she quotes a Dutch online dictionary as defining as “to consciously do nothing or not very much.” (28) While Mecking also mentions other similar movements, such as mindfulness and zen, she’s adamant that this is different because niksen is not meant to promote self-reflection, but rather a feeling of zoning out or comfort. Mecking repeatedly uses imagery like sitting on a coach with a cup of coffee or watching a sunset.

The minimalist presentation on the cover and small size of the book reminds me of Marie Kondo’s newest Joy at Work or The Happiness Institute series by Meik Wiking and is likely an intentional allusion that we’ve been seeing a lot of with lifestyle books. Think of Adam Grant’s books or the similarly titled Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee published ironically at the start of the pandemic and 2020’s stay at home orders. After beginning with a brief study of some of those recent movements that encourage self-awareness, slowing down, and focusing on the moment, Mecking spends each chapter focusing on a question or feature of niksen, including the Dutch culture, the difficulties of niksen, the biological benefits of niksen, tips on how to incorporate the practice in your own life, and finally but recognizably conversely, incidents when niksen might not be right for you. She digressed topics several times and quoted so extensively from “experts” and other sources that her bibliography was 16 pages long. While I appreciated her thoroughness and will likely seek out some of the books mentioned (Tony Crabbe’s Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much for one peaked my curiosity), it read more like a conversational thesis rather than a presentation of unique ideas. If you are looking for a how to guide, this is not it, as Mecking at one point admits there is not right way to do nothing and in fact that it might not work for everyone.

I think the last chapter is one of the more surprising but also one of the more beneficial to the book. Unlike most movements, Mecking recognizes that niksen won’t be for everyone, especially for those who are depressed and might require a reason to get moving, when doing nothing could get you in trouble, and if slowing down just doesn’t suit your lifestyle and personal preferences. I admit I might be one of those people, who has struggled during this pandemic to slow down and who feels the guilt that Mecking mentions early in her book that sometimes creeps in when we take time to slow down and do nothing. She encourages being unapologetic and owning the fact that you are “doing nothing” instead of compounding the stress that never ending busyness of most cultures, especially American, but there is little advice in how to do that.

However, I also recognize the benefits I experience when I do stop and smell the roses, gaze across the water at the beach, or simply go for a walk by myself. And that’s a point that Mecking tries to repeatedly make, that “doing nothing” will look different to people. For some, it will be literally sitting on the couch staring out the window or at a wall and loosing yourself not in your thoughts but in just being. For others, it will be coloring or walking or listening to music. It doesn’t even require solitude, as Mecking mentions having a niksen party where people are encouraged to not fill the silence that can naturally occur in a conversation. I think I most connected with equating niksen with the feeling of coziness and comfort, of crawling into fresh sheets and listening to the birds or staring at a fireplace without thinking about anything. Whether that’s the right interpretation doesn’t seem to matter too much to Mecking.

I’m going to end this review with a second quote from the book:

Many people get caught up in an almost reckless and stressful pursuit of happiness. I recommend that instead we strive toward something the Dutch do very well: contentment. They are happy, but not abundantly or extraordinarily so. Their happiness is generally more subdued, quieter. In fact, it’s contentment that comes from them having ample free time, feeling like appreciated members of a community, and knowing they have a stable support network to fall back on should disaster strike, for instance in the form of sickness or unemployment. […]

Niksen gives us time to reflect, tune out, and think a little about what we like and don’t like doing with our time. Niksen gives our lives meaning because it prioritizes what is important to us and encourages us to decide how we want to participate in society. (199-200)

I think, especially during the pandemic, we need to give ourselves that permission to sit and find contentment in whatever way fits our personality, our lifestyle, and ourselves and just…. be. In a way that is unrelated and untied to our profession, our productivity, or other people’s perceptions. For some people, this book will give you that permission. For others, it will spark skepticism instead of the acceptance that they might have been looking for. Mecking recognizes that, and doesn’t try to convince you otherwise.

The Confession Club

Title: The Confession Club
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Series: Arthur Truluv / Mason #3
ISBN: 9781984855176
Pages: 290 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

“I am curious,” Iris says, putting the cake on the table and then sitting down. “What book are you discussing?”
“Oh, this is not a book club,” Karen Lundgren says. “Newwwwwww.”
“What kind of club is it?” Iris asks.
No one says anything. But then Joanie comes in with a cake server, plates, and forks. She slices the cake into even pieces and passes it out. Then she says, “Okay, Iris, I heard you ask what kind of club this is. I will confess that we call it Confession Club.”
“We confess things to one another. Things that we did wrong or that we’re ashamed of.” […] “Talking about things you’re ashamed of is nothing to be ashamed of.” (pg. 51-52)

Continuing the loose ties between the stories begun in The True Story of Arthur Truluv and Night of Miracles, Elizabeth Berg provides several characters seeking redemption. Maddy, who we originally met in the graveyard next to Arthur Truluv’s wife’s grave, is now grown with a daughter named after the beloved woman. But Maddy has retreated from her husband and her home and returned to her former home to reevaluate her life. Although Arthur and Lucille are both gone, Iris has assumed the role of instructor with the baking school out of the house they all have loved over the years, but she is “plagued with ill-formed questions about where she is and why, with worries about how she will end up.” (pg. 17) The same thoughts plague John, a homeless man who might have found a new home in an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of town. These three people circle each other, afraid of making connections that may not last and the lacking confidence in their feelings and ability to make decisions, but each will play a role in building up their lives to mean what they were meant to mean and become what they needed them to become.

If you liked the first two books in the story, you’re invested enough that you’ll have to finish the trilogy. Maddy finds herself coming full circle back “home” to confront her father’s lackadaisical attitude in raising her and also to rediscover the feelings of home she found with Arthur. John’s presence in the community challenges readers presumptions more than the other character’s prejudices, as we only ever see him interact with Iris with any consistency. The story dips its toes into several weighty topics, including infidelity, assisted suicide, PTSD, and homelessness, but because it’s an Elizabeth Berg book we are given only a cursory opportunity to consider how we and the characters feel about these matters of the heart and mind before they story progresses. The moving lyricism from the first two is lacking in this one, but there are still times when you pause to think about how life has turned out for these characters, each of whom are dealing with the repercussions of their actions involving a current or past romance. Most of their problems, especially Maddy’s, seem to stem from an inability to communicate with someone, which contrasts against the backdrop of the “Confession Club,” which readers never become fully invested in as we see too little of the rest of the women in the club to connect with them. Book discussion groups could dive in to discuss any of those things, but the true point of discussion includes the evolving relationship between Iris and John, as we infrequently see a homeless person as self-sufficient as John or a woman as accepting as Iris.

Speaking of discussion questions, I choose this for our local senior book discussion group as Elizabeth Berg has become a group favorite since I introduced them to Arthur Truluv. Feel free to use any or all of these for your own book discussion.

  1. Iris maintains that she’s changed since moving to Mason. If you’ve read the previous books in the series, do you see those changes between books? If you haven’t read the previous books, how do other people change as the story progresses?
  2. “The adults sometimes talk about whether the charm they’ve found here can last, whether small towns can continue to retain their character, their kindness and basic sense of decency. They agree that it has something to do with the smallness of the population. It’s harder to be horrible to someone you see every day.” (page 36) Do you share these feelings about South Lyon? What do you think needs to happen for the South Lyon area to maintain as a small town?
  3. Which confession surprised you the most? Would you feel comfortable hosting a Confession Club with your friends?
  4. Maddy’s father tells her once that “I can’t help my feelings.” In response she remembers thinking “But you can help your behavior.” (page 78). Do you agree with Maddy, and why or why not? What is harder to control, your feelings or your behavior, and why?
  5. Maddy thinks “You can’t ask your children to save you. But they do it anyway.” (page 116) Do you agree with Maddy? Did a child save you at one point in your life?
  6. One of the last things John’s mother says to him was “Take risks, Johnny. Taking risks is just unmasking hope, you know.” (page 148) What risks do the characters in the book take and what risks do they avoid? Do those risks lead the characters to have a new hope?
  7. Maddy says “Bad news I can handle. I expect bad news. I’ve dealt with bad news all my life. Good news makes me cry.” (page 199) Which is easier for you to handle, bad news or good news? Why do you think it differs for different people?
  8. Toots says about the group that the club “shows that when you ask for help, you’re usually asking for it from someone who wants to give it.” (page 281) Who had the most difficulty asking for help? What did they need to ask for and why was it so difficult?
  9. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be homeless? What are your thoughts? How did your impression of them or their circumstances change after reading this book? Would you have been as open to dating John as Iris was?
  10. What was your reaction to the novel’s ending? Was it expected or a surprise?
  11. Gretchen says “We’re all mean to our mothers. It’s a daughter’s duty.” Is that true? At another point, it’s said that “Girls don’t go after boys. Girls waited.” What other things were daughters/girls supposed to do or were expected to do? Do girls and daughters still live with those expectations today?
  12. Maddy reflects at one point on a conversation with Arthur while fishing about why people care what other people think. Arthur calls it a design flaw. What do you think?
  13. If you have read the whole series, which character’s story did you enjoy the most. If the series continued, whose viewpoint did you think would be featured?

The Year of Less

Year of LessTitle: The Year of Less
Author: Cait Flanders
ISBN: 9781401954871
Pages: 189 pages
Publisher/Date: Hay House, Inc., c2018.

“If I was only saving up to 10 percent of my income, where was the rest of my money going? Why was I continually making excuses for my spending? Did I really need 90 percent of my income or could I live on less? I had been asking myself similar questions at the end of every month for 12 months in a row, and I still didn’t know the answers. All I knew was that I seemingly had everything I wanted in my home, in my career, and in my life, and it never felt like enough. I was never satisfied. I always wanted more. But since more of anything wasn’t filling me up, maybe it was time to challenge myself to go after less. (xviii)

By her late twenties, Cait Flanders had paid off her nearly $30,000 of debt, but she was still having trouble finding happiness. So rather than trying to buy it, Flanders goes the route of “less is more” in search of happiness. She declutters her apartment, donating 70 percent of her belongings, institutes a buying ban that only allows purchasing consumables, and even at one point disallows mindless television consumption. She offers advice to others who want to follow her lead in finding joy without the overly promoted consumer culture that dominates today.

Reading this book during a pandemic and stay at home orders resulted in what probably isn’t a typical reaction. I found myself in a position where I along with most of the population were in a forced position of accepting less instead of intentionally pursuing less. We weren’t buying things because we weren’t doing anything or going anywhere and we were worried about spending too much, not because of a self-imposed challenge in an effort to better ourselves.

Instead of coming across as a self-help book, Flanders writing style mimics that of a memoir. We find out how she became absorbed by debt and alcoholism in her earlier years and she expounds repeatedly on her journey to do away with both vices over the course of the previous years. Her annual challenges, although more intentional and self-beneficial, reminded me of the social experiments of A.J. Jacobs. He “lived Biblically” for a year, Flanders lost 30 lbs. Jacobs read the encyclopedia, Flanders paid off her credit card debt. Jacobs goes around thanking everyone and Flanders stops buying anything and starts getting ride of everything. Flanders mentions Marie Kondo’s famous The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was published after she started her experiment, but by the time this book has published the idea of minimalism is not new. She borrows heavily from others, quoting concepts from several now famous TED Talks, like Brené Brown’s “Listening to Shame” (guilt equals “I did something bad” and shame equals “I am bad”), Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” (find your why), and Andy Puddicombe “All It Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes” (change the way you experience/perceive life). There are other books that also discuss giving things up in pursuit of happiness, including The Me Without by Jacqueline Raposo, Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and The More of Less by Joshua Becker to name only a few (none of these I’ve read, but they were some of many listed on websites as books about minimalism).

By the end of the book, Flanders has gotten rid of between 75 and 80 percent of her belongings, saved 31% of her income, spent almost 20% on travel, and spent the remaining 50% on expenses, quit her job, cut down drastically on her media consumption, and started toying with the idea of homesteading and “simple living” practices. Was she successful? She certainly seems to think so. But was she successful in relaying the source and steps towards happiness in a manner that others could follow? That seems more debatable. Most of the book talks about what happened in her life not only during the year but also what previous life events led her to the state where she feels the need to get rid of everything. Some of her successes, such as finding a new job, seem less tied to her new found “less is more” philosophy and more tied to a belief that now she deserves happiness. She finds that happiness in pursuing more meaning in the stuff she did have, including relationships, travel, and career. While I agree with her that you can get more done when you cut out television spending 1/3 of the month watching television, that wasn’t tied to her shopping freeze. Her television binge began as a result of her parent’s divorce, and while cutting it out was tied into the book as part of the mindless consumerism she was trying to cut out of her life, it seemed like a detraction from the ultimate goal of the book. While watching television mindlessly probably doesn’t add to your life goals, it seemed like it – along with her other actions – were accomplished cold turkey. She simply stopped, which I don’t think is going to be solid advice for everyone trying to replicate the experience.

I was curious what other details or advice her blog offered (and how much of the book’s content was original versus already in her blog), only to discover that she’d decided less than a year after the book was published to “retire” her personal blog, deleting almost every post she’d ever written. The website that she totes at the back of her book as a “community” where you can “share your story” is still functional, but it encourages readers who make it there to search for the hashtag, which is primarily photos of her book in various settings. I don’t see any interaction between “community” members and little in the way of encouragement or aids.

Speaking as someone who has cut out television for over five years (no Netflix, no Hulu, no Disney+), dropping a form of consumerism does not lead to instant enlightenment after a certain amount of time, like Flanders seems to suggest in her “how I …” subtitle. You still may find things that mindlessly fill the void, like Internet or food. However, if you are conscious about your decision making, as Flanders recommends but gives no advice on achieving, then you may find the time to pursue the life you really want. While that state of satisfaction might take different forms for different people, readers will have to look elsewhere for a complete road map on how to get there. This book allows readers the travelogue of Flanders’ success, and that may be enough inspire some people to one day add that accomplishment to their bucket list.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Friend Zone

The Friend Zone.jpgTitle: The Friend Zone
Author: Abby Jimenez
ISBN: 9781538715604
Pages: 367 pages
Publisher/Date: Hachette Book Group, Inc., c2019.

It would have been cool. But men like Josh weren’t for me anymore. They’d never be for me again. Men who wanted pregnant wives and big families, sons that looked like their dads–these men weren’t the ones I could choose from. I could have Tylers. I could have more dogs. A bigger career without kids to distract me. I could have more disposable income and a clean house without crayon on the walls and dirty diapers to change. I could be the cool aunt.
But I couldn’t have children.
And I could never, ever, have Josh. (92)

Kristen and Josh’s first run-in (literally, they have a small fender bender) did not start things off on the right foot. But they laugh about it afterwards when they discover their best friends are marrying each other and they’ll be helping with the wedding planning. Both of them are attracted to each other, but they both plan to keep things casual. Josh is getting over a break up with a live-in girlfriend who didn’t want the baseball team worth of children he was hoping for.  Kristen is in a long distant relationship with a Marine and can’t wait for the planned hysterectomy that will end her long-standing war with her own body. Fate has a way of playing tricks on them and they find themselves drawn to each other over the two months of interactions. With Kristen putting up walls and Josh trying hard not to fall for her, it takes an emergency to make them rethink their situations.

For a debut novel, Abby Jimenez does a phenomenal job with character development, making not only Kristen and Josh but also their engaged friends Brandon and Sloan. I loved everyone. Kristen’s sarcastic humor, no-nonsense devil-may-care attitude, and a search for self-worth pairs perfectly with Josh’s steadiness, self-deprecation and his own uncertainties of being unloved. Their friendship evolves naturally, with both fighting the pull of attraction. There’s shared meals, conversations, and rides, all of which Kristen continually maintains aren’t dates. Both Kristen and Josh are honorable to a fault, and won’t make a move while Kristen is dating her Marine Tyler. It helps that Josh also served in the Marines, and has respect towards his fellow service man, but it’s obvious to even their friends that feelings are growing.

Writing the novel in alternating points of view allows us to see both sides, and both Kristen and Josh have such high drives to care for others that they inevitably sabotage their own happiness. Kristen has her reasons for not wanting to reveal her infertility to Josh, especially when he stresses his desire for a large family of biological children over and over again. Spoiler, when Josh finally finds out the facts, he reacts just as Kristen predicts, and Kristen is adamant that she won’t allow him to change his life goals for her. The dialogue is snappy, humorous, and just plain enjoyable.

It’s Sloan who puts things in perspective, just as she’s always done for Kristen. The friendship between these two girls is stronger than steal, and it’s required for the shocking turn of events about two thirds of the way through the story. I admire an author who takes risks, and writing the plot in that manner took guts. I never saw it coming (and I won’t reveal it here) but it’s heartbreaking.

Another gutsy move is including not just Kristen’s major health problems, but how the mundane and daily effects get incorporated into the plot. In what romance do you hear about a woman’s period except when she misses it and finds out she’s pregnant? We also hear about details like anemia, pain, and other health complications. There are frank conversations about her state of health (although not the one we want her to have until it’s almost too late), and the hoops she has to jump through and the compromises she has to make. Josh routinely shows his unflappability, going out to buy supplies for her, making sure she’s fed, and worrying about her. A common troupe in romances is we see the guy as big and strong and controlling and masculine. But in this, we see Josh who takes joy in caring for Kristen in whatever way she’ll let him. Kristen is an independent and opinionated woman, and Josh’s sensitivity  knows when to pick his battles and also how to react. Does that possibly make Josh too perfect? Possibly. Do I care? Absolutely not! They both pick up on the little things, like favorite foods and sleep patterns, and that daily companionship is so nice to see and what I want to see more often. You feel like you’re reading your friend’s story of falling in love and you’re routing for them the whole way while feeling their heartache at the same time. Kristen’s description of them just clicking together rings so true to me, as I’ve heard it from so many of my friends who find that same sort of comfort in their significant others.

Of the four, I think Brandon gets the least development, serving as an introductory tool for Josh and Kristen. However, we still see his kindness and devotion towards Sloan. It’s almost a running gag that the house they’ve bought prior to the wedding is falling apart, and every time we visit Brandon is being handed something to fix. Even though they are marrying each other, both Brandon and Sloan respect their friend’s requests for secrecy and don’t talk about their friend’s problems with their significant others, but that doesn’t mean they both know what the other one is doing. “That guy is so into you,” Sloan tells Kristen “And you know what else? Brandon won’t talk about it. You know what that means? It means Josh is saying stuff to him that he doesn’t want to tell me.” (83)

Pick up an Abby Jimenez novel today for a fresh voice in romance. She has a second book out already (The Happy Ever After Playlist) where we see the story of these characters continue and a third one (Life’s Too Short) in the works for April 2021, so I see this becoming a new hot name.

Chasing Cassandra

Chasing Cassandra.jpgTitle: Chasing Cassandra
Series: #6 Ravenels series
Author: Lisa Kleypas
ISBN: 9780062975041
Pages: 266 pages
Publisher/Date: Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, c2020.

“There’s no need to worry. You’ll either meet someone new, or you’ll reconsider someone you didn’t appreciate at first. Some men are an acquired taste. Like oysters, or Gorgonzola cheese.”
She let out a shuddering sigh. “Cousin West, if I haven’t married by the time I’m twenty-five. . . and you’re still a bachelor . . . would you be my oyster?”
West looked at her blankly.
“Let’s agree to marry each other someday,” she continued, “if no one else wants us.” […]
“Lady Cassandra Ravenel,” West interrupted, “that is the most idiotic idea anyone’s come up with since Napoleon decided to invade Russia.” […]
I’ll be your oyster,” Tom broke in. (pg. 4-5)

Tom Severin is smitten and slain, his breath catching at his first sight of Lady Cassandra Ravenel. He wants her, but Cassandra is set on marrying for love, an emotion that Tom swears is a weakness and not in his small collection of possible feelings. Her family is also against the match, having first hand experience with his selfish business dealings and views Tom as someone who loves the chase and abandons the prize once won. While Tom and Cassandra recognize these differences and their divide, they also repeatedly find themselves in situations where they admire each other’s actions, humor, and intellect. When an overzealous suitor puts Cassandra in a disreputable position, will it be Tom or Cassandra who get what they want?

I was going to say that the witty dialogue , which I realize is typically not the reason people read romances, is a welcome distraction from this lapse in character development. However, that would be in accurate, as we do see growth from several of the characters, especially Tom. Cassandra’s family at one point apologies to Tom for making assumptions regarding his intentions. Tom is, in the beginning, routinely obtuse about plots of books mentioned by Cassandra, but he still reads them in an attempt to understand her better and figure out his own feelings. These misinterpretations are quite humorous, with Tom summarizing the points of Les Miserables as first “Never let your daughter marry a French law student” and then “It’s usually a mistake to forgive your enemies.” (168) Cassandra recognizes Tom’s condition, and tells him “Your heart is frozen because you want it to be. It’s safer for you that way, never to let anyone in. So be it.” (102).

Cassandra however also has to grow, as she seems willing to compromise towards a union with a gentleman of the proper breeding who obviously pursues her rather then a man she actually has feelings for who she is afraid isn’t able to return them. She discusses this predicament with her sister Pandora and Cassandra asks if it is possible to “talk myself into wanting someone”  which I think is quite different from what both Cassandra and Tom face in having to recognize and react accordingly to their feelings.

 It is highly unlikely that Cassandra and Tom, if they were real, would have ended up together after only their handful of short interactions. However, the pairing between them is intended to be a union of equals, and the discussions and negotiations that follow in order to get them to that place are what carries the novel. Readers looking for more than insta-love should look elsewhere, but on the flip side readers looking for steamy sex scenes might be disappointed as a true, uninterrupted, love scene doesn’t occur until you’re over two-thirds of the way through the novel. Prior to that is stolen kisses, roving hands, and compromising situations, which definitely build to a satisfying first time for both participants.

I would like to add that no matter how much Tom maintains that he doesn’t have feelings, he always seems to know just what to say. When Cassandra frets about her weight, Tom’s response is “The more of you there is in the world, the better.” and “Whatever size you are, I’ll have a place for every curve.” Awwwwwwww.


Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace.jpgTitle: Ordinary Grace
Author: William Kent Krueger
Narrator: Rich Orlow
ISBN: 9781461823414 (audiobook), 9781451645859 (paperback)
Pages: 307 pages
Dics/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours
Publisher/Date: Atria Paperback, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. c2013. (Recorded Books, LLC c2013)

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota. […] It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.” (pg. 1)

The son of a preacher, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum is prepared to spend the summer of 1961 following the Twins debut-season, reading comics, and eating ice cream. But it turns grim quickly as death visits the town and soon hits close to home. Frank’s assumptions and naivety are challenged repeatedly as he grows from a carefree teenager to a young man who realizes that as the world is changing around him, he must change with it.

Frank and his family first appear as tight-knit and idyllic, with only minor trials affecting their life minimally. His older sister Ariel’s hairlip isn’t stopping her from attending Julliard in the fall or spending time with her boyfriend. Although younger brother Jake has difficulty making his own friends due to a stutter, he is regularly allowed to tag-along with Frank as they roam the town and the surrounding woods. Father Nathan is a solid presence that steadies his wife Ruth’s more passionate personality that sometimes chafes under the town’s expectations of how a preacher’s wife should behave. The family allows Nathan’s military buddy Gus to stay in the church basement and care for him when the overwhelming war memories drive him to drink. So while there are troubles that prevent it from being compared to the Mayberry from The Andy Griffith’s Show, the family still seems (at least initially) either isolated or insulated from the larger upheaval the 1960s brought the country.

In his first departure from his bestselling and award-winning Cork O’Connor mystery series, author William Kent Krueger portrays the summer heat and small town living in all its sleepy-hazed glory. Time is both suspended in drawn out moments of disbelief and nostalgia and speeds to quickly towards an all-to sudden end when the cause of one death is revealed. Narrator Rich Orlow is being added to a personal list of favorite narrators as he conveys this dichotomy expertly. Readers will find themselves holding onto every word of the expert pacing invites a hushed awe from listeners. The stuttering neighbor Lise’s stilted vocalizations from her deafness and Jake’s pronounced stutter are fully realized. In today’s culture the clipped accent and rounded vowels of Redstone’s Native American speech patterns might be read as either authentically characteristic or stereotypical caricature, but it is one of many small intonations that Orlow uses to successfully distinguish between the characters. If you listen to the audio, stick around for an interview with an author where he discusses where the title came from.

Just as varied as the voices used are the feelings expressed and cycled through as the story progresses. Grief and guilt merge as the entire family grapples with the summer outcomes. Bigotry and prejudice looms large, but both readers and characters are forced to confront them. Most, but not all, of the ensemble cast grow in their beliefs as events unfold. The family has repeated interactions with Officer Doyle, one of the few one-dimensional characters. A bigot who searches out the latest gossip in order to extend his power over others, Doyle finally by the end seems to have a small epiphany on how his actions are adversely affecting others, and bends just a little. Any long lasting change on his part though is doubtful, as he seems to serve more as a foil for Frank.

This is a book that just begs readers to spend some of their summer in a slow sink into the setting, the time, and the story. It shows that what might be fondly remembered as simpler times might not have been so simple after-all as everyone is faced to reflect on the actions, beliefs, and consequences of not just themselves but everyone around them.

The Mountains Sing

Mountains Sing.jpgTitle: The Mountains Sing
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
ISBN: 9781616208189
Pages: 342 pages
Publisher/Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, c2020.

Three months earlier, as my mother got ready to go to the battlefield, she told me Grandma had been born into one of the richest families in Nghệ An Province.
“She’s been through great hardships and is the toughest woman I know. Stay close to her and you’ll be alright,” my mother said, packing her clothes into a green knapsack. […]
That night and for many nights, to dry my tears, Grandma opened the door of her childhood to me. Her stories scooped me up and delivered me to the hilltop of Nghệ An where I could fill my lungs with the fragrance of rice fields, sink my eyes into the Lam River, and become a green dot on the Trường Sơn mountain range. In her stories, I tasted the sweetness of sim berries on my tongue, felt grasshoppers kicking in my hands, and slept in a hammock under a sky woven by shimmering stars.
I was astonished when Grandma told me how her life had been cursed by a fortune-teller’s prediction, and how she had survived the French occupation, the Japanese invasion, the Great Hunger, and the Land Reform.
As the war continued, it was Grandma’s stories that kept me and my hopes alive. I realized that the world was indeed unfair, and that I had to bring Grandma back to her village to seek justice, perhaps even to take revenge. (16-17)

This is a story not often told. In recent memory, I’ve seen many, many books published with stories during World War II, fewer set during the Civil War, and fewer still set during World War I and the American Revolution. But none set during the Vietnam War and especially none told from the point of view from the country’s residents.  When I selected this as a book discussion title, several participants also commented that they had no idea of the details, history, or impact of the Vietnam War. This conflict, with it’s various and ever changing allies, lasted decades before and after the Americans became involved. Besides the Americans, the country was aided or attacked (depending on your point of view) by the French, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Americans, and several other countries in what essentially started as a civil war funded by outside influences. The author’s lyrical prose brings to life the beauty of the country but also the horrors of war. I would pair it with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens or William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace as books with settings vital to the plot of the story. It wouldn’t be the same story if you changed locations as the environment becomes a character.

There are two parallel stories that make readers wonder just how much has changed and/or stayed the same in the decades between them. The first is in the form of stories told by Grandma (Trần Diệu Lan) to her granddaughter (Hương) of how Grandma grew up, lost her family, fled her ransacked farm with her multiple children, and made a living and held the family together through determination and luck. The second, contrasting story is narrated by Hương, living with her grandmother while her uncles fight in the war and her physician mother has gone off in search of them, and the trials that follow some of her family home.

This is not an easy story to read but the emotions make an engaging and engrossing read. You are invested in this little family and the efforts they exert to navigate the troubling times and circumstances that continue to find them. There are no easy decisions or feelings. Grandma looses several of her family members through violent means and her home is forcibly taken from her as she flees and hides from the perpetrators. The first death is sudden, shocking, and completely unexpected, but it’s not the only one that a teenage Grandma witnesses up close. I wanted to throw the book across the room several times, but I also wanted to bare witness to Grandma, as she has to grow up quickly. I was continuously impressed by her resiliency, practicality, and commitment to her family, as Hương is reliant upon her. Every member of the family suffers the scars of secrets, and when they are finally revealed it brings pain but also much needed healing. Grandma was the one I was drawn to, and possibly the most fully realized character, but that might be because we see her through all stages of life and can use her stories of her childhood to empathize with her later decisions.

Quite often for book club I read with a pile of small sticky notes so I can note quotes and events that spark a reaction in me, as they likely would spark a reaction in others. If you’re planning your own book club discussion, here’s some to consider as you consider this book, which brings some diversity to the “women’s literature” we typically read. Fair warning, they do contain spoilers.

  • Grandma tells Hương that “If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.” (pg 19) Do you agree? Do the stories that survive tell the whole story?
  • “Many of my friends had received bad news from the battlefields. Such news ignited more anger.” (pg 45) Do you think good news has the opposite effect? (pg. 45)
  • Hương finds comfort in books like Pinocchio (pg 54) and Little House in the Big Woods (pg 58) in addition to local publications. Were you surprised by her reading options?
  • Were you surprised when they started keeping chickens and pigs in their brand new house? Is Grandma more proud of her farming experience or her high class family roots? (pg 68)
  • Grandma says that she and Hương “must be the pillars for her to lean on” when Hương’s mother returns (pg 73). Does Grandma have a pillar to lean on?
  • “Only those who faced battles were entitled to trauma.” (pg 73). Do you agree or disagree?
  • Were you shocked by the death of Grandma’s father? What other parts of the book shocked you?
  • Grandma tells Hương “Only through honesty can we learn about the truth.” (pg 79) Do you agree or disagree? Are there other ways to learn about the truth?
  • “Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.” (pg 79) Do you agree? What else turns people into monsters?
  • “Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.” (pg 161) Is she right or wrong?
  • Hương says about her uncle “Perhaps he had to untangle his feelings on his own, by talking out loud, so that he could understand how it was to be alive and to be dead at the same time.” (pg 164) How can someone be alive and dead at the same time? How do other characters untangle their feelings?
  • Did Hương do the right thing in searching out and reading her mother’s diary? (pg 215)
  • “As long as I have my voice, I am still alive.” (pg 238) What do you think you need to be alive and/or stay alive?
  • Did Hương’s Uncle Dat do the right thing when he lied about the timing of the bombings and her father’s departure? What prompted him to finally tell the truth? (pg 279)

When We Were Vikings

46205807Title: When We Were Vikings
Author: Andrew David MacDonald
ISBN: 9781982126766
Pages: 323 pages
Publisher/Date: Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., c2020.

My favorite part of the article was about the strongest kind of woman warrior, called a skjaldmær. They are not Valkyries, but are almost as strong. Women don’t get chosen to be warriors very often in Viking legends. Girls at age twelve who were very strong and fit and could do battle with the same strength as the boys could become skjaldmær, which let them become warriors. I was not a king, so I wondered if I could be a skjaldmær. But first I would need to have a legend. (40)

Twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast Zelda MacLeish lives with her brother Gert, who takes care of her after their mom died and their father abandoned them. Zelda lives her life by rules, such as take off your shoes upon entering, Gert answers the door, and no talking about Gert with her psychologist Dr. Laird. But lately, things have been happening that Zelda needs to talk about. Zelda is thinking about taking the next step with her boyfriend (which Gert REFUSES to discuss). Instead, Gert’s been lying to her, struggling with going back to school, and working with some people that she doesn’t like. Deciding that in order to become a legend, she must be brave, defeat the villain and save her tribe, Zelda discovers along the way there is more to being a Viking than just sword and shield.

The descriptions that I read before starting this book made it sound like a good match for fans of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman or The Helpline by Katherine Collette. A woman with a strange obsession sets her life to rights with the help of understanding friends. I was honestly a little shocked upon starting the book by the number of swear words and crude language. It’s appropriate for Gert’s temperament and does lessen slightly as the plot progresses, but it was unexpected and the family’s favorite curse words — “Fuck-dick” and “Shit-heel” — are liberally scattered throughout the book.  While it makes me pause when considering it for a book discussion pick, I think if your book club can handle it they will find some meaty discussion in this story of diversity and overcoming obstacles.

For instance, there are refreshingly honest discussions about sex, whether it involves the promiscuous Gert or the more naive and innocent opinions and lessons for Zelda. Zelda is dealing with the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and navigating the world with a high functioning cognitive impairment. She visits the Community Center on a regular basis to interact with other impaired individuals, including her boyfriend Marxy. Typical of probably most sibling dynamics, Gert is squeamish about discussing the birds and the bees with his younger sister, and that dubious honor falls to his surprisingly grounded, African American ex-girlfriend Annie, whom Zelda nicknamed “AK47”. As the voice of reason, she helps Zelda see that her brother is struggling too, he doesn’t have all the answers, and some of the answers he does have might not be the right ones. In a climatic ending, AK47 is the one who rescues Zelda from her own attempts to rescue her brother.

Between AK47, Dr. Laird, and the gay community center manager Big Todd, Zelda’s tribe has a diverse support system that comes to her aid when she gets in over her head. As previously mentioned, Gert has his own struggles and issues but lacks that same support system. Both AK47 and Zelda try, but Gert isn’t interested in asking or accepting help. After their mother died, Zelda and Gert were sent to live with an abusive uncle, and Gert has engaged in some shady activities in order to first get them out of that situation and then keep them housed, clothed, and fed. He’s assumed a lot of responsibility for a young guy, and doesn’t want to burden Zelda with any of the specifics or logistics. When Zelda starts to realize the stress he is under, her attempts to help are either unwelcome or go horribly wrong.

Zelda’s own quest and search to become a legend have a noticeable influence. The smallest spoiler of those changes is that a member of her community center group pursues employment, but Zelda inspires others to reexamine their own lives. The open ending not only leaves readers to consider where the characters might be headed, but also reminds readers that the story is never over. There is always time to change your quest and make yourself into a legend, even if it’s just in your tribe’s eyes.

The Museum of Modern Love

30741918._SY475_.jpgTitle: The Museum of Modern Love
Author: Heather Rose
ISBN: 9781616208523
Pages: 284 pages
Publisher/Date: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, c2018. (originally published in Australia in 2016 by Allen & Unwin)

The Artist Is Present distorts the line between everyday routine and ceremony. Positioned in the vast atrium within a square of light, the familiar configuration of a table and chairs has been elevated to another domain.
Visitors are encouraged to sit silently across from the artist for a duration of their choosing, becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators.
Though Abramovic is silent, maintaining a nearly sculptural presence with a fixed pose and gaze, the performance is an invitation to engage in and complete a unique situation . . . (17)

The book revolves around the fictionalized interactions of people who visited a real life art exhibit called “The Artist is Present” put on by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art. It began exactly a decade ago, from March 9 to May 31, 2010. 1,554 people sat across from Marina during that time frame and simply looked at each other for an amount of time specified by the person sitting across from her. There is a complete record of everyone who sat with her (along with some photos of the artist herself) published in a book and also available online.  Told in alternating, multiple viewpoints, the main characters include:

  • Arky Levin, a music composer who is dealing with his wife Lydia’s debilitating disease. She has issued a court order forbidding him from visiting, even though at this stage she is basically nonverbal. They have a daughter Alice who makes an appearance.
  • Brittika Van Der Sar is writing her PhD on the artist, and makes several trips from overseas to visit the project.
  • Jane Miller is coping with the loss of her husband Karl and runs a dairy farm that he left behind.
  • Marina (the artist) was previously married to Ulay. They did performance work together for about a decade, and then decided to part ways by walking from opposite sides of the Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and say goodbye. It was filmed. Her performance artwork often involves nudity, isolation, and/or physical harm.
  • The ghost of Marina’s mother, Danica, also makes an appearance.
  • Portions of the book are narrated by an unnamed, unknown being I thought of as inspiration or a muse (but others might have other ideas)

It’s difficult to really summarize this book because so much of the plot takes place as internal dialog. It’s an introspective about art in many forms: what makes something art, who it appeals to, and the difficulties in creating and interpreting art. It’s almost a character study held together by the joint experience of the art, and how circumstances and positions in life can affect how you see the world. I think the book, like the exhibit that inspired it, might be something that sticks with readers who find it but might not be something that most people would seek out. It first came to my attention as a Book Club pick through Hoopla, and I used it for my own book club last month. While there were questions included at the end of the publication, I came up with some of my own based on the many memorable quotes throughout the novel:

  1. What do you think of Marina’s art pieces? Some people who come to view it also disagree about whether or not it’s art, including her mother. Is it art? How does Marina’s “in your face” artwork compare to Antony Gormley’s sculptures on high rises?
  2. Jane at one point says “I guess feelings are invisible. Funny how we don’t teach that at school. You know, how things that are unseen are nevertheless real.” What is Marina trying to make real to people?
  3. Brittika has a theory that Marina “didn’t like being alone”. Most of the characters have lost someone in their life or feel alone, from Arky to Jane and even Marina in a way. Do you think their loss influences how they view art? Are we ever really alone?
  4. Why do you think Lydia forbids Arky from seeing her? Is she right in thinking that he can’t and/or won’t care for her? Who is the selfish one in this relationship? How did you feel when he finally visited her at the end of the book?
  5. Pictures of the people who sat with Marina were taken throughout the exhibit by Marco Anelli. Is the photographer making his own work of art, or simply recording an event? Is there a difference?
  6. Marina is quoted as saying “Failure is so important. You have to experiment. Failure is part of the process.” This exhibit was often deemed a success. Who can decide when a failure happens?
  7. Francesca, the wife of Marina’s agent, recommended another female art critic for an interview because she “enjoyed swirling these little pools of influence for other women. God knew, the women of the world needed all the help they could get.” (205) This book takes place in 2010. Ten years later, do you women still need all the help they can get?
  8. Brittika asks another attendee named Charlie about the show, and he says “I don’t think it would work in any other city nearly so well. I would need more.” Do you think that’s true? Where else could have Marina held her performance?
  9. Ulay and Marina “dressed for the film”, with her in red and Ulay in blue as they walked across the Great Wall. Do you think they were more focused on the performance or their relationship? Do you think one detracted/distracted from the other?
  10. Would you have sat across the table from Marina? What do you think you would have experienced?

I feel that, just like Marina Abramovic’s art, this book has to be experienced to really receive the whole affect.

Night of Miracles

Friday Feature — Review with Book Discussion Questions!
Friday Features are an irregular occurrence on my blog that include things other than book reviews, something a little extra. This might include author interviews (hint to any authors out there who want to get interviewed), bibliographies, book trailers and program ideas. While I’m not limiting myself to talk about these things just on Fridays, it will be something extra special to finish off the work week.

39025786.jpgTitle: Night of Miracles
Series: Arthur Truluv #2
Author: Elizabeth Berg
ISBN: 9780525509509
Pages: 267 pages
Publisher/Date: Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, c2018.

She open her eyes to see a familiar figure at the side of her bed, his hands clasped in front of him like a shy person. She rolls her eyes. The angel is wearing jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, sneakers. His wings are awfully ratty for someone in service to the On High.
He extends a glowing hand. “Lucille Rachel Howard –”
“Not on your life,” she says. “I’m babysitting a little boy tonight.”
The angel looks confused.
“If you knew what you were doing, you would know perfectly well that I have a child sleeping right down the hall and I’m not going to die and have him wake up alone with a corpse. That family needs me right now. Also, when it is time, I want Frank Pearson to escort me out of here, not you.” (188)

Lucille Howard knows she’s getting up there in age. She’s moving slower than she used to and her body aches more than it used to, but she still has work to do. Newly engaged Maddy is counting on Iris to bake her wedding cake. The baking school is going so well that she has hired newly divorced Iris as an assistant, even though she knows nothing about baking. And the new neighbors in Lucille’s old house next door need a caregiver for their son Lincoln while they deal with some issues of their own. Besides, Lucille is still waiting for her miracle, and she’s intent on sticking around until that happens, not even the angel of death.

Fans of The Story of Arthur Truluv  might be slightly disappointed that they don’t get to see more of Nola and Maddy, but author Elizabeth Berg introduces plenty of new characters to replace them in her quirky cast. In addition to Lucille’s new neighbors Jason and Abby and their son Lincoln (quickly nicknamed Link by Lucille), Iris also must meet her new neighbor, an overweight taxicab driver named Tiny Dawson who is not-so-secretly in love with the waitress Monica. Monica reciprocates Tiny’s feelings, but neither of them know that about the other. A predictable comedy of errors ensues between Tiny and Monica, but the inevitable results are still enjoyable to watch unfold. Mason, Missouri, like Jan Karon’s Mitford, is a small town that looks after each other, which is something we can all appreciate and envy. Technology is sparse, jobs and schedules are flexible, and while there may be bouts of loneliness the intimate friendships the residents have with each other are nurtured and treasured. It’s an idyllic setting where the drama is of the every day variety.

I found it somewhat ironic that like her first book, this one also ends with a death and a bequeathing of a house. I’m not sure if that says more about the author or about the nature of life itself, that death is when the story ends and home is where you make it. Since our senior book club loved the first one so much, I chose the second one for this month’s discussion. I’ll probably save the third book in the series — The Confession Club — for next year as I think of them as light stories about love perfect for Valentine’s Day.

Discussion Questions (SPOILERS AHEAD)

  1. Early in the story, Lucille says “Oh, he was wonderful, Frank, and the best thing was that he made her kind of wonderful, too. That is the gift of love, not only that you have somebody but that you are changed by somebody.” (15). Does Lucille find that love again during the book? Does Lucille grant that kind of love to others?
  2. Iris asks Tiny “If you could do what seems like an impossible thing, what would it be?” What would you do if you could do what seems like an impossible thing?
  3. Did you learn any new tricks for baking from the classes that Lucille and Iris taught?
  4. Lucille is given a choice at the end, to pick from Frank coming for her and letting Abby live. Do you agree with her choice? Since Abby ended up living anyway, do you think the angel really meant that she couldn’t have both?
  5. The author starts and ends the book with almost identical one-page passages. Why do you think she did that? Did it mean something different at the beginning of the story than at the end of the story?
  6. Tiny and Monica avoid starting a relationship with each for a long time. Why? Who do you think should have taken the first step?
  7. Upon Abby’s cancer diagnosis, Jason reflects on his reaction when Lincoln was born. “God, I’m glad I don’t have to do this. And he felt guilty about that.” (66) When people are happy they aren’t suffering the misfortunes of others, should they feel guilty?
  8. Monica’s mother was “from a time when young women got married around twenty or so, or they were called old maids. […] Old maid is a term that is never used anymore.” (50-51) If we did still use the term old maid, at what age do you think an unmarried woman would be considered one today? Is there an equivalent term for an unmarried man?
  9. Iris and her husband at the time Ed get into a fight about their assumptions regarding having kids. Iris never asked and Ed never told. Who do you feel should have acted first?
  10. Where you disappointed that you didn’t see more of Maddy’s life, or happy that she had so successfully moved on from where she was in the first book?
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