4 Other Books I Read in January 2021

My custom is to share with you my thoughts about the books I read during one calendar month in my first blog of the following month. Last Monday’s post, My thoughts on Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi, was about the novel Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. In today’s post, I’ll tell you what I thought about the other four books I read in January. It’s a nice mix of fiction and nonfiction books.

After the attempted coup at the US Capitol on January 6, it was difficult to concentrate. My reading suffered, but my writing time suffered even more. I was surprised at the end of the month to discover I’d read five books.

I ran into some problems while trying to insert images of the books I’m blogging about today. Ironically, (or not?) the message I got when I tried to copy the publisher’s image of The Spy and the Traitor said “for security reasons” I was not allowed to use it. I had to laugh. I could download it to my computer, but I couldn’t insert it in today’s blog post. It’s recommended that all blog posts have images, so I’m disappointed to present a post today that has no illustrations.


The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre

On a scale of one-to-five stars, I give this nonfiction book six stars. The research that backs up this detailed account of the life of double-agent Oleg Gordievsky is stunning. The book reads like a spy novel but is all the more riveting because the reader knows it is true.

I learned about this book when I saw a list of the top five books of 2020 that Bill Gates recommended. This one sounded intriguing, and it didn’t disappoint.

Oleg Gordievsky started out as a KGB agent. Fascinated by the West, though, he read and learned all he could about Great Britain. He also read works of such Soviet dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, even though reading those works or having them in your possession was against the law in the Soviet Union. Gordievsky’s world opened up when he landed an assignment in England. It is there that he became a double agent and became the crown jewel in Great Britain’s MI6 spy network.

I learned how close we came to nuclear war in 1983 when the Soviet Union misinterpreted a NATO war game with the code name ABLE ARCHER 83. The book says on page 181, “Both Reagan and Thatcher understood the Cold War in terms of a Communist threat to peaceful Western democracy; thanks to Gordievsky, they were now aware that Soviet anxiety might represent a greater danger to the world than Soviet aggression.”

It is not common for an individual spy to have a profound impact on world history, but Oleg Gordievsky falls into that category. As the book says of Gordievsky on page 183, “…he opened up the inner workings of the KGB at a pivotal juncture in history, revealing not just what Soviet intelligence was doing (and not doing), but what the Kremlin was thinking and planning, and in so doing transformed the way the West thought about the Soviet Union. He risked his life to betray his country, and made the world a little safer.”

The story is far from over at that point, and the book takes the reader on an edge-of-your-seat nail-biting ride. Will Gordievsky be outed? Will Great Britain succeed in smuggling him out of the Soviet Union? What happens to his wife and daughters? Who turns out to be an American double agent? Is that spy still alive and, if so, where is he? Is Gordievsky still alive and, if so,  where is he?

All these questions and more are answered in the book, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for you. I highly recommend The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre. I listened to the book on CD while keeping a print copy in front of me. That made it easier for me to keep up with the unpronounceable Russian names.


My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, by Fredrik Backman

Told from the point-of-view of seven-year-old Elsa, this is another somewhat quirky novel from Fredrik Backman. I think it was clever for Mr. Backman to give us a novel told from a child’s viewpoint. It was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite novels.

I listened to this book on CD. My favorite part of the book turned out to be the first disc, as it included Elsa’s feisty grandmother before she died. It was funny. Elsa’s grandmother wasn’t a typical grandmother or a typical old woman. She delighted in upsetting the powers that be. She thrilled at dragging Elsa into her various escapades.

Since both of my grandmothers died before I was born, I had trouble identifying with Elsa. I don’t have a firm grasp of the personalities of either of my grandmothers; however, since they were farm wives and were born in the second half of the 19th century, they probably didn’t resemble Elsa’s grandmother in any way, shape, or form.

Of course, the reason for this novel was not to entertain the reader with the antics of an old lady. It was to show the ramifications of a life lived as this woman lived it. This woman lived her entire life insulting people, but somewhere deep down inside she wanted to apologize. The burden of making those apologies fell on her granddaughter.


Step into the Circle: Writers in Modern Appalachia, edited by Amy Greene and Trent Thomson

This is a book of profiles about nine writers of present-day Appalachia written by writers of present-day Appalachia. It is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the writers and the mountains from which they came. The writers highlighted are Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Ron Rash, Adriana Trigiani, Silas House, George Ella Lyon, Frank X. Walker, Marie Junaluska, and Lee Smith.

Some of these writers were familiar to me, while others were not. I was glad to learn about each of them; however, the book did not live up to its promise as far as I was concerned. At least one of the “profiles” turned out to be more about the profiler than the writer being profiled. Therefore, the book ended on a sour note for me. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out of the public library and giving it your attention.

The book addresses the influence of an author’s geographic upbringing and the importance of writing the truth that one knows. The importance of Appalachian writers to write the truth in order to dispel the myths about the people of Appalachia is an overriding theme.

The most interesting profile for me was that of Marie Junaluska, a Cherokee language teacher and translator.


The Fix, by David Baldacci

I’m attempting to whittle away at the 300 books on my To Be Read list (TBR.) I thought it might be a good idea to try to read one book from my TBR each month. But then I did the math and discovered that, at that rate, it will take me 25 years to read those 300 books. That doesn’t sound doable because I would be 103 years old by then. Also, I tend to add more than one book to my TBR each month, so the list is literally never-ending.

The Fix has been on my TBR for several years. It is the third in David Baldacci’s Amos Decker series. Labeled a thriller, I found The Fix to be more of a spy mystery. It did not keep me on the edge of my chair anxious to see what happened next. Perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, since I had trouble concentrating all month.

I’ve listened to many novels in the last year or two, which is quite a change for me. A lot depends on the professional recording reader. In addition to that, something that jumped out at me in listening to The Fix was how the “he said/she said” tags can distract. When reading a print book, our eyes often leap over those tags. In listening to The Fix, I was very distracted by them. There were several readers – male and female. When I female voice read a line, it was terribly jarring to have the male reader follow it by saying, “she said.” It reminded me that I was listening to a book – and that’s not a good thing. I’m not sure what the remedy is for this, but it continually took me out of the story in this novel.


National Grammar Day in the USA

No, that’s not the name of a book. Today is National Grammar Day in the United States It gives me an opportunity to share with you something I learned recently from a blog post.

I took courage from reading Melissa Donovan’s December 15, 2020 blog post. She opened my eyes to the difference between grammar rules and grammar guidelines. Here’s a link to her blog post: Grammar Guidelines Versus Grammar Rules | Writing Forward.

If grammar grabs your attention, please take time to read Ms. Donovan’s blog post. Like me, you might be surprised to learn that some things you think are grammar rules are just guidelines. You must follow the rules, but you don’t have to follow the guidelines. I wish someone had told me that years ago.

I have stressed over some guidelines because I thought they were rules. One of my favorites is that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that rule of earlier centuries is now a guideline. Hurrah! I’ve twisted myself into a pretzel on occasion trying not to break that guideline because I thought it was a rule. What I’ve ended up with are awkward sentences. From now on, I’ll end sentences with a preposition when it makes better sense to do so.

And, by the way, you probably noticed that I used the numeral “4” in my blog post title today instead of “four.” I was taught to write out numbers one through nine in a written document – and always when it is the first word in a title or sentence — and to use numerals for 10 and higher.

I learned recently though, that when writing the title of a blog post, I should always use numerals because they make a bigger impact. They help my SEO (Search Engine Optimization). In those mysterious algorithms of cyberspace, they help my blog posts move up and get seen. They grab a person’s attention. That’s what “they” say.

Bear with me, folks. I’m in my 60s (or sixties?) and I’m trying to learn new things and adapt to the world of technology. When I was born, black and white television, black and white photography, and manual typewriters were cutting edge. And Caribbean was pronounced Ca-rah-be-in.


Since my last blog post

I’ve continued to read and I have some excellent books to share with you in March when I blog about the books I read in February. I have been entertained and educated by these books, and the month is just one-week old. I’ve read two historical novels this week that I can’t wait to tell you about.

I tried my hand at a new recipe for no-knead whole wheat sandwich bread. It held much promise in the beginning, but it turned out the size of half-of-a-sandwich bread. It tastes okay, but looks pitiful. I was disappointed but had to laugh.

We came within a few miles of having snow on Saturday night but only got rain. That’s the way it often is in the piedmont of North Carolina.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have at least one good book to read this week – one that will not only entertain you but also educate you. Our learning should never end.

Wear a mask and get the Covid-19 vaccination as soon as it’s your turn and you can get an appointment.

Stay safe, and be respectful of others’ desire to stay safe and well.

Janet

My thoughts on Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

I finished reading Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi a few days ago. It made such an impression on me that I decided to write about it today and share my thoughts on the other books I read in January in next Monday’s blog post.

I enjoy following the blogs of book reviewers. Their reviews often pique my interest in books I might have otherwise overlooked. From a review, I can be fairly sure a particular book is or isn’t for me. My fellow blogger, Stella Maud Maurer (https://stellamaudmaurer.wordpress.com/,) wrote about author Ursula Hegi a couple of months ago. It was that blog post that nudged me to read Stones from the River.

I don’t consider myself a book reviewer. I just enjoy sharing my impressions of the books I read. I don’t abide by the rules that book reviewers adhere to. (And if you think I shouldn’t have ended that sentence with a preposition, I’m excited to tell you that I recently learned that “rule” is now just a “guideline.” Look for more on that in a future blog post.)

Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

After reading Stella’s blog post, I wanted to read something by Ursula Hegi. I decided to start with the first novel in her Borgdorf Cycle series, Stones from the River. It wasn’t long before I was captivated by her prose.

Oh, to be able to write descriptions like Ms. Hegi does! She deftly weaves phrases of description into sentences in a way that you hardly notice. I admit, I was reading the book as a writer and not as a reader. The writing really isn’t supposed to pull the reader out of the story, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Trudi, the main character, is a little person. Her mother had what sounds like post-partem depression after Trudi’s birth. Her father, Leo, never gave up on bringing his wife and their daughter into a loving relationship. As a young girl in the late 1910s in Germany, Trudi yearns to grow tall. Her childhood isn’t an easy one, not only because she is different but because her mother is different, too. Her mother’s depression spirals out of control and she takes to hiding under the house, sometimes taking Trudi with her.

And then there’s the neighbor boy, Georg, whose mother wants him to be a girl. She dresses him like a girl and doesn’t cut his hair. Trudi starts to realize that she’s different, her mother’s different, and Georg is also different.

Through it all, Trudi has a priceless sense of humor that comes through especially in her dealings with her friend, Ingrid. Ingrid is tall and beautiful. Trudi would give anything to look like Ingrid; however, Ingrid thinks Trudi is the lucky one.

Trudi works in her father’s “pay library.” 1933 brings Hitler’s orders to destroy all books written by the great authors and thinkers of the day. She and her father hide some of his prized books under rental books in boxes. After all, what better place to hide books than in a library?

One day, Trudi discovers a woman and her little boy hiding under the house that she and her father still share along with the pay-library. They start hiding Jews in their cellar.

Due to her small stature, Trudi never expected to find romantic love. That yearning for love and a family of her own is a thread throughout the novel. I’ll just leave it at that and not spoil the story for you if you wish to read it.

This is a story of the unpredictability of life. It’s a story of thinking you know someone, but then realizing you don’t really know them. The constant backdrop was Nazi Germany. Step-by-step, day-by-day, year-by-year life became more precarious not only for the Jews but for everyone living in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Every word and action was suspect, and you never knew who was listening and watching.

What struck me, though, about this novel was the parallels I saw between Germany in the 1930s until the end of World War II and the United States in 2020 and 2021. If I’d read it when it was published in 1994, it wouldn’t have affected me like it did as I read it in December 2020 and January 2021. Over and over, sentences and paragraphs jumped out at me as if to say, “Wake up, America!”

It’s almost as if Ursula Hegi wrote pointed phrases and sentences in Stones from the River to serve as a cautionary tale for Americans living in the last five years.

The following sentence from Stones from the River stopped me in my tracks, since it rang so true for the United States in 2020: “She fought him by reminding herself what her father had said to Emil Hesping – that they lived in a country where believing had taken the place of knowing.” It seemed in 2020 and still today that nearly half of Americans believed what they were being told by the right-wing media and the Trump Administration instead of believing what they should have known to be true – what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears. I’m not sure how that gets corrected, but I pray it will be.

There were several other quotes from the book that caught my attention. These three, in light of January 6, 2021: (1) “…breaking of windows….”  (2) “Maybe now, she thought, now in the blaze of fire, they surely would have to see. But it was as if they’d come to take the horrible for granted, mistaking it for the ordinary.” And (3) “Their allegiance to one powerful leader now became their excuse: since they had not made decisions but merely obeyed orders, they were not to blame.”

And this quote from the book parallels the fear some members of Congress now live with because they know that some other members of Congress wish them dead: “‘The Jews in this country,’ she corrected him one Saturday afternoon when he followed her into the garden, lecturing her, ‘are Germans and far more decent than those – those friends of yours who terrorize them –.’”

Since my last blog post

I almost finished the research necessary for the writing of one of my historical short stories. A little more research is needed in order to fill in some blanks. The story morphed into an essay. I had a lot of fun writing the 2,800-word piece on Saturday. The point-of-view “character” is a house. No more clues. I hope before the year is out, I’ll get to turn my stories and essays into a book. You’ll learn it here first, so don’t miss any of my blog posts!

Until my next blog post

Note: Tomorrow through February 8 is “Read an E-Book Week”.  If you’ve been wanting to take the plunge and try reading a book on your electronic device, this is the perfect week to do it. Don’t be an “I only read printed books” snob.

Note: Next Saturday, February 6 is “Take Your Child to the Library Day”. If your local public library is open and you feel safe to take your child there, perhaps you can do so. But if the Covid-19 pandemic has closed your library to in-person service – or you don’t feel safe going there yet – take next Saturday as an opportunity to explore the online resources your local public library system offers. Get your child excited about using the library online now and in-person as soon as that is safe. It will be a gift that keeps on giving for the rest of their lives.

I hope you have a good book to read (in print or on an electronic device) or a good one to write.

Wear a mask and get the Covid-19 vaccination as soon as it’s your turn and you can get an appointment.

Stay safe, and be respectful of others’ desire to stay safe and well.

Janet

Other Books Read in October and an Election

I blogged last week about two books I read in October. Today’s blog post is about other books I read last month. Overall, it was a strange collection of books. I enjoy a wide range of books, but I’m especially drawn to historical fiction.

I started reading but didn’t finish And the Crows Took Their Eyes, by Vicki Lane and Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi. I didn’t finish reading Vicki Lane’s book in October because it arrived at the end of the month. I didn’t finish the Ursula Hegi book because I had too many books to read, other distractions, and it had to go back to the library. You’ll have to wait for future blogs to learn what I thought of those and the other books I read in November, but I’ll go ahead and recommend And the Crows Took Their Eyes to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or American Civil War stories.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

After hearing Fiona Davis interviewed, I was eager to get on the public library’s waitlist for The Lions of Fifth Avenue. It took me a little while to “get into” this book but, once I did, I wanted to read on to see what happened next.

#libraries #NYCPublicLibrary
The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis

As seems to be the trend in historical fiction today, the plot alternates between one era and another. I don’t like that format. I prefer to read a story in chronological order. I’m not sure what that says about me. The Lions of Fifth Avenue falls into that category. It switches back and forth between 1913-1914 and 1993.

The 1913-1914 story line interested me more than the other one so, after reading the first four chapters, I skipped all the 1993 chapters and read the remaining 1913-1914 chapters until I got to the end of the book; then, I went back to the fifth chapter and read bits and pieces of the 1993 parts of the book. I’m sure this isn’t the way in which the author expected me to read her book, but it worked for me.

In the “Author Note” at the end of the book, I learned that it was completely a fictional story with fictional characters. Ms. Davis explained that the New York City Public Library actually did have a seven-room apartment where the library superintendent’s family lived for several decades. Besides that, the book is fiction. It is a compelling story and I really wanted to get to the end to see who was stealing rare books from the library. Fortunately, that was revealed in the 1913-1914 thread of the book.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

I read about this book in an e-mail from Goodreads.com. The e-mail said, “If you loved A Gentleman in Moscow, you’ll loved Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Equal parts moving and charming, heartbreaking and funny, it will make you feel closer to humanity. Simply put, it’s a book that stays with you.” With that comparison and endorsement, I couldn’t wait to read the book.

#pigeons #CherAmi #WWI
Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney

The story it was based on was new to me. It sounded interesting, so I checked out the e-book from the public library.

The story itself is impressive. Cher Ami was a homing pigeon that was much-celebrated in the 1920s and 1930s for its heroics during World War I. In fact, the bird was taxidermized after death and put on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Cher Ami was shot in the eye and lost a leg on her last mission. Even so, she completed that mission and lived for a couple of weeks afterward.

By finishing her last mission, Cher Ami saved the lives of almost 200 Americans.

Charles Whittlesey was from New York. Not attracted to guns, he nevertheless found himself shipping off for Europe when the United States entered World War I. Being the era that it was, he had to keep his homosexuality a secret. Whittlesey came home a war hero, but he struggled to adjust to life back in New York City. He purchased a one-way ticket on a ship and planned his own “burial at sea.”

The story itself is interesting, and I learned more about homing pigeons from the early chapters of this historical novel than I had before.

The book itself was quite disappointing. Some chapters are written from the pigeon’s point-of-view, while the other chapters are written from Charles Whittlesey’s viewpoint. I read one-third of the book before I started skipping over Cher Ami’s chapters.

Perhaps my mind isn’t creative enough to suspend belief and accept talking pigeons. To me, Cher Ami’s chapters read like a children’s book. I even stopped reading midway through the first chapter to see if I had checked out a Juvenile book by mistake. I hadn’t, so I tried to plow on. I soon concluded that I’d be better served by doing a little research about the story instead of continuing to read the conversations of talking pigeons.

One fact that the author conveyed via Cher Ami was probably more poignantly expressed by the taxidermized pigeon than could have been told by an objective narrator was the way in which the taxidermist chose to display the detail of the pigeon’s missing eye. Oddly enough, the taxidermist selected a glass eye of the wrong color for the bird’s missing eye. The taxidermized Cher Ami cleverly voices her disgust over the sloppy disrespect for detail and points out that it would have made a more accurate and impressive museum display to have presented the pigeon with its empty eye socket. After all, it was preserved with only the one leg that survived the war.

Cher Ami was one of more than 600 homing pigeons used by the US Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. An American battalion was surrounded in the Battle of Argonne Forest. They were under Allied fire and had no way but pigeons to get word out about their situation. On October 4, 1918, after other pigeons had been shot down in the effort, Cher Ami successfully delivered a message that saved almost 200 American lives. As noted above, she was shot twice in the process, but she kept flying to deliver her urgent message.

In that respect, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey did what I expect historical novels to do: educate me. I appreciate that. I just didn’t enjoy the manner in which that education was delivered. The story enticed me to look for more information, which is something else I expect historical fiction to do.

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman

I can’t honestly say I read this novel. I tried listening to it. The beginning held promise of an interesting tale about a bank robbery and a hostage situation. Perhaps it would have been more palatable in printed form. The irritatingly shrill voice of the female hostage real estate salesperson got on my last nerve early on. I tried to persevere but had to raise the white flag on this one. Sorry, Mr. Backman. I loved A Man Called Ove, but I just haven’t been able to stick with any of your other novels I’ve tried.

Since my last blog post

Photo credit: Element5 Digital on Unsplash.com

We’ve had a much-anticipated national, state, and local election since my last blog post. As I write this late on Saturday morning, it has just been announced that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected US President-elect and US Vice President-elect. What a relief! We have elected a person of empathy as President, and we have finally elected our first woman and first person of color to be Vice President. The proverbial glass ceiling has been broken.

My country is divided. The division demonstrated by the 2016 election continues, but I pray the pendulum has begun to swing toward decency and respect. For more than 200 years, gracious concession speeches have been expected from the candidates not elected in the United States. True to his form and lack of character, our current President vows not to take the results of this election quietly or gracefully. He will, no doubt, continue to sow seeds of discord in our country and world. He has vowed to fight the outcome of this election in the courts. He continues to claim it was a rigged election. He threatened to proclaim that falsehood well in advance of Election Day.

I look forward to having a new US President on January 20, 2021 – a President and a Vice President who will try to heal our nation and lead us back into a position of respect and reliability on the world stage. We can once again be a beacon of hope. It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t be easy. It will take a while for the world to trust us again.

My faith in the American people has been somewhat renewed by the outcome of this election; however, it wasn’t won by a landslide. Nearly half the population voted to continue down the road we were on. It won’t be easy to convince them that those of us who voted for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris are not the evil people our current President proclaims us to be. They have believed many lies about us and we are exhausted from the rhetoric of hate that has been directed at us from the White House for the last four years.

We are exhausted from four years of vitriol, but we are energized today by the hope of a new era in which we once again have a President who truly believes in God and doesn’t just give faith lip service; who believes in freedom of the press and doesn’t see journalists as enemies of the people; who believes in science and medicine; who is antiracist; who will not put immigrant children who cross the border from Central America in cages and deport their parents; who will strive to enact policies that will preserve our physical environment for ourselves and future generations; who will work for social justice in our country and the world; and who will work to repair our relationships with our long-term friends and allies around the world.

For the hurt and disappointment being felt today by some of my friends and relatives who disagree with me on everything I’ve written in this blog post, now you know how I felt after the 2016 election. You’re still my friends, and you’re still my relatives. I still love you. Please give President-elect Biden a chance to prove he’s not an agent of evil. He’s not going to defund the police. He’s not going to take away your guns. He’s not a socialist. He will be the President of all Americans. He does not see you as his enemy or an enemy of the people. He will not call you ugly names. He will not get on Twitter and go on hate-filled rants. He will not make fun of physically-disabled people. He will not freely make misogynistic statements about women.

It feels good to be able to breathe again.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Vicki Lane’s new historical novel, And the Crows Took Their Eyes. I’m listening to John Grisham’s latest novel, A Time for Mercy.

I hope you have productive creative time.

Please continue to wear a mask out of respect for others until this Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Janet