Catching Up

I have not blogged about my reading a very long time. It’s been eventful around here. I took on extra duties at work, our cat passed away, we adopted kittens in August. Meet Velma and Daphne.

Two tabby and white cats named Velma and Daphne
Velma (left) and Daphne (right)

They are incredibly lovable and sweet. We adore them!

Here is a list of all the books I’ve read since I last wrote a review on my blog with a star-rating attached. I don’t think I’ll get around to reviewing these books. I started to write a catch-up post with reviews in September, and I was overwhelmed. Links go to Bookshop.org if you’re interested in purchasing. I would earn a small commission.

Of these books, my two favorites are Circe and Surrender (big U2 fan here). I was slightly disappointed by The Brontë Myth because it focused almost entirely on Charlotte Brontë. Anne was entirely neglected and Emily nearly so. I get why: we just don’t really know that much about them because they died before they became major literary stars whereas Charlotte survived long enough to see her fame blossom. I still gave the book 4 stars as it was informative. It wasn’t in the same league as Miller’s book about Keats. I thoroughly enjoyed both Madeline Miller books and plan to read more in that vein (seems like a burgeoning industry to retell Greek myths). I felt like The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue owed a little bit to the Doctor Who episode about Ashildr, introduced in the episode “The Woman Who Lived” (one of my all-time favorites episodes and characters).

Rest in Peace, Bellatrix

A Photograph of Bellatrix, a cat
Photo courtesy Steve Huff

On Thursday, June 30, 2022, my husband Steve and I took Bellatrix to the vet for the last time. She had rapidly declined in the weeks preceding her death. I suspect she may only have lived a few more days, but she was clearly suffering. We consulted with the vet to be sure that we were doing the right thing, and the vet agreed that it would be kinder to her to put her to sleep. She had trouble getting around and confined herself to the kitchen, bathroom, and our daughter Maggie’s room. I’m glad she spent so many of her final days with Maggie. We often joked that Maggie was her nemesis because Maggie doted on her so fiercely, and sometimes Bella just didn’t want that attention. She was not the kind of cat who wanted to be in your lap. She didn’t like being held. She loved being petted and sitting close to you, but not too close.

We didn’t notice any signs of trouble until April, and the vet couldn’t really find anything wrong, but she didn’t improve, so we took her again in May, and this time, the vet found a mass in her abdomen. She recommended a trip to an emergency vet. We couldn’t get her to one for about a week, but the ER vet confirmed our worst fears. Bella didn’t have long to live. She said we could try cancer treatment, but the absolute best-case scenario, and not a very likely one, is that we’d buy her a year. We couldn’t do it to her, knowing how much she hated getting in the car and going to the vet. It would have been a horrible final year, and it didn’t seem like a kindness.

In spite of so many people telling us we were doing the right thing, it was very hard. Selfishly, I wanted her to live forever. I loved her so very much. Taking care of her in the final six weeks of her life was so hard. She declined so rapidly. She was a beautiful cat. She was a fierce mouser. She was independent and intelligent. I am just heartbroken over this loss, and I thought I was more ready. I expected my daughter and husband to have a harder time with their emotions, but actually, I’m the one who has been crying for days. Today is actually the first day I can think about her at all without immediately tearing up, though I’ve still cried twice (and it’s not noon).

Bella was 13, and we’ve had her since she was a 12-week-old kitten. She was a member of the family. As much as I say that and believe it, part of me still feels like it’s wrong to be as upset as I am, especially given the state of the world. I know on an intellectual level that I should feel whatever I feel and not worry about the other stuff, but it’s hard. It feels like lacking perspective. I know that’s not true, but it’s something I’m wrestling with.

The first thing I did was toss out all of her things: her cat box, her brush mitt, her cat food… I washed out her bowls really well and put her cat carrier in the back of the car so I can take it to our storage locker. I scrubbed the areas where her box and food were. There’s no trace she was there. Yet I find myself looking in those areas. I cried yesterday because I stepped on something tiny and hard in the kitchen, and it wasn’t a stray piece of her kibble. Naturally, I would have cried if it had been her kibble, too. I thought getting her things out of the house would make it easier, but it’s depressing how quickly I was able to excise her presence from my view. I keep thinking I see her out of the corner of my eye. Yesterday at dinner, I thought I felt her nuzzling my legs. She used to do that a lot when we ate dinner: she didn’t want handouts—she wanted pets.

I held her paw the whole time, and it struck me that if she had been conscious or feeling like herself, she never would have allowed that. Bella did not like it when you touched her paws. The vet asked us about how we got her, and it’s a fun story. My ex-husband has this thing about naming all his cats Dexter, regardless of gender. He and I had the first Dexter together, and our daughter Sarah had picked the name. One of his subsequent Dexters had kittens, and we wanted a cat. We asked Sarah to pick one for us, and she picked Bellatrix.

Her death was peaceful, and I’m grateful for that because I could not have borne it if she had died in pain. I know I took good care of her and that she had a good life. Yet, I find myself wishing there was more I could have done. I don’t know what it would have been. I just wish she had not had to have cancer. I am so sorry it happened to her. My friends and family have been so wonderful and kind as I grieve my beautiful cat. She was truly one of a kind. I cannot bear the thought that I will never see her again.

Rest in peace, Bellatrix. 9/4/2008-6/30/2022.

Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester Fox

Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester FoxThe Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House ISBN: 1525804571
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 337
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.

Boston, 1844.

Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the recently departed. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.

As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice, from their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, who wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.

Now a young woman and tragically separated from Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is ensnared in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”

In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons:

  1. I had just finished Hester Fox’s newest book, A Lullaby for Witches, and there was an excerpt of this book at the end. I liked the first chapter.
  2. It is set in Boston, one of my favorite places.

After reading two of Hester Fox’s books (and having started a third), I feel secure in saying Fox is at her best in setting the scene. She evokes gothic New England settings with the practiced hand of the historian she is. The inspiration for Cemetery Hill is the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End. The North End is one of my favorite areas of Boston. Fox brings 19th-century Boston to life, but in my case, she didn’t have to work too hard since I had seen many of the places in the novel.

Characterization is more of a challenge. I found Tabby to be naive—especially for someone who has had to live by her wits for so long. I didn’t understand why she was so interested in Caleb. I didn’t like him at all, and it didn’t say much about her taste in men that she was that interested in him. He never seemed able to make up his mind what he wanted, and I suppose that’s realistic enough—real people have that problem. More problematic was that Fox didn’t seem to know if he was a decent guy or not, so he just came off to me as confusing. The lead characters just didn’t strike me as real in the way the characters in A Lullaby for Witches did. I don’t have to like characters in order to enjoy a book. Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, and I hate all the characters. I suppose something I have discovered about myself is that if a writer can take me to a place, I enjoy the reading experience, and Hester Fox can certainly take a reader to a place.

This paragraph contains a slightly spoilery detail. The sinister plot at the heart of the book didn’t ring true. I found it easier to believe Tabby was clairvoyant than that the villains in this novel were interested in using her ability to reanimate the dead. Why? What were they hoping to accomplish? That question was never clearly answered. I get why people would want to contact the dead, but I didn’t understand their Frankenstein-like pursuit of reanimation.

Those quibbles aside, I still believe the book is worth 3.5 stars. Why? I really enjoyed the setting, and I found Fox’s evocation of 1850s Boston fascinating. Though the lead characters didn’t interest me, I did like Eli and Tabby’s sister Alice. The book is escapist fun for any reader who likes gothic stories in a New England setting.

three-half-stars

Review: Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, Hannah Gadsby

Review: Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation, Hannah GadsbyTen Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gadsby
Published by Allen & Unwin ISBN: 1742374034
on March 29, 2022
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 400
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Multi-awardwinning Hannah Gadsby transformed comedy with her show Nanette, even as she declared that she was quitting stand-up. Now, she takes us through the defining moments in her life that led to the creation of Nanette and her powerful decision to tell the truth-no matter the cost.

"There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself."—Hannah Gadsby, Nanette

Gadsby's unique stand-up special Nanette was a viral success that left audiences captivated by her blistering honesty and her ability to create both tension and laughter in a single moment. But while her worldwide fame might have looked like an overnight sensation, her path from open mic to the global stage was hard-fought and anything but linear. Ten Steps to Nanette traces Gadsby's growth as a queer person from Tasmania—where homosexuality was illegal until 1997—to her ever-evolving relationship with comedy, to her struggle with late-in-life diagnoses of autism and ADHD, and finally to the backbone of Nanette—the renouncement of self-deprecation, the rejection of misogyny, and the moral significance of truth-telling. Equal parts harrowing and hilarious, Ten Steps to Nanette continues Gadsby's tradition of confounding expectations and norms, properly introducing us to one of the most explosive, formative voices of our time.

I had this book on hold in the library for so long that I forgot I’d done so. I was eager to read it because I found Nanette profoundly moving.  If you’ve seen Nanette or Gadsby’s newer show Douglas, some of the material in the memoir will be familiar to you. There are some traumatic details in the memoir that Gadsby elides, while other events are given more context than she has previously given in her show. We are all in charge of our stories and tell them the way we need to tell them, so I was unbothered—this is a memoir after all. I was fascinated by Gadsby’s stories about learning she had ADHD and autism. Her descriptions of how she struggled with tasks and frustrated others felt so familiar to me as I have watched my own children struggle in similar ways. Some parts of the memoir are much longer—Gadsby’s formative years take up the longest chapter—but I understand why the book was broken up the way it was. She is grouping parts of her life together in ways that explain where Nanette came from, so some parts just have to be longer. Gadsby sprinkles footnotes throughout, and they reminded me of Gadsby’s asides during her shows. I’m not sure how they’d impact the audiobook, but I didn’t find them distracting in the hardcover. I’d definitely recommend this memoir to anyone who has appreciated Hannah Gadsby’s shows and wants to know more about her creative process and inspiration.

five-stars

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings out across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin. Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.

One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore. But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

I enjoy a good witch book, and this was a pretty good witch book. As a bonus, it’s set in my current home state of Massachusetts in the fictional town of Tynemouth, somewhere on the North Shore (my best guess, based on its proximity to the real cities of Salem and Boston). Parts of Margaret’s story seemed stilted, I think in part because of the author’s choice to bring her into the present to reflect on her growing power in several italicized sections. The Margaret sections set entirely in the past rang true. I am not sure how else Fox might have accomplished her storyline, but those passages always took me out of the story for a minute. However, I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen. Some of my questions remained unsatisfied, but I’m afraid they’re spoilers. If you highlight the text that follows this paragraph, you’ll see my spoiler questions, but if you don’t want the story spoiled, you can keep reading the paragraph that follows the spoilers section.

Spoilers!

  1. I never found out exactly how Augusta and Margaret were related. I worked on the assumption that she’d be a direct descendant until Margaret was killed before her child could be born. After that, I didn’t know how Augusta could be related to Margaret. 
  2. I also wanted to know more about Augusta’s family history. Fox teased several times that there were some big reveals buried in the boxes of mementos of her father, and Augusta sifts through them a few times, even finding Margaret’s comb and a family tree with the name Montrose, the maiden name of Margaret’s mother. “Bishop” was also on the family tree, and Bridget Bishop was executed during the Salem Witch Trials. Fox wouldn’t be the first writer to use Bridget Bishop as a real witch, if that’s the case—Deborah Harkness makes her protagonist in A Discovery of Witches a descendant of Bridget Bishop and a real witch.
  3. What exactly happened to Margaret? Did she vanish? Is she still out there, lurking? 

I understand some character names from Fox’s other books appear in this book as well, but this was my first book by Hester Fox. I liked it enough that it will not be my last. She reminds me a bit of Brunonia Barry in how she captures Massachusetts’s witchy history, and I really liked the idea that Augusta worked in a museum—the former home of a prominent family. There is a hint of Barry’s characterization from The Lace Reader and A Map of True Places in this book. I will always have a soft spot for Brunonia Barry because I won a trip to Salem, MA in connection with her book A Map of True Places, and I’m convinced it was a sort of beginning that led to our moving to MA two years later. I will also always have a soft spot for Salem, and truthfully, I’d love to live on the North Shore one day.

I really enjoyed Fox’s comment in her acknowledgments, offering “thanks and admiration” to “the many museum workers and volunteers who are actively decolonizing the field and making museums more equitable places, both for the audiences they serve and in the stories they tell.” This idea plays out in the novel in how Augusta and her co-workers work to remember the stories of the women of Tynemouth. For far too long, the stories of so many people have been forgotten, and this is especially true of women and people of color. Fox tried to include both in this novel. She was more successful in capturing the women, but I appreciated watching Augusta try to uncover forgotten stories for her exhibit.

four-half-stars

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny Colgan

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner, Jenny ColganThe Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
Published by HarperCollins Publishers on September 20, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
four-half-stars

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

If you’ve read my previous post, you know my cat doesn’t have long to live, and it’s been difficult to read anything. I haven’t listened to audiobooks like I usually do on my walks because I find it hard to concentrate. I thought if I found a sort of cozy read, something of a love letter to books, I might do all right, and I was right. This book was just what the doctor ordered. It’s not great literature. It’s not going to change the world. It’s even pretty corny and twee. It’s like a Hallmark Channel movie made into a book. But it was kind of nice to disappear into Nina’s world in Kirrinfief, a place I desperately wanted to be real as much as I wanted the lovely children’s book Up on the Rooftops to be real.

I really enjoyed Jenny Colgan’s characters, especially the ancillary ones. Fair warning: this is the kind of book where the minor characters sort of steal the show whenever they’re on the page and the main characters are more of a vehicle for the story than anyone you fall in love with.

The one thing I didn’t like about this book was the title. I read somewhere that the book’s title only appears in the American edition, but I’m not sure that’s true. The title is misleading because Nina buys an old van and converts it into a mobile bookshop, so it’s not on any corner. The cover art makes no sense, given the novel’s story. I read that the original title was The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, which makes more sense as it’s the name of Nina’s mobile bookshop.

I’ll probably read more of Jenny Colgan’s books. This book isn’t for everyone, and I suspect some people would hate it for being so twee, but if twee is what you need, it’s perfect. It was perfect for me, at this moment.

four-half-stars

Bellatrix

Bellatrix the Cat
Bellatrix, photo by Steve Huff

The Huff family includes a 13-year-old black cat named Bellatrix after the Death Eater in the Harry Potter series. She’s a wonderful cat. She is incredibly independent. She has never liked sitting on laps. On the few occasions when she has sat on a lap, she sits stiffly like she’s not sure what she should be doing. But she will sit near you to be petted. She joins me in the bathroom most mornings so she can be petted. She will tolerate being held for a few seconds only. She’s wicked smart. She’s an excellent mouser. In many ways, the household sort of revolves around her.

This week we received the horrible news that she doesn’t have long to live. She has cancer, and it’s fairly aggressive. We knew she was sick, but we had hope that she might be able to be cured and be with us for a few more years. Sadly, the best-case scenario, even if everything worked perfectly, would be about a year, and it would be a horrible year of chemotherapy and vet visits. She hates vet visits. She is incredibly anxious in the car and at the vet. We didn’t want to spoil her last days like that. We are making her as comfortable as we can until we have to say goodbye. We’re talking about things like internment at a pet cemetery where maybe she can have a real headstone. She has been loved fiercely.

We took her to the vet last week, and our vet told us that she really needed to go to the vet ER. Unfortunately, we had trouble getting her to the ER. I’m not sure it would have made a difference. We likely would have received the bad news a little sooner is all. But I have to shout out Angell Animal Medical Center for their compassionate care. We arrived at the hospital about 9:30 Wednesday night after our vet called and said they would see Bella. Other animal hospitals are diverting patients. There is apparently a shortage crisis in veterinary care right now.

I do not think I will ever forget the scene. The lights were too bright. A triage nurse took Bella’s vitals and said they looked good. That made me feel hopeful. A man with a cat named Brownie had been told her temperature was too low. At least Bella’s temperature was normal. A man walked out from the back, wailing and being comforted by a woman. I looked at my husband. Of course, he must have just lost a beloved pet. I was hoping we would not be leaving the same way. We waited. And waited. I was shaking with anxiety.

Once we were called in to see the vet after waiting perhaps two hours, I could just tell. I could tell as the vet examined her that she was trying to figure out how to tell us. She was incredible. She looked at Bella’s bloodwork and X-ray’s on my phone. She leveled with us, but… I know I keep saying this, but it was in the most compassionate way. She took Bella to do an ultrasound on her mass, and we broke down sobbing, knowing that we would be saying goodbye to Bella soon. We talked things through with the vet when she came back, and she said, and I’ll never forget it because I needed to hear it, “Do not feel that you are giving up on her.”

We waited in the lobby for Bella’s medicine for a good while. A little dog with a cough trotted after his owner. Another dog had eaten a pen. I went to the restroom and passed by a woman with a cat in a carrier. A vet had a stethoscope pressed to the cat. She said, “I’m sorry, her heart has stopped.” The woman burst into tears. This place was too much.

We got home after 2:00 A.M., exhausted, deflated, utterly devastated. Then we had to tell our daughter, who had stayed up waiting for news and having a dreadful feeling that the news was bad or we’d have just texted her. My husband and daughter sobbed together on the couch while I felt useless. I went to bed and barely slept two hours before going to work. I cried all day at work. I was completely useless.

It’s now Sunday, and we have been living with the news of Bella’s imminent loss for a few days. I’m just trying to take the best care of her that I can. We are trying to pet her and show her our affection as much as we can to make her last days happy and filled with love. But we are all just gutted. She is just the best cat, and we love her so much.

Mid-April Reading Update

I finished a couple of books this week and decided to roll the reviews together.

Mid-April Reading UpdateA Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
Published by Random House on January 12, 2021
Length: 14 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.

In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.

My husband and I listened to this on audiobook. He has been trying to get me to read George Saunders since an aborted attempt at Lincoln in the Bardo. I just couldn’t follow that one on audio, but I do want to try to read it in print. I see this book as a companion to Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Essentially, it’s a master class in how literature works using short stories by several Russian authors as a focus for analysis. If I had to pick a favorite short story, it would probably be “The Nose” (Chekov) or perhaps “Alyosha the Pot.” The book has a wonderful cast of narrators, including Rainn Wilson, B. D. Wong, Glenn Close, Phylicia Rashad, and Nick Offerman. Saunders narrates the analytical parts. I bought a print copy for use in my classroom. I’m not yet sure how I might use it, but I can see the potential.

Mid-April Reading UpdateThe Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published by MIRA on February 19, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 335
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-stars

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Gray, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Gray and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.

I love reading books about witches, “real” or not, and I wanted to like this book more. It was compelling enough for me to finish; however, some of the author’s choices were perplexing. I didn’t find the protagonist, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, to be all that engaging, and I kept thinking about how much more interesting the story might have been if the protagonist had been one of the accused witches. It seems like a missed opportunity to me to have a relatively privileged outsider tell the story of the Pendle Witch Trials. Also, Fleetwood rides a horse all over Creation while hugely pregnant. I’m not sure how she got on the horse, never mind rode it, in that condition. Granted, I’m not a horsewoman, so what do I know. Another issue I had was that Fleetwood discovers early in the book, within the first few pages, that her husband is secretive, and she finds he’s hiding even more important information. They have a falling out, and it seems implausible when they reconcile. The author didn’t really lay the groundwork for that reconciliation to make sense. Still, I did learn some things about this interesting historical event.

In Praise of the Checkerboard Cookbook

recipes by Joel Kramer, Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

The first cookbook I owned was the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. This cookbook is famous for its checkerboard cover. My first copy was a wedding gift, and the second I bought to replace the first when it fell apart. Both copies were ring-bound with tabs dividing the sections, and I understand the newest iteration of the cookbook doesn’t include that feature. My first copy was a wedding gift, and the second I bought to replace the first when it fell apart. Another quirk both of my copies shared was that they were both Pink Editions (Celebrating the Promise), limited editions of the book that supported the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization. Now that I know more about that organization, I don’t really support their work. My grandmother had breast cancer, and family members have supported this organization’s work, but if you want to read some critiques of this organization, check out these articles:

I love this cookbook, however. It includes a section with special recipes by celebrity chefs. To be honest, I haven’t touched that section, which may not be included in other editions of the book. I love the Cooking Basics section with helpful advice on equipment, cooking terms, smart shopping and menu planning, measurement, ingredients, and more.

My two staple recipes from the book are the Pepper-Lime Chicken (p. 467) and the Peanut Butter Cookies (p. 249). Both recipes are simple and delicious. I grew up eating peanut butter cookies made from this recipe, and they’re still my favorite peanut butter cookie. I have also made the Salsa (p. 66) and Buttermilk-Brined Fried Chicken (p. 458) more than once. The Zucchini Bread recipe (p. 132) is a good one. I don’t always think their recipes are the best available. I made the French Onion Soup (p. 566) recipe in this book for over a decade before I found a better one from Ina Garten.

I haven’t come remotely close to cooking my way through the book, even though I’ve owned a copy of the book for 30 years. But everything I’ve tried has been easy and has worked well. I believe this book is a staple for any cook’s kitchen because of its versatility. New editions cater to changing preferences by including new and updated recipes, but classics never die. When I’m not sure where I might want to start, I start with this book.

You can purchase the book’s latest edition from either Bookshop.org (support local, independent bookstores!) or Amazon (affiliate links earn me commissions).

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars