I had two books set in Paris languishing on my shelves so I decided to cross the English Channel for this category. I thought I had planned my transition quite cleverly by moving from "Lost in Good Book" to "A Parisian Categorie" with a novel entitled The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novelby Nina George. That turned into a bit of a misstep as Ms. George wrote that rarest of books, a book that I put down, stopped reading, and moved on. Something I hardly ever do. 

My mistake, not hers, I thought it was going to be a completely different book, Nina George is a good writer and judging by the number of positive reviews on Amazon--a lot of fans, but this book wasn't the prescription I needed. The main character, the owner, has a floating bookstore set on a barge in the River Seine, he is styled as a literary apothecary dispensing the very "books" that would counteract the hardships of life for his clients, he was said to have an intuitive feel for the exact book that a readers needs.

Forgive me, I expected the book to be about the bookstore, his clients, and the books he recommended as cures. Instead, I left the main character reminiscing about an ancient love affair with a married woman-- the memory involved riding naked and bareback on horses--there was also a mention of sand-- in the South of France. I didn't find it romantic I found it chafing. Her main character left Paris behind in the space of a few chapters and I sold my book back to Half Priced Books. 

 Take two--For my Paris immersion I chose:

  I'll See You in Paris: A Novel by Michelle Gable

A fitting title to begin this category. In the two books I have now read by this author--she has taken fictionalized spins surrounding some real life mysteries. This book imagines an alternate storyline surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the Duchess of Marlborough, Gladys Spencer-Churchill, a complex mysterious woman whose real life story could fill numerous books. This book is about a young woman's quest to understand the Duchess, understand her mother, and understand herself. The story takes us from America to the English countryside and ultimately to Paris. There are multiple storylines set in multiple timelines. I liked it, and as you will come to understand, I have a deep fascination with history.

 

 

  Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky 

One of the two books already on my shelf and yes it had been there for awhile. Given its subject matter and the author I knew it was going to be sad and hard to read. The novel is set on the eve of the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940 and it tells the stories of men and women thrown together as they flee Paris ahead of the Nazi forces. The impact of the Occupation is told in interweaving storylines. It is a compelling, harrowing, sad read. 

The real life story of Irene Nemirovsky is even more compelling and heartbreaking than her novel. At the start of World War II she was a successful married writer and a mother, but she was a Jew. She was arrested in 1942, deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For the next 64 years this novel remained hidden and unknown. It still brings tears to my eyes--sometimes all you can do is bear witness. 

 

 

 A Paris Apartment: A Novel by Michelle Gable

This is the second book I've read by Ms. Gable, it makes me wonder, in a universe filled with books set in Paris why did I pick two by the same author? Who knows--I expect I was intrigued by the storylines. This novel imagines a tale around the fascinating true story of a treasure stocked Parisian apartment, left abandoned, and only opened for the first time in 70 years. The treasures included a portrait of Marthe de Florian, a famous courtesan, by the Belle Epoch master, Giovanni Boldini, along with love letters, taxidermy, furniture, and a stuffed original Mickey Mouse. You can find pictures of the apartment on line. The real-life story is fascinating enough. 

This novel imagines an alternate side story of a young American woman, a specialist in contemporary furniture at Sotheby's who is contracted to determine the provenance and value of the furniture in the apartment. She becomes fascinated with the story of Marthe and gets access to read her "journals". While many letters and documents remained in the apartment there is no reference to journals so I imagine this is the mechanism the author used to imagine a deeper back story out of Marthe de Florian's known past.

This author loves to paint stories out of the lives of famous (infamous) women, in both cases as with Irene N. the truth is a more compelling fascinating story than the fiction. Of Ms. Gable's two books I liked this one better, and yes I did do a lot of extra reading regarding the actual history behind this story. This novel revolves around relationships, romance, the past and the present. 

 

  Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

In Paris for a weekend visit, Elizabeth Bard sat down to lunch with a handsome Frenchman--and never went home again. This memoir swirls around two passionate love affairs-- her new beau and French cuisine. WITH RECIPES Who wouldn't want to read this book. At some point I will get around to trying her recipes and I will post my results in Gourmappetit. 

 

 

 

 The Paris Wife by Paula McLain 

This book had been on my shelf for a long time. It is about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, a lot of people are fans of Hemingway--I am not one of them--neither as a man or as an author. As I started reading I kept having the feeling that I had read this before, but as it is a good read, in spite of the Hemingway element I read it again, maybe? Hadley and Ernest had a whirlwind romance and marriage, they left the States and set sail for Paris, where they become a part of the "Lost Generation". He cheats, they divorce, they both remarry...but the love remained. This is a very good well written book.

 

 

I am now going to use Lunch in Paris and The Paris Wife to spring off into two separate categories. Lunch in Paris will serve as a springboard for a category about chefs and the restaurant world starting with a most famous Parisian wife, Julia Child. The Paris Wife will serve as a springboard for a category of books that feature "wife" as part of the title.  

I have decided to read these categories in tandem because I think I will need to give the restaurant/chef category a break so that I can keep it fresh.

 

 

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Call The Midwife

I feel that this reading list requires a bit of my background story, so here goes:

I am a yoga teacher that specializes in Prenatal Yoga and Childbirth Education. I am also a Birth Doula. I got all the required trainings and read all of the recommended reading lists from DONA to Lamaze to the more "natural" Inspired Birth but I still felt my education was lacking and that there were some elemental facts that I was missing.

I also feel compelled to build a Yoga based labor pain management system and to build it I need better understanding. I envision a helpful practice--more yoga, more calm, more practical with proven simple labor tools that have strong physiological and yogic backgrounds.

BUT--something about this business of having babies was setting off alarm bells in my head-- I was/am continuing to notice what seems to be huge disconnects from what I was reading in various pregnancy/childbirth books and what I had learned during my trainings--to what I was seeing in the field as a Birth Doula and what tidbits I read about birth in various history books. I was very confused...I still am--so briefly:

Birth is a basic physiological function of the female body indeed it is the epitome of physiological functions. It is as natural as your heart beating and your lungs breathing. True enough but unless your heart and lungs develop "problems" it does not hurt to breathe or circulate blood through your body, healthy functioning hearts and lungs do not require medical intervention. Many, many, many childbirth education and natural birth books explain that childbirth isn't designed to be painful either. 

The reality I was seeing is that we have the medical world on one side claiming childbirth is a dangerous excruciating pathology that needs to be risk-managed with a multitude of medical interventions in order to keep mother pain-free and baby safe— And natural birth activists on the other side claiming that birth is a safe non-painful physiological bodily function that needs no outside intervention. One that is best accomplished in a sun dappled glen beside a baby deer--crunchy granola style. 

A bit of eclectic reading led directly to this next dichotomy: I was reading both HypnoBirthing by Marie Mongan and The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser. The first book is of course all about using hypnosis to manage your labor and delivery and the second devoted a fair amount of space to the pregnancy travails of Henry's six wives as the primary duty of the Queen during Tudor times was after all to produce heirs to the throne. 

On the one side I read that Ms. Mongan considers birth done the Hypnobirthing way to be a perfectly “natural” pain free experience and she believes that women should take lessons about birth from her cat. On the other side, back in the day, when all birth was supposedly “natural”— none of Henry’s wives faired particularly well with Childbirth—they had numerous miscarriages, their babies died, and the 3rd, Jane Seymour, died because of birth complications, most likely childbed fever. Henry VIII’s legacy was one future King and two subsequent Queens out of six wives. Henry's sixth wife may have survived him but she also died after giving birth--again most likely from childbed fever.

Out of this a perfect storm of confusion was born.

Confusion One: Your heart doesn’t hurt when it beats, your lungs don't hurt when you breathe (unless, of course, there is a problem) so why-- if our bodies are designed to give birth do the majority of women find childbirth to be accompanied by the racking pain of contractions and why do they experience so much perineal tearing during delivery?

Confusion Two: Cats, albeit fairly stoic creatures, calmly release kittens, and chimpanzee babies often assist their own births—so why do we do it in hospitals surrounded doctors and hooked up to machines—as if we have not a baby to be born but a disease that needs to be excised and cured? Why is the medical community so convinced that human women “need” so much help?

Confusion Three: If childbirth is supposed to be a safe physiological human body function (like the beating of your heart)—why did so many women and babies die during and immediately after birth?

 I thought the appropriate place to start was learning more about the actual history of Childbirth and I freely admit that I started this project a while back. I'm not entirely sure what I expected to find but it sure wasn't what I found in these books...but if you want to follow my path start here--but I warn you once read them they can't be unread and these books will totally change your perspective:

  Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care by Jennifer Block completed

 This book was published in 2007 and further down in this list you will find Ms. Block's follow up published in 2019. This was an eye-opening shocking book even when read through the eyes of a doula who has seen these truths in action as part of my profession. It is engrossing, well documented, and comprehensive. Be careful if you decide to read because you cannot un-read it. This book takes a look at childbirth in the age of machines, malpractice, and managed care in America. Ms. Block's investigation reveals that while emergency OB care is essential, we are overusing medical technology at the expense of women's and babies' health. Spoiler alert: It is no better in 2019.

 Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank Me Out by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. completed

The continuation of my eye opening peek into the history of childbirth and Epstein took me on a superficial journey through the history of childbirth--its fads, fables, superstitions, and the extraordinary. I went in to this reading arc expecting to find something totally different. It is a good read but I definitely preferred Ms. Cassidy's book. 

 Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy completed

 This was the first book on the world history of childbirth to be published in 50 years, this was first published in 2006. From evolution through the epidural and beyond, it is intelligent, impeccably researched, and eye-opening. A must read if you want to look past the collective willful amnesia about actual childbirth--this book explores the physical, anthropological, political, and religious factors that have influenced and continue to influence how women give birth.

 

 Debunking the Bump: A Mathematician Mom Explodes Myths About Pregnancy by Daphne Adler completed

 I read the whole thing but I can imagine many pregnant women and new moms using this book as a go-to must-have reference book. It helped me to more completely understand various myths and beliefs that surround childbirth. I like to give up to accurate advice to women I teach and this book is at my side.

  Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong--and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster completed

 FYI this book has been updated to 2019 since my reading. There is a little controversy over the advice given about alcohol consumption. But for the very most part this book helps pregnant women to expect more out of their birth experience. It is a more conversational and readable than Ms. Adler's--Ms. Adler's is a for sure must have scientific reference and Ms. Oster's is all that and an entertaining read to boot.

 

I will admit that after reading these excellent books that I fled in dismay from the knowledge I had gained. Sometimes it pays to be very careful what you wish for...

Why did I run? Mostly because I have learned that Childbirth as it is practiced today is a mostly man-made catastrophe, particularly in the United States. I use the term "man-made" quite literally. So I stuffed this research project back into a corner of my mind. I instead shifted my focus away from that mess of wrong towards my little bubble where I could perhaps start writing about righting these wrongs.

A favorite altruism of mine: In a world of problems be a solution. So I decided I would go back to the comforts of "being a part of the solution."

This decision worked for a while and I wrote about all the stages and phases of Labor and how to use Yoga to help ease suffering. I wrote about using Movement as a Yoga-Based Birth Skill. This spate of writing helped ease me back into the reasoning that while I may not be able to change Birth in America as a whole--it is certainly in my wheelhouse to help each and every woman who walks through my door to have a calm positive birth experience if she so desires.

My bubble burst (I couldn't resist the pun) when I realized that I needed to write about Premature Rupture of Membranes (PROM) as it was mentioned as a complication numerous times in other of my posts. I started this writing project with the delusion that it would be an easy short factual post. Instead I found that this topic is a minefield of controversy and the post ended up being 20 some pages long. 

As a reward for sticking with such a messy complex topic and writing such a long read essay-- I allowed myself an expensive book purchase and read said book as I was going through the editing process. Odd book choice (unless you know me) as a reward-- I understand-- but a very interesting book that cleared up a lot of my wrong thinking about infection during childbirth and in instances of PROM.

   The Tragedy of Childbed Fever by Irvine Loudon completed 2/2019

FYI: This is an excellent book but incredibly pricey and for the record I paid $65 for a used copy from a London bookstore ($170 on Amazon). Was it worth what I paid for it--absolutely yes. It was worth it to me as I am a birth doula, a childbirth educator, a prenatal yoga teacher, I blog about childbirth, but more than anything I am a woman wondering what the heck has gone so wrong with birth in America today!

While I had certainly gained a lot of knowledge through the above research and reading I still didn't feel ready to write about it and I continued to wonder to what end would any writing that I did actually serve.

I haven't been writing for long but something I am coming to believe is in the power that lays hidden on the shelves of Umberto Eco's Anti-Library--#TBR- all of the knowledge contained in books etc. that you haven't read yet. It is my belief that some projects demand waiting for the right knowledge to appear. 

While the stack of books and internet research that I have completed since the above mentioned perfect storm have definitely strengthened my belief that we humans are a weird lot, that history is written by the victorious, and as a species doctors are extremely adverse to change, strongly clinging to beliefs long after they have been proven wrong, time after time--I still believe that my idea needs more time to develop before it comes to fruition. At the deepest level I feel that we are looking at something completely elemental in the wrong way and missing something that is right in front of our noses. 

Again I shelved this project for awhile and shifted my focus towards the creative endeavor of setting up a personal website where I could write about the things that interest me such as reading, yoga, cooking, and childbirth. It was time well spent as now I have this lovely website "Categorically Well Read" and a growing Twitter account @DebbieVignovic.

During this building process the universe swirled and tipped a book off the shelf that I would normally never consider reading and onto my radar in such a way that I finally caved and bought myself a used copy.

  The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb completed 7/2019

According to the back cover: A Black Swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences...in this book NNT shows in a playful way that Black Swan events explain almost everything about our world, and yet we--especially the experts--are blind to them.

I found myself giving this book a long slow careful read and not just because of the math. Time and time again I marked passages that reminded me of things that had happened and are happening in Childbirth--so much so that I am pondering the need to take a virtual long slow walk with NNT through these passages--to what end I do not know--but enough so that I am calling my project "The Black Cygnet". Regardless, birth as done by homo sapiens seems to have been slammed by Black Swans since the moment we took the highly improbable notion of standing up on two feet.

I recently re-dusted off this project with the thinking that I still have reading to do. There are two contrasting views--one in which technology does it better and midwives are evil and one in which midwives rock and technology is evil. I suspect instead middle ground but I need to expand my base of knowledge especially where the practice of midwifery is involved. 

So the universe swirls and I find I have excellent timing as two new must read books have just been published. Both in their own ways confirm the fact that we live in a messy complex often toxic world nowadays and furthermore a world in which there are no easy answers to be found.

Welcome to two front line modern day versions of the state of women's health care:

 

  Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard completed 8/2019

A moving, compassionate, and intensely candid view of modern midwifery in the UK. A glimpse into what life is like on the NHS front line working within a system at the breaking point. Part of my research into the world and practice of real life midwifery and reading time well spent. This is a very engrossing read and works to dispel thoughts that I had about the NHS. 

 

 Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution by Jennifer Block completed 8/2019

This is a badly needed and shocking book. A follow-up I have been waiting for ever since I read Ms. Block previous work "Pushed" (see above) which was published in 2007. While this book arrived just in time for my current round of research I was almost afraid to crack the cover and as it turns out rightfully so. This jaw-dropping investigation into the women's health care industry shows that indeed nothing has changed unless it was for the worse. As Melissa said in her review on Amazon: "A book about feminism's unfinished revolution in women's health. It is fascinating, informative, and appalling."

Now I am going to dip into the past and read the stories of two "turn of the century" midwives who both kept diaries documenting their midwifery practices. The first, Catharina Schrader practiced at the turn of 18th century in the Netherlands, and second, Martha Ballard who practiced in New England at the turn of the 19th century. Both woman practiced at moments in history in which men in the form of man-midwives and later as gynecologists and obstetricians where steadily infiltrating and usurping a profession that since time immemorial had been an almost exclusively the domain of women. 

 

 Mother and Child Were Saved: The Memoirs (1693-1740) of the Frisian Midwife Catharina Schrader (Nieuwe Nederlands Bijdragen Tot De Geschiedenis Der Geneeskunde En Der Natuurwetenschappen) Trans. by Hilary Marland with introductory essays by MJ van Lieburg and GJ Kloosterman completed 8/2019 (The first read through anyway)

Catharina Schrader's memoirs span 52 years and an estimated 4,000 deliveries, which she carefully documented throughout her life as a midwife. When she was 88 years old, 'Vrouw' Schrader recorded her last birth. On October 30, 1746, she died in her hometown of Dokkum. What makes this an unique opportunity is that Vrouw Schader kept meticulous written records for 3060 of her cases. For her memoir she hand picked 122 of her most complicated deliveries and this memoir is what has been translated into English.

How I wish I could read all of her 3060 cases because her complete diary is not just the complicated heavy births but it also contains the hidden invisible evidence of all the "normal labor, healthy child" deliveries that made up the vast majority of her work. This book was published in the 1980's and will set you back a pretty penny--for my line of work and research-- pennies well spent. 

  

  A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich completed 9/23/19

From the back cover: A Pulitzer prize winning portrayal of one woman's life in Early America. Ms. Ulrich is a historian of extraordinary persistence, skill, and empathy. Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. A very tumultuous time in the course of American history.

 

 ETERNAL EVE The History of Gynaecology & Obstetrics by Harvey Graham currently reading

This is a book first published in the 1950's by a famous obstetrician who published this work under the pseudonym of Harvey Graham. True this a title from the male perspective and as such traces a line through history to the wonderful accomplishments of men in the world of gynecology and obstetrics. I'm reading it anyway because thus far I have found it very difficult to find books that document birth before the 15th-16th centuries. So I have been trying to read between the lines a bit for the information I am interested in gleaning from the past. This book is almost 700 pages at which writing I have read about 200 pages. I experienced a bit of childbirth reading burnout by the fall of 2019 so this one continues on through 2020.

 

  The Midwife's Tale: An Oral History from Handywoman to Professional Midwife by Nicky Leap edited by Billie Hunter completed

Some female perspective on the history of midwifery and please take careful note of the word "oral" in the title as for much of history women did not read or write and/or where not allowed to learn how to read and write. It is why so much of actual birth history will remain cloaked in the realm of invisible evidence.

It took me a good while to finish this book not because it is not an excellent book it very much is...it is just very deflating to read what has been documented and written about childbirth. Like the authors of this book I also had somewhat romantic expectations about our midwifery heritage when I set about my own research and like them I expected to find a treasure trove of forgotten skills and writing about experiences that would enhance midwifery practice and inspire my faith in the physiological nature of childbirth. And like them I was shocked and disillusioned about the truths of the practice I found along the way. It took me a long time to read and it took them eight years to finish this book.

 

 Outback Midwife by Bet McRae completed 8/31/2019

The memoir of Beth McRae which details her 40 years spent as a midwife in Australia. The book takes you from a city hospital to the bush to her work with the Aboriginal community. This was reading time well spent although it did nothing to restore my faith in childbirth practices. She is an amazingly dedicated woman. 

 Call the Midwife Call by Jennifer Worth completed 1/20/2020

This book is about the real-life experiences of a young midwife serving in a convent in London's East End during the 1950's during chaos of the post war London docklands. This book is also the basis for the award winning TV show of the same name. It served as a nice companion piece to The Midwife's Tale which mostly centered on birth in England prior to the Second World War and this book covers women's birthing experiences immediately following WWII. She wrote not just her experiences as a midwife but about what life was like for all the inhabitants of East London. I hope my time expands to being able to read the rest of this series as well as to watch the TV show.

 

 The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas Will not be reading.

This is a fictional tale of murder, mystery and secrets, the story follows the travails of the only midwife in a small Colorado mining town in the 1880's. I found this while collecting books for the category: The Wives Between Us. I have decided that this fictional book about a late 19th century midwife is not for me. In her acknowledgments the author states that "I realized my book would not be about midwifery, but about a midwife...midwifery would not be a theme of the book but a part of it." She also states "...my editor suggested I write a book about a midwife. Oh, yuck, I thought. I don't want to write about the details of childbirth." I couldn't even make it through the first chapter and as I value a quiet mind--I put this book aside and went on to this fabulous fictional portrayal of midwifery.

 Midwives (Oprah's Book Club)  by Chris Bohjalian completed 9/2019

According to Amazon this novel chronicles the events leading up to the trial of Sibyl Danforth, a respected midwife in the small Vermont town of Reddington, on charges of manslaughter. It quickly becomes evident, however, that Sibyl is not the only one on trial--the prosecuting attorney and the state's medical community are all anxious to use this tragedy as ammunition against midwifery in general; Sybil, an ex-hippie who still evokes the best of the flower-power generation, she is an anachronism in 1981 and perfect fodder in this fight. It is about the continuing fight of the OB/Medical to wrest control of childbirth from midwifery care, it is also about family. I think it is because Mr. Bohjalian tells his story through the eyes of Sybil's daughter that he is able to tell the story that he does. This is a very good book and reading time well spent.

These are well written articles that are available online: 

Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English

Birth and History by Deborah Gorham

Birth, Obstetrics and Human Evolution by Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan

I still have a lot to read about childbirth it will be an ongoing reading project but I don't think what I am looking for exists. We live in a world where the gory, horrific, shocking, tragic, heavy birth, complications, death, bad news...this is what sells books, this what keeps people reading...not the quiet roll call of "normal labor, healthy baby". Most women were accomplished amateur midwives by the time they were of middle age--they quietly sat with their fellow women and did the tasks that needed done. Without fuss or bother. The quiet completely invisible history of childbirth for billions of women from evolution forward. BUT they did not write the books--MEN wrote the books. The victorious version of history.

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Introducing Mr. and Mrs. ...

After finishing the category entitled "The Wives Between Us", I thought to entertain myself by adding a dash of the male perspective and came up with my next category--Mr. and Mrs. I started with the cleverly transitional title "Mr. Emerson's Wife". It was an ambitious reading list that started April 2019 and finally finished in August 2019. I probably would have finished earlier but I had three late additions and plumped up the total read to sixteen books. Not bad!

SO PLEASE ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MR. AND MRS. ...

 

 Mr. Emerson's Wife: A Novel by Amy Belding Brown completed 4/8/2019 

A fictionalized biography of Lidian Jackson Emerson-the wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I admit I chose this book more for the charm of its cleverly transitional title than I did for the subject matter. But I also thought it would interesting to read about the wife of such an iconic American writer. It left me a little dismayed. I had to fact check. I firmly believe that her actual life would have been more than interesting enough and I was very disappointed that the author chose to "spice" things up with a made-up marital affair with Henry David Thoreau. Yes, they were friends and yes, Mr. Emerson was an a-hole but there is no evidence that their friendship was anything more. I felt a little cheated and felt as if I wanted to know the truth about Mr. Emerson's wife then I would have to do further reading and my #TBR list is already long enough thank you very much, but factual biographies and her actual correspondence does exist. 

 

 Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf completed 4/2019

A classic book and Ms. Woolf's most well known work. The book details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to serve as hostess at a party in London after the first World War. This novel will also find itself in another category as one of my projects is to add a few classical titles to my reading repertoire- I am starting with the "W's"as authors such Woolf, Waugh, and Wharton have always intrigued my reading self. 

I picked up a used copy that was quite marked up. I was intrigued because this reader seemed to be pulling occult references out of Woolf's writing but alas she/he quickly lost steam and apparently interest in the book. Mrs. Woolf's novel actually turns out to be less about the party preparations than it is a "stream of thought" perspective from different POV of various characters as the narrative shifts from Clarissa to the minds of others both known and unknown to Mrs. Dalloway. The novel looks into the stream of consciousness of various men and women across many classes at a particularly challenging moment in British society as the nation struggled to recover from the first World War. 

To me, Clarissa remains as much of a mystery at the end as she did at the beginning as this narrative is mostly told through the thoughts of others both in regard to their own thoughts about Clarissa (if they know her) and in regard to their own thoughts about their lives as they move about London on this particular day. It was all neatly connected through the interactions of characters--at times like a "six degrees of separation" type of experience.

While I don't read a lot of "literature"--all this deeper meaning and allegory--made for some stuffy pretentious college seminars and maybe to "classical literature" fans this is what makes for an important must read book but frankly for me this constant search for meaning kills my reading joy--sometimes an author just likes to spin a good story along a theme she finds intriguing. I primarily read either to deepen my base of knowledge or for the pure pleasure of escape. The reading that I do for my profession often leads me to need a bit of palate cleansing so to speak.

I also frown upon reading a book simply because it is a "must read classic"--life is too short to waste reading a book simply because you think you should (or worse yet, other people judge you as lacking, sorry to disappoint but a lot of classics haven't even made it to a paper list of my #TBR). 

Back to Mrs. Dalloway, I would have been more pleased if the book had stuck with Clarissa and her party--but that is not the story that Mrs. Woolf had in mind. But overall I did enjoy it as it was a very interesting look into the different types of lives lived by Londoners on that day. I find myself becoming fascinated by reading the various means by which single women manage to live on the fringes of various societies.

This book has also added on to my #TBR pile as I very much want to read Woolf's A Room of Ones' Own and The Hours by Michael Cunningham, a work that won the Pulitzer Prize and features at least in part the reimagining of Mrs. Dalloway and if it is as promised reinvents and honors the work of Virginia Woolf. So yes I envision a Time themed category in my future.

 

 "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton completed 5/7/2019

A collection of stories and anecdotes about the Nobel Prize winning scientist, one of the minds behind the Manhattan Project--an eccentric, highly intelligent man with unlimited curiosity and a taste for outrageous adventures. I will admit it took me awhile to get through this book--especially the ones where he talks physics and math. If I work at it I can semi understand but numbers are not my strong suit. Interestingly enough, Mr. Feynman came to regret winning the Noble Prize, he did not enjoy the level of fame, and would rather be asked to speak about current ideas than speak about past projects.

The book starts out with an introduction from Bill Gates in which he admitted that learning is one of his favorite ways to relax. I can relate I am never more content than when I am researching and learning more about a particular topic. I will however admit to a level of frustration with technology, math and physics. But that little bit of glow when I do figure it all out well that makes it worth almost all the frustration.

It is amazing how many of the titles I selected for this category settled themselves around wartimes. Genius I suppose is hard for more mediocre minds to understand and I found it hard at times to relate to the mind of this brilliant scientist who who wrote mostly about his adventures during WWII and afterwards. I did however find a lot that intrigued me towards deeper thinking so I am grateful for this at the very least. He challenged my brain in entertaining ways.

 

 My Mrs. Brown: A Novel by William Norwich completed 5/4/2019

This book is written by a well-known fashion writer and editor, and is a novel about a woman with a secret who travels to New York City on a determined quest to buy a special dress that represents everything she wants to say about that secret…and herself. I think that this novel was my favorite Mrs. title out of the whole category. It is simply written with spare prose and I was immediately drawn into the characters lives. The story revolves around the unrevealed reason that Mrs. Brown feels she must have this dress and I have no intention of spoiling the ending of this book. I believe this book is a testament to the power of quiet strength and determination how it sometimes causes "a pull" that allows for meeting the right people at the right time and being in the right place just when you need to be. When I get this book back from my mother I will be putting it on my "My Shelf": the ones I keep.

 

  The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective Kate Summerscale comp. 5/21/2019

The dramatic story of a real life murder--nonfiction that reads like a Victorian thriller. (Its not quite that intense.) This is the murder that inspired the birth of modern detective fiction. (Which is a favorite genre of mine.) The Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher was one of Scotland Yard's earliest and finest detectives. He investigated, often puzzling out the mysteries behind brutal crimes and his prowess eventually went on to inspire the fictional detective creations of such renowned authors as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. 

However, this mysterious case proved all but uncrackable and almost was the ruin of Whicher's career. It took awhile to get through this book and it did drag a little bit but in the end worthwhile time spent reading and a fascinating peak into the Victorian era. As is also true of the next book, the author included a brief synopsis of the "rest of their lives" for the majority of the main characters in this book, which was one of my favorite parts. Interestingly enough, I both find myself completely unable to remember if this case was ever solved and am equally uninterested in going back and rereading. 

 

  Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation by Brad Ricca completed 6/9/2019

The true story of Mrs. Grace Humiston, the detective and lawyer who turned her back on New York society life to become one of the nation's greatest crime fighters during an era when women weren't even allowed to vote. This is the first-ever literary biography of the singular woman the press nicknamed after fiction's greatest detective. 

I found this to be a most interesting read even if it took me awhile to plow through. I primarily picked up this title to give Mr. Whicher his female equivalent. I ended up being amazed at her strength and the lengths she went to find justice for her clients. My favorite part of this book was at the end where Mr. Ricca provides short biographies of how all the major players spent the rest of their years. Something that Ms. Summerscale did as well--also one of my favorite parts of her book.

The backstory of this work is white slavery and the sheer number of people who go missing in every year. The truth of the matter is that this is a topic that still to this day gets swept under the rug. At the time of his writing 2014 the numbers he reports are astonishing: 466,949 missing children, 1.1 million reports of sexual exploitation of children and young adults, 100,000 to 300,000 children at risk for entering the U.S. commercial sex trade, 600,00-800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year of which 80% are female and half are children. I applaud Brad Ricca for his efforts in to shining a light on this horrible reality.

 

  Mr. Maybe by Jane Green completed 6/20/2019 

This title was a blast from my past reading life, typical of my tastes back in the day. Plus given all the above "heavier" reads I felt it was way past time for a lighter read: romance and a happy ending. I often think of this type of book as a palate cleanser. When I first read this book in the late 1990's I imagine I very much identified with the stream of consciousness delivery of the 27 year old main character back then. Now as I am reading it again -I find myself inwardly cringing at my self-adsorbed, fashion and relationship driven past self. Even more horrifying now that my own son is 30 I find myself commiserating with and feeling for the main character's mother--for whom the "heroine" of this tale gives nothing but ridicule and distain.

 

  Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante: A Maggie Hope Mystery by Susan Elia MacNeal completed 6/2019 

This is the 5th book in this mystery series, it features Maggie Hope, a British special agent, who travels to America with Winston Churchill in 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She infiltrates Mrs. Roosevelt's inner circle when one of Eleanor's aides is mysteriously murdered.

I usually don't like to start books deep into a series but this one tied neatly in with this category so I couldn't resist. The author doesn't rehash a lot of the back stories, instead she supplies just enough detail to get a feel for how her main characters have developed over the arc of the series. If I had an infinite amount of time for reading then I am sure I would go back and start at the beginning. We will see.

The story was good and the author worked hard to give a real taste to the flavor of living in America on the cusp of the United States joining the Allied Forces after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She touches not just on American-British relations but personal relationships, racial tensions, and the effect of Hollywood propaganda as a social media influencer.

There was also a separate storyline back in England that involved captured Nazi prisoners (this storyline must have made more sense to readers of the entire series--but not too much to me--but I believe the female captive was Maggie's mother) that seemed to be a continuation of a storyline that had started earlier in the series. Ditto for a personal relationship that Maggie shared with one of her co-workers. I was left a little confused but not as much as I feared I might when I decided to dip in mid series.

 

 Mr. Mercedes: A Novel (The Bill Hodges Trilogy) by Stephen King Completed 7/2019

It has been a long while since I read a book by Stephen King. I have read almost all of his early books--I burnt out on his writing after awhile--I think he did as well. I have only dabbled as of late reading Under the Dome (I liked the book but the TV series was awful) I really enjoyed 11/22/63 that revolved around time travel and the Kennedy assassination, my favorite however was "On Writing" a memoir about his life as a writer. 

Stephen King usually the master of horror here writes a straight up race against the clock mystery thriller. It is the first book in a trilogy involving the main character Bill Hodges, an ex-cop. It is well written and I really wanted to like this book more than I did. I guess my reading tastes and preferences have truly moved on--I find it highly unlikely that I will read the rest of the trilogy. What I most love about SK is his ability to build strong characters in a few short paragraphs--even if he kills them off in the paragraph after that. 

 

 A Star for Mrs. Blake: A novel by April Smith completed 7/8/2019

In 1929 the United States Congress passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of fallen soldiers of WWI to visit their son's graves in France. The press for this book promises expert storytelling, memorable characters, and beautiful prose. The novel features a group of grieving mothers as they travel to France--a timeless story set against a little known footnote of history.

This book lived up to the press. It was one of my favorite reads in this category. If I have to have a complaint it is that the author tried to cobble together too many themes and storylines in her effort to give a complete picture of what life was like both in America and France at this moment in time but it is hard to take to task a book that is so well written for a little quibble like that.

 

THE COMPLETE NOVELS. Voyage in the Dark. Quartet. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Good Morning, Midnight. Wide Sargasso Sea. With an Introduction by Diana Athill and Photographs by Brassai.   THE COMPLETE NOVELS. After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.  by Jean Rhys completed 7/2019

A late addition for the this category--I couldn't resist dipping in. The other day at #HalfPricedBooks I picked up a copy of the complete novels of #JeanRhys for $8. Quite a bargain it turns out-- I just noticed this title going for $48 on Amazon. I spent most of my weekend in front of a fan with my nose in this book escaping the heat. I always love finding a popular author whose work is new to me. So far, I have only read After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie as it neatly fit into this category. It is a dark and quite stark read from an author who is proclaimed as one of the truest voices of the 20th century. 

As I read-- I found it very easy to start harshly judging this woman who is struggling to make ends meet as she aimlessly moves along the fringe of society and her family. A different time and way of life--she mostly survives on the charitable donations of her lovers, past and present. Then I would catch myself with the realization that in reality that I am not as financially independent of men as I would like to believe. I have a roof over my head and health insurance because my estranged husband (our heroine's husband has wandered off as well) pays my taxes and foots the expense for what passes as healthcare in America today. I am very grateful--if anything reading Jean Rhys has made me starkly aware of how much luck and circumstance play a part in a persons' life.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics) Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic by Elizabeth Taylor completed 7/2019

Another late addition to this category and another book I couldn't resist digging into. I never heard of Elizabeth Taylor, the author, until I joined Twitter @DebbieVignovic and found @JacquiWine - she has proved a treasure trove of #TBR. A recent heatwave has caused a spike in my reading. Rest assured I will be reading the rest of Elizabeth Taylor's novels.

This story is set in 1960's London and revolves around the unexpected friendship that develops between the recently widowed Laura Palfrey and a young struggling writer Ludo Myers. After the death of her husband Mrs. Palfrey makes the decision to move from Scotland to London to be near her 26 year old grandson. She takes up residence in the Claremont Hotel and is quickly surrounded by a group of other elderly residents. Mrs. Palfrey is out walking one evening when she accidentally falls in front of Ludo's basement apartment and he rushes to her rescue.

Mrs. Palfrey's actual grandson turns out to be a bit of a flake and in spite of his promises never shows up for a visit with his grandmother. In order to save face in front of her fellow elderly residents she calls upon Ludo and implores him to come to dinner and impersonate her grandson to which he agrees. The story while it does have its elements of comedy and wit--it is mostly a novel about the particular loneliness of old age--the feeling of being a burden upon others. It is about the casting to the side of the elderly and how fragile life can be.

 

  The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist by Tim Birkhead completed 7/2019

If you haven't figured it out by now--I will pretty much read anything. This is the biography of Francis Willughby, the man who pulled the study of birds out of the dark ages and formed the foundation of modern ornithology. He lived in 17th century England--a thrilling period of scientific history. This was a dense information packed read and it took me a while to get to the end. Even so this was still my favorite Mr. out of the group--I was totally surprised to come to this conclusion but over the years I have truly come to love reading history. I especially enjoyed the style and tone in which the author told the tale, he took what could have easily been dry dusty history and turned it into a very readable look at a fascinating corner of history.

 

  Dear Mrs. Bird: A Novel by AJ Pearce completed 7/2019

This novel is set in London during WWII and features a young woman who dreams of becoming a war correspondent but inadvertently becomes a secret advice columnist instead. A look into women's lives in wartime Britain. Once I got used to the writing style employed by the author (she likes capitalization and exclamation points) I really enjoyed this book. It helps one imagine what courage it took every day to remain and live in London during the Blitz. It took the development of very stiff upper lips.

 

  Mr. Murder: A Thriller by Dean Koontz completed 8/2019

A big house. A beautiful wife. Two happy and healthy children. It’s a nice life that writer Martin Stillwater has made for himself. But he can’t shake this feeling of impending disaster. One bad moment on an otherwise fine day has put Marty on a collision course with a killer—a man with a mere shadow of an identity who is desperately searching for something more...Martin’s home. Martin’s family. Martin’s life.

It had been a long time since I had read a book by Dean Koontz but since I had already dipped back into Stephen King I figured why not. This book was not horror of the occult/mystical sort but more the sort of horror of medical technology gone astray in a violent way--a very violent way. It takes a stab at the private organizations that seem to run the government--this book was published in 1993 and it is a sad reflection that special interest now totally runs the show in 2019 Washington DC and America has even elected special interest as its President.

 

  The Last Mrs. Parrish: A Novel  by Liv Constantine completed 8/2019

 This novel follows Amber Patterson an entitled twenty something girl who believes she deserves so much more in fact she believes that she is perfectly entitled to a life of power, wealth and recognition. As a means to gain entry Amber selects as her target Daphne Parrish the socialite and philanthropist who is married to Jackson Parrish, a real estate mogul and then hatched a meticulous plan to totally insert herself into their world.

It was a well laid plan and while Amber does succeed all is certainly not what it seems--this book hinges on a plot twist that I will not reveal here. I will admit to the fact that I saw most of it coming which always disappoints me somehow. It did however keep me turning pages. 

 

I read an impressive 16 books for this category and I would like sum up by sharing some of the unintentional commonalities of my choices. I enjoyed the Mrs. titles way more than the Mr.'s but I do consider this a category well read.

Six of my choices featured war as a backdrop. Both Mrs. Dalloway and A Star for Mrs. Blake examined life immediately following WWI albeit from completely different perspectives and the authors Richard Feynman IRL, Susan MacNeal, and AJ Pearce all took very different looks at WWII. There is an element of more recent American wars in My Mrs. Brown.

Four real life histories and at least six books took past history as a back drop for their stories. Several were written and set in past decades such as 60's era London and 90's era United States. Three books were blasts from my reading past with mixed results, some books became favorites but some genres are perhaps left back in the past.

The books featured a range of characters who ran at the upper stratosphere of their selected societies all the way to a fairly large group of characters who definitely spent their lives skirting on the fringes. 

War, death, murder, injury, poison, kidnapping, evil intent---all told violence in its many insidious forms was a near constant character in the vast majority of these reads. Indeed it is very hard to escape--it pervades society. 

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Bewitching Reads

 My thought was to celebrate Halloween and October by curating a category of witch themed reads, but mostly it was because I really wanted to read what I thought was the last book in Kim Harrison's The Hollow Series that feature the witch Rachel Morgan. I treated myself to an old favorite, The Witch of Blackbird Pond--I got to read more from some of my favorite authors, Tana French and Chris Bohjalian--and I found some great new-to-me authors in Louisa Morgan and Stacey Halls. I had a very well read October/November. 

 

  

  The Witch Elm: A Novel by Tana French completed 10/16/2019

What Amazon Says:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life—he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden—and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

What I Say:

This is the second book that I have read by Tana French. It is dark, depressing, and filled with very human very relatable characters who are not often likable. It takes a slow meandering pace full of nuances, red herrings, and back story and Ms. French keeps one guessing. I like that Ms. French got her idea of hiding a body in a witch elm from a real life mystery of Bella who's body was found in a trunk of an English Witch Elm in 1943. 

I also like the sly way Ms. French took a swipe at the treatment of women by the patriarchal medical establishment and by OB/GYN's in particular. If 3 stars is "I liked it" and 4 stars is "I liked this a lot" then I would rate this with 3.6 stars, but I'm bumping her up for this very timely bit of awareness raising. Reading time well spent.

 

 

  The Familiars: A Novel by Stacey Halls completed 10/2019

I saw this book mentioned often by other book reviewers on Twitter and it got a lot of praise. It is set against the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 making it a perfect fit for this witchy themed category. The author clearly did her research and I give her high marks for sticking to what little is known about the actual history of her main characters. I love a book that builds fiction out of history's dark past and the mystery of Alice Gray leaves a lovely loophole for the imagination to wander. 

I am a birth doula and childbirth educator by trade and a woman who reads A LOT about the history of childbirth. Early 17th century England was a place very different than today, and while the physiological nature of childbirth has remained unchanged, it is also true that there is much more understanding of the science and the workings of the human body in today's world. One shudders at what was once commonly believed and what was common practice in the 1600's. That said-- I often took the author to task when she put Fleetwood astride a horse, out in the cold and the rain, and in the direct path of infection for the sake of this thrilling plot. I'm a doula I can't think otherwise--especially given all those previous miscarriages.

There was a lot going on during this age, doctors were becoming more common, midwives and healers stood in their way as they quested towards more lucrative careers and discrediting these women as witches was one such horrible tool that the patriarchy used to clear their path. You learn a lot of unfortunate truths when you read about childbirth's past.

I applaud this author for putting power in the hands of her women characters giving them control of their decisions and their bodies. They had excellent role models in Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and with a touch of evil--Catherine de Medici, powerful women who reigned in the 16th century..  

What Amazon says:

 This rich and compelling novel draws its characters from historical figures as it explores the lives and rights of seventeenth-century women, ultimately raising the question: Is witch-hunting really just women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn't supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong. As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Soon the two women's lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood's stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.

 

   Water Witches by Chris Bohjalian completed 11/2019

What Amazon says:

Set in the Vermont countryside, Water Witches is a tale of the clash between progress and tradition, science and magic. In the midst of a nightmarish New England drought, cynical ski industry lobbyist Scottie Winston is trying to get a large ski resort the permits it needs to tap already beleaguered rivers for snow. His wife, his little girl, and his sister-in-law -- dowsers or "water witches" all -- hope to stop him, however, in this gentle, comic, life-affirming novel.

What I say:

I really enjoyed this book. This is the second book that I have read by this author, I was so pleased to find a title of his that fit with this theme, and I will continue to read more of his work. He has an easy readable style of writing and creates characters that you are glad to meet, even the ones you might not like so much. His books continue to be reading time well spent. 

 

  A Secret History of Witches: A Novel by Louisa Morgan completed 11/11/2019

What Amazon Says: 

A sweeping historical saga that traces five generations of fiercely powerful mothers and daughters -- witches whose magical inheritance is both a dangerous threat and an extraordinary gift. Brittany, 1821. After Grand-mère Ursule gives her life to save her family, their magic seems to die with her. Even so, the Orchieres fight to keep the old ways alive, practicing half-remembered spells and arcane rites in hopes of a revival. And when their youngest daughter comes of age, magic flows anew. The lineage continues, though new generations struggle not only to master their power, but also to keep it hidden. But when World War II looms on the horizon, magic is needed more urgently than ever - not for simple potions or visions, but to change the entire course of history.

What I say:

This is a book that got a lot of so so reviews. What can I say? I loved it. The book followed the Orchiere witches through five generations, with each story hitting as that particular witch came into her power. I liked that all the witches had different levels and strengths and that not all used their power for good. I loved the WWII angle and did a little Googling. 

The Queen Mother Elizabeth II is distantly connected to the Glamis witches of Scotland through Janet Douglas and there are plenty of stories out there on the interweb concerning the use of witchcraft during WWII especially at the time of D-Day when Allied Forces invaded France. I briefly tweeted with Ms. Morgan and she tells me that this is not the first time that she has used actual facts to support her fiction. At some point I will do more reading, currently I'm back with Mary Queen of Scots (lots of witches back then). 

 

 

 The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare completed 11/2019

This is one of my all time favorite books, it lives on my forever shelf, loved it as a young girl, loved it as a young mother, and still love it as a crazy old cat lady.

It is an innocent tale about the perils of being "different" and an intelligent woman in Puritan New England. There is romance, family, and friendship. If you have never read it I highly suggest that you do. 

  

 The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison

This was supposed to be the last book (#13) in this series about the adventures of Cincinnati witch Rachel Morgan but I recently learned that there is to be a 14th coming out this Spring. A couple of chapters into this one I began to realize that while I thought I had read the 12th installment (The Dead Pool) I clearly had not. I didn't feel as out of the loop as I thought AND as the action started on page 1, I was already hooked, so I carried on. Obviously I love Rachel and the regular cast of characters. I've known her long enough that she's family and as family she does have some quirks that get on my nerves--that being said she would not be Rachel if she didn't.

Ms. Harrison narrates these books through the stream of consciousness delivery of Rachel Morgan and what ever is going on in Rachel's head we "hear" about it. She is a witch with heightened senses so we get intimate details on what she smells, feels, hears, sees, tastes, and every single one of her thoughts. We always know what color pixie dust, what Trent's hair is doing, and that Al has goat slitted demon eyes. She constantly keeps track of those she is responsible for including the whereabouts of Mr. Fish. 

Almost every single page Rachel thinks that while she loves Trent she is bad for him and is ruining his life. Almost every single page Rachel thinks that while she is bad for her also, she loves Ivy and that she will do anything to save her soul. (Trent is an Elf and Ivy is a Vampire)  IRL that is how brains work setting up endless feedback loops that run over and over in our heads, BUT and just like with our own loops it gets tiresome after awhile. We get it. In between those two thoughts she often saves the world--again.

But what makes me sad is that:

No matter how powerful, how much good she has done, she still bad mouths herself and that is our Rachel. She's family I love her in spite of all this negative self talk. I'd really like to see her take on that demon, those real life demons that infest our brains with endless self defeating non stop chatter. But I imagine Ku Sox is walk in the park compared to conquering her brain's DMN (Default Mode Network).

I really enjoyed reading how Kim Harrison neatly tied up the final action scenes as a culmination of themes she had carefully cultivated and built over time in her series. I plan on dipping back to read The Dead Pool and eagerly anticipate The American Demon coming this Spring.

 

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After I read through a book for each of the seasons, I did a bunch of random categories mostly based on books I already had laying around on my shelves. Categories such as birds, weather conditions and body parts. Body parts--yes body parts.

I created this category so that I could justify reading the last two Diana Gabaldon Outlander books and Bring up the bodies by Hilary Mantel. I rounded off the category by reading The Golden Calf and Fingersmith.

I am only including this list because it has led to a recent spate of Royal Reading. I'm glad to see it making a comeback in my reading life. 

 An Echo in the Bone: A Novel (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon 

I love the entire series of Outlander books, I love the TV series on Starz. This is the seventh book in the series that follows 18th century Scotsman and 20th century Claire Randall from Scotland, to England, to America. The majority of this novel takes place in the American colonies, during the American Revolution. A lot of "readers" complain about the slow pace and the over abundance of detail but I love them, while reading you totally get immersed in the world of the Fraziers. I will say that it pays not to read them too close together.  After I'm done with one of her books they linger, I feel a little lost, perhaps and forgive me--they echo in my bones.

 

 Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2) by Hilary Mantel

Winner of the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner is a fleshed out "biography" of the life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII's most faithful counselor and a very powerful man. Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel and delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn as witnessed through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Years ago, I watched The Tudors on HBO, a pretty version, of the early reign of King Henry VIII and three of his six wives. I picked up a copy of Wolf Hall sometime after that series came to an end. This book, even though I loved Wolf Hall lingered on my shelf for years but I'm glad I waited, it was the perfect addition to this category.

 

  The Golden Calf (An Irene Huss Investigation) by Helene Tursten 

One day one of my regular yoga students asked if I liked reading detective and mystery novels, I said yes. The next time she came to class she brought a whole bag of books. This book is deep into the popular Swedish crime series featuring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. It was a good read, I would read more of her books, but I would have to go back to the beginning and I am not sure if all of her novels are translated. 

 

 

 

 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

This is a Dickensian novel full of thrills, plot twists, and reversals. An orphan, a rich gentlewoman, a baby farmer, gin, petty thieves, fancy thieves, London slums, rich estates, a plot to steal a vast inheritance and a little bit of lesbian romance. Dark twisted and a good read.

 

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I have a row of books that sit on a shelf beside my bed. I have stacks of unread books all over my home. Before I thought to read books by category, I would pick my next book by moving from stack to stack and reading the next one. A book by Jasper Fforde was at the beginning of the next stack, so I decided to combine practices and developed a category around the title. All these books surround characters who live very bookish lives. 

  Lost in a Good Book (A Thursday Next Novel) by Jasper Fforde

This is the second novel in a futuristic crime series set in an alternate version of England and follows the cases of literary detective, Thursday Next, it is a sequel to The Eyre Affair. This book was originally published in 2004 and I bought the paperback version. I remember enjoying the first book but yet this book grew dust on my shelves for years. Mission finally accomplished in 2018--but I don't think I will read anymore of this series, and I'm not entirely sure why. 

 

 

  The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

The debut book by this author. The story revolves around a bookish Swedish girl who travels to a tiny town in Iowa to visit her pen pal, an elderly lady who passes away while the girl is en route. The townspeople encourage her to stay, live in her pen pal's house and she decides to open up a tiny bookstore in this tiny town--both romance and immigration issues ensue. This book reads like a made-for Hallmark movie to me, but interestingly enough my mother and her neighbor (both avid Hallmark movie watchers) didn't like the book at all. I did, especially since the character suggested all types of reading to her customers not just "the classics" and because the recently deceased pen pal had lived in a bedroom piled high with books.

 

 Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan

This book is mostly set in the San Francisco bay area and revolves around a recently laid off young man who takes the night shift job in a small 24-hour book store. Things are strange, very few customers, and the regulars stop by to borrow large obscure books hidden deep in the shop. It ends up being a much bigger story, the battle between digital and bound books. It morphs into a bit of a mystical adventure. I liked it, it is weird, I hope to get around to reading his next book. 

 

 

   The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin

This book is about the grumpy judgmental owner of a bookstore set on a tiny island, I think in the north east but I could be remembering that wrong. He judges his clientele for having the temerity to read what they like and not what he thinks they should like. Needless to say his store is not thriving and then someone steals his most expensive rare book. There is an ex-wife, a daughter, and a police friend, and a new girlfriend. I mostly liked reading this book, it referenced a lot of other books, albeit mostly the "tried and true" mainstay classics that everyone insists are must reads.   

 


These next two books went on my shelf of favorites, that rarest of book--those that I would happily spend precious reading time to read again! These two books also happen to fall into my very favorite style of book--stories that are told through letters.

 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

A very simple, short story--a classic tale of a friendship that grew out of the shared love of books. This true story is told through the 20 years of transatlantic correspondence between New York City based author, Helene Hanff and the English proprietor and staff of Messrs. Marks & Co., the sellers of rare and secondhand books located at 84 Charing Cross Road, London. The book is mostly set in the late 1940's and 50's giving a compelling look at the deprivation felt by Englanders immediately following the second World War. I will read this book again and again.

 

 

  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I had often glanced at this book as I browsed through the shelves of many a book store. I am glad I resisted its lure until now as it was a perfect fit into this category. I will read this book again with pleasure. This book is also set in England, as it emerges out of the shadow of the second World War. A London author who is looking for the subject for her next book receives a letter from a stranger who lives on the island of Guernsey--he had found her address in a book he had bought secondhand. They begin a correspondence, she travels to Guernsey, it turns into a love story, not just romance, but the power of books to transform lives. This novel has a strong back drop of history and is told using the literary style of correspondence, a style I adore, we read the letters shared between herself, this stranger, her editor, her fiancee, and the fellow members of this Guernsey based literary society.

Sometimes a category will develop a deeper level of connection, this one in particular shares much deeper connections. Three of the books share England, book stores, and letters. All the books have and abiding and deep love of literature and most of these selections add an element of mystery.  Two share the love of the all but forgotten author Charles Lamb, a quirky connection, but still. 

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  A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy 

I picked up this book because I love Maeve Binchy and hadn’t read any of her books in about 20 years. I have a thing for English writers--I have a thing for all things English. But here's the weird thing-- while Im reading a book like this I fall in love with the idea of scrubbed pine tables and carbolic acid cleaners, gardening in the rain, puttering around in old cars and old clothes the older the better. Cleaning and scrubbing and order. A hard core work ethic.

Reading about them is one thing— thank goodness this fascination has never transferred over into my actual life even though sometimes I wish it would-- at least until my garden is in order and my house is clean and tidy. Old bare indian rugs and beeswax-- wide open windows. Farms and cottages old manor houses and London terraces and flats. Rosamunde Pilcher and Maeve Binchy do this best.

 

 

 

 Cicada Spring: A Novel by Christian Galacar

The only book not set in England. I had trouble locating a book with Spring in the title. It involved sexual abuse, minors, and people taking justice into their own hands. It was an okay read if a little thin and far fetched. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  A Fine Summer's Day: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery by Charles Todd

The English theme continues. This book is part of a very popular detective series that follows the casework of Ian Rutledge. I hate reading out of order and this book was deep into the series. I decided to read it anyway as luck would have it the book was out of sequence itself. The other novels follow Ian after he came back shell-shocked and haunted from the first World War, this one however, imagines his life as an inspector before the war. I really liked it and have gone back and started the series at the beginning.

 

 

 

 

 

      Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

A very English writer, not as concerned with cleanliness, this book was about the lives of four co-workers nearing retirement, it was a little dark, but I liked it. I would like to read more of her books.

 

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I was curious to know how other authors wrote about their reading lives. I figured it was valuable research as I plan to do the same in Categorically Well Read. I didn't find many titles. But the sheer quantity of books these authors claim to have read seriously intimidates me. I also wanted to find book suggestions that were more than just moldy old lists of should be read "classics". I have issues with the value of using my valuable reading time reading a book just because it is a classic--it also has to be a good read. Such as Middlemarch by George Eliot, Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. 

Some of these authors wrote a lot about books that influenced their reading lives as they were growing up, which encouraged me to examine mine. I am acquiring my titles for a future reading list. 

Some books about the reading life.

 

  The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose

I was a little afraid to read this book as I was sure I would feel compelled to either read "her shelf" or pick a "shelf of my own" but in the end I felt neither urge. I will admit it is an intriguing idea--although if I do succumb it will consist of me reading through one of my "home composed shelves of unread books"--that idea might be worth pursuing! My "Umberto Ecco Anti-Library" currently consists of at least five such shelves. (Thanks Mr. Taleb for making me proud of this fact.) The shelf Ms. Rose read was very unappealing to me and in the end I think mostly to her as well. This book has a lot of filler--interesting filler but filler none the less and her writing about these books/filler was way more interesting than the books.

Her idea was to pick a somewhat random shelf in a New York City library (she set some ground rules for shelf selection) and read her way through. She became a little obsessed about one--a Russian "classic" that she read over and over until she could convince her mind that it was a classic. I didn't get it. There is a whole class of authors who books (like this one) have been deemed classics that glorify the macho male and their mistreatment of women or who blatantly indulge the author's "fictionalized fantasies" that usually involved forbidden lusts and/or minors. It makes me wonder living in this #metoo moment that perhaps this "classification" needs to be re-thought. I don't want to be a hypocrite though as I love a good mystery/thriller as much as the next reader, it just has me wondering about the human taste for violence in our choices of entertainment.

Ms. Rose has no problem criticizing authors and books or revealing plots twists, endings, and solutions to crimes. She is a bit harsh at times and claims at one point to not read negative reviews of her own writings. Dishing it out but not taking it. Over all though I liked this book, even though I didn't always agree with the author. In fact, the one book that she decided not to read ended up being the only one that I felt was interesting. A book called Eleanor by Rhoda Lerman--it is about Eleanor Roosevelt and I am so close to having a whole category of Eleanor books.

 

  Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood

An autobiographical exploration of the books that influenced an Italian girl growing up in Rhode Island in the 60's and 70's. I too am a child of this era, I too was influenced by the author Herman Wouk but I am not sure I ever read Marjorie Morningstar, I know I read War and Remembrance and Winds of War and liked them both. My plan is to rectify this omission, she is going into a category soon. I really enjoyed this book and plan on reading more by this author, hopefully soon.

 

After reading that book-- my category ran into a little technical difficulty. As I was exploring other "reading and book themed" websites I stumbled across Modern Mrs. Darcy a popular blog created by Anne Bogel. It is very easy to get sucked down a rabbit hole on her site. I noticed she had written a book about her reading life. During a deep dive on her website I found another author, Kathleen Norris with a very intriguing somewhat theme related title and topic. While I was on Amazon buying these two books I found Amazon recommending a third, titled "Book Girl" and I bought it as well.

What I failed to note at first glance was the Christian slant of ALL of these books and websites. While Anne Bogel does a good job keeping her book and her website "secular" rather than overtly "spiritual" -- her book is ranked on Amazon under Christian living and a lot of her followers are definitely living Christians. Nothing wrong with this, to each their own...Anne has a very good eye for very good reading material. In fact I have another category going based on a list of can't put down books I found on her website. And I will be ever grateful for stumbling across Kathleen Norris's book on her site.

I am giving Kathleen Norris a pass on the religious front as the word "monk" is included in the title and particularly because her book gave me the key to unlocking the mysterious malaise I often feel about living life. I have been unable to accurately describe it and now I can. I knew going in that this was a religious book written by a woman with a devout faith, but the demon of which she writes is a universal element in the makeup of human minds. 

I skimmed through the lists in the third title but could not make myself read Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson and I tried. I am a little peeved at both Amazon and the publisher to tell the truth. You read "20+ recommended reading lists, the treasures and transforming power of reading, the joys of being a "book girl" but what you never find out until you start reading is that this book has serious religious tones. This fact was not mentioned in the description or on the back cover. The lists--sorry to say-- are more about what to read if you want to be a good Christian and given that the author is an Oxford divinity scholar completely understandable. This is in retrospect--I wish this slant had been more fully divulged and I could have saved my book fund the expense.

Unfortunately, I found her writing style irritating, too ingratiating and chummy. And I know I just skimmed but I kept getting this sneaking feeling that she hadn't read all the books she put into her lists. For the record, I do have a rather immense "To Be Read" stack of books but I do not recommend them as must reads (if warranted) until after I have read them.

Once again, to each their own, and if these types of religious reading lists are where you choose to spend your precious reading time, it is no business of mine. Just realize that I mostly find my solace and truths elsewhere and read from those lists.

 

  I'd Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel

I liked her book, I liked reading about her life, I like her website and often go there for reading inspiration. While I am amazed at the quantity of books she reads, personally I would never get the same amount of reading satisfaction out of giving a book a "quick" read. I am slow, I savor and ponder, indeed I approach my whole life at the pace of a leisurely stroll. 

 

 

 

  

 Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris

The demon of acedia--also called the noonday demon--is the one that causes the most trouble of all...he strikes during the heat of the day, you are hungry and fatigued, and open to the suggestion that commitment to work, your dream, your passion, your meditation is not worth the effort. Nothing is worth the effort and the demon laughs and mocks you for ever thinking anything ever was. You lay down and struggle to get back up. This demon certainly lives in my head, but I think it is a universal element of the human brain. Kathleen is in the end way too "religious" for me, that she suffers from acedia (and depression) rolls off of every page. I really hopes she finds her peace. 

I consider this book a starting point for a major research project as I need more secular scientific answers and thanks to Ms. Norris I have plenty of places to look. For the record this book is way more about her writing life than it is about her reading life. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I have been spending my reading life in Paris of late but now my reading sees me heading off into the back of the house lives of some famous chefs and food writers. The two titles I am starting with keep me both in Paris and finally gets me to read a book that has languished for many years on my shelf. This is a very personal category as I spent many years "back of the house" in many restaurant kitchens, my life has moved on--but I am still an avid home cook. You can follow my cooking adventures in Gourmappetit.  

 

  A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter 

I loved this book from its rambling quirkiness to its often insightful prose, it is a fascinating glimpse into a life of a restaurant and its chef. The author spent several months working in the kitchen of the three Michelin star Paris restaurant, Taillevant. His tenure at the restaurant culminated with a five hour meal shared with his wife, in the 19th century dining room--a meal meticulously prepared and served-just like this book. The writing is a clever juxtaposition of the meal, the back of the house, history, and the love of food. 

 

     My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

I got this book as a Christmas present back in 2006. I'm not quite sure why I never read it, it languished on my shelf for close to twelve years. As many aspiring female chefs do I consider Julia Child to be an inspiration and a role model in so many ways--not just as a chef. Julia was a tall, large-boned, "handsome" woman who could have easily slid into the role of an American housewife in Paris when her husband Paul was stationed there in 1948 after WWII. I admire her because it just never seemed to occur to her that she couldn't conquer Paris, master French Cooking, get accepted at the Cordon Bleu, teach classes, write books, or become a TV personality. An ordinary woman with the spirit to become quite extraordinary. 

Julia wrote this memoir about her years in France with the assistance from her grandnephew Alex, she passed away in 2004, I believe just after completing the first draft, her love and joy for life sing through these pages and since I am crying while I write these words I imagine that this is part of the reason it took me so long to finally read this book. 

 

   Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author is the chef of the acclaimed NYC restaurant Prune and a very talented writer. Before she opened Prune, Gabrielle spent 20 some fierce hard-living years working in bars, summer camps, catering companies and restaurants in America, France, Greece, and Turkey. She had an idyllic childhood in upstate New York mostly spent with her French mother in the kitchen, her parents were locally famous for their large food themed parties. This world was destroyed when her parents split and her mother left the family behind. Ms. Hamilton went to college in Michigan where she earned an M.F.A. in writing. She also got her first catering job there. 

The book details her life, her family, her prickly marriage with an Italian, motherhood, her restaurant and her restaurant family. She is an honest gritty writer, she is not always likable and I certainly don't agree with all of her choices but she is a great talent both in the kitchen and as a writer. Her work ethic alone is enough to make me lie down and weep. As I got an inadvertent education in yoga and eventually became a reluctant yoga instructor I can relate to the experience of coming into a career through the back door, so to speak.

 

     Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by Scott Haas

Second book in this category that features a writer who wanted to get a look at the "back of the house" and this book is in its own separate way also reading time well spent. The author is a clinical psychologist and a well regarded food writer who wanted to get a look into the minds of some top American chefs. The book features some of the conversations that he had with several such chefs but it mostly features the James Beard Award winning, Boston chef, Tony Maws. Scott spent 18 months immersed into Tony's kitchen life at his restaurant Craigie on Main, and he became a part of the restaurant family.

This book is less about what makes the food so amazing, the author captures the excitement and drama of the kitchen but not the food and the artistry of cooking. Instead his focus is on the actions of chefs and the employees, looking at the back of the house through the eyes of a clinical psychologist. He examines the flaws, the staff turnovers, relationship troubles and does a good job of showing the reality of life as lived in the kitchen behind a famous restaurant. Truthfully though I found the "head shrinking" elements a little tiresome and overreaching at times but still really liked the book.

 

   An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

This is a collection of essays about the joys of simple slow food everything from boiling water to cooking eggs and beans, how to use the odds and ends of one meal to start the next one. She believes that almost all kitchen mistakes can be remedied, cooking resourcefully and not wastefully. Tamar is a writer and a cook who has logged serious time on the line of restaurants big, small, famous and humble. She spent time at Chez Panisse working with Alice Waters and time at Prune working with Gabrielle Hamilton. I just love when books in my categories mesh and interweave in myriad ways.

Her way of cooking leads one to end up with a refrigerator and freezer full of mostly unlabeled odds and ends but out of my growing collection I have made some inventive tasty meals. She is also of the opinion that everything tastes better with a sprinkle of parsley, a squirt of lemon, a dash of parmesan cheese, and a spray of breadcrumbs--and I have found that indeed she is pretty much spot on.

 

   An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage

I know, I know. Technically this book does not belong in this category, I found it stuffed in between "An Everlasting Meal" and "Blood, Butter, and Bones" on the shelf at Half Priced Books and couldn't resist. It is a red herring. I was expecting this to be a book about how certain foods became human staples, I guess. But no, instead the book explores the amazing role of food, especially plant food in history--as a tool of social transformation, political organization, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict, and economic expansion. 

The book spans the time from the emergence of farming in China by 7,500 BCE to today's use of corn and sugar to produce ethanol, it is a different way of looking at history that is both eye-opening and changed the way I view the world. I found it to be a bit of a palate cleanser--it took me out of the "tiny" back of the house world of individual restaurants to looking at food from a much larger perspective.

 

     The School of Essential Ingredients (A School of Essential Ingredients Novel) by Erica Bauermeister

This is the only fictional "back of the house" in this category and while it hails itself as a novel it reads more like a collection of interweaving short stories. Lillian is a successful chef/restauranteur who conducts cooking classes "back of the house" where she teaches the essential basics of cooking. To me, she was the most interesting character, and at times I wished the whole book was about her but this is not what the author had in mind for her book. Each chapter follows the life of one of the eight students who take this particular round of cooking classes. 

It is about the healing energy of cooking, the soul satisfying work of nourishing yourself and others with thoughtfully prepared simple food, and the mind stilling quality of "hands on doing" that the often repetitive tasks of cooking and baking bring. If you pay attention when watching a cooking competition or show you will often hear the chefs credit their back of house cooking life as the one that made all the difference, the one that turned their life around and gave their life meaning and purpose.

{jcomments on}

 

 

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.