TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett and the late Lucy Grealy met in college in 1981, and, after enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, began a friendship that would be as defining to both of their lives as their work. In Grealy’s critically acclaimed memoir Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. In Truth and Beauty, the story isn’t Lucy’s life or Ann’s life but the parts of their lives they shared. This is a portrait of unwavering commitment that spans twenty years, from the long winters of the Midwest to surgical wards to book parties in New York. Through love, fame, drugs, and despair, this is what it means to be part of two lives that are intertwined–and what happens when one is left behind. 

This is a memoir of a friendship which seems to address the questions like when does unique closeness become dysfunctional and unhealthy?   uniquely intimate? codependent? almost physical? unhealthily close, or just unusually close?  I found it an odd book in parts, as it seems to push most of Patchett’s life and participation into the background, and feature the increasingly dysfunctional actions of her friend.  I found it hard to understand why they were friends in the first place, and why that friendship continued on Patchett’s end.

It was however a compelling read, and gave me a picture of a writer (Grealy) of whom I had never heard.


Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization By Graham Hancock

Could the story of mankind be far older than we have previously believed? Using tools as varied as archaeo-astronomy, geology, and computer analysis of ancient myths, Graham Hancock presents a compelling case to suggest that it is.
In Fingerprints of the Gods, Hancock embarks on a worldwide quest to put together all the pieces of the vast and fascinating jigsaw of mankind’s hidden past. In ancient monuments as far apart as Egypt’s Great Sphinx, the strange Andean ruins of Tihuanaco, and Mexico’s awe-inspiring Temples of the Sun and Moon, he reveals not only the clear fingerprints of an as-yet-unidentified civilization of remote antiquity, but also startling evidence of its vast sophistication, technological advancement, and evolved scientific knowledge.
A record-breaking number one bestseller in Britain, Fingerprints of the Gods contains the makings of an intellectual revolution, a dramatic and irreversible change in the way that we understand our past—and so our future.

And Fingerprints of the Gods tells us something more. As we recover the truth about prehistory, and discover the real meaning of ancient myths and monuments, it becomes apparent that a warning has been handed down to us, a warning of terrible cataclysm that afflicts the Earth in great cycles at irregular intervals of time—a cataclysm that may be about to recur.

Hancock is a British writer and journalist. He is known for his pseudoscientific theories involving ancient civilizations, Earth changes, stone monuments or megaliths, altered states of consciousness, ancient myths, and astronomical or astrological data from the past.  He raises controversial questions about humanity’s past.

Hancock’s works propose a connection with a ‘mother culture’ from which he believes other ancient civilizations sprang.] An example of pseudoarchaeology, his work has neither been peer reviewed nor published in academic journals.

In this book, he suggests that possibly around 11,000 BC there was a superior civilization what was wiped out in an ice age.  He points out that a number of our ancient civilizations of which we have records show that  “the period of transition from primitive to advanced society appears to have been so short that it makes no kind of historical sense. Technological skills that should have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to evolve were brought into use almost overnight– and with no apparent antecedents whatever.”

It is a very long book with tons of research and on-site investigation to support his theory, or perhaps the readings and on-site work created his theory.  Very interesting, and not at all conspiracy theory fodder.  Just a lot of deep reading and thinking.  You can tell that people are afraid of this theory because of all the negative reviews suggesting hoax, yada yada yada.  The fundamentalist religionists are definitely appalled and aghast, as it goes against the teachings of their texts, which they have never stopped to consider might just be as hoax-y and fictional as anything else.  Small minds, etc.

I am not saying I agree with Mr. Hancock, but allowing oneself the possibility of a larger and longer history of man (and woman)kind than we currently hold dear can only improve our brain power.  After all, he is not saying it was aliens.  Far from it.  He is saying that another civilization developed to the point of higher technology and then was wiped out.



This is an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

‘Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.’

A few quotes.

Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great Idea.  This is entirely new for Russia;  it’s unprecedented in Russian literature.  At heart, we’re built for war.  We were always either fighting or preparing to fight.  We’ve never known anything else — hence our wartime psychology.

We thought that freedom was a very simple thing.  A little time went by, and soon, we too bowed under its yoke.  No one had taught us how to be free.  We had only ever been taught how to die for freedom.

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.”  Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be.  Our time comes to us secondhand.

The mysterious Russian soul.  Everyone wants to understand what’s behind that soul of theirs.  Well, behind our soul there’s just more soul.

Very interesting book.  The translator, Bela Shayevich, is a well-known writer, translator and illustrator.

THE ROAD TRIP by Kyle David Iverson

This is a fairly short account of a road trip in Australia and Tasmania (wait, Tasmania IS Australia) so I guess I mean mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania, taken by some backpackers.  If I were 50 years younger, doing what these folks did certainly would have appealed to me.  It is a thirty-year old guy, and a female friend, (not girlfriend, as she is gay) who set off together to experience Australia.  He had just spent 7 months in Asia, and now they planned on a year long trip in Australia.

They meet other travelers, and it is basically about how hard it is to travel in a small van with four people, how personalities mesh or collide, etc.  Nothing any of us who have ever traveled in an enclosed space for any length of time with more than zero companions have not already learned.

There was no plot, and I am assuming it is non-fiction, more like a diary or blog, really.  They travel, they make endless hikes up endless mountains to see endless views and an indeterminate amount of waterfalls.  The end.


AN AMERICAN PRINCESS by Annejet van der Zijl

A biography of a rags to riches American woman written by a Dutch woman,  in what I consider to be a wonderful translation by Michele Hutchison.

The official description:

The true story of a girl from the wilderness settlements of a burgeoning new America who became one of the most privileged figures of the Gilded Age.

Born to a pioneering family in Upstate New York in the late 1800s, Allene Tew was beautiful, impetuous, and frustrated by the confines of her small hometown. At eighteen, she met Tod Hostetter at a local dance, having no idea that the mercurial charmer she would impulsively wed was heir to one of the wealthiest families in America. But when he died twelve years later, Allene packed her bags for New York City. Never once did she look back.

From the vantage point of the American upper class, Allene embodied the tumultuous Gilded Age. Over the course of four more marriages, she weathered personal tragedies during World War I and the catastrophic financial reversals of the crash of 1929. From the castles and châteaus of Europe, she witnessed the Russian Revolution and became a princess. And from the hopes of a young girl from Jamestown, New York, Allene Tew would become the epitome of both a pursuer and survivor of the American Dream.

This was really fascinating (and envy-making) reading.  It kind of reminded me of that Shirley MacLaine movie, What a Way To Go, where with every marriage, the average joe guy somehow becomes rich, and then dies, leaving her a rich widow, with every marriage she gets richer.

Allene Tew started off as the daughter of a not very prosperous family in a remote upstate New York town, and inadvertently married her way up to be one of the wealthiest women of the world.  What was fascinating for me was the life styles of this wealthy class, the truly astounding amount of money they had.   She ended up with two titles, one a Princess (Dutch) and the other a Countess (Russian).  This was the era of Henry James’ The Ambassadors.   I often find biographies bland and dry, but somehow I was really caught up in this one.  It was meticulously researched and documented, and frankly, I loved it.


WINTER by Adam Gopnik

A taste for winter, a love of winter — “a mind for winter” — is for many a part of the modern human condition. IGopnik tells the story of winter in five parts: Romantic Winter, Radical Winter, Recuperative Winter, Recreational Winter, and Remembering Winter. In this stunningly beautiful meditation, Gopnik touches on a kaleidoscope of subjects, from the German romantic landscape to the politics of polar exploration to the science of ice. And in the end, he pays homage to what could be a lost season — and thus, a lost collective cultural history — due to the threat of global warming. Through delicate, enchanting, and intricate narrative detail, buoyed by his trademark gentle wit, Gopnik draws us into another magical world and makes us look at it anew.

OK, that about sums it up.  It is a beautiful book, and me — a lover of cold weather, of being slightly cold, of that sleeping season that is winter — just loved this book.

Some quotes to whet your appetite:

Gray skies and December lights are my idea of secret joy, and if there were a heaven, I would expect it to have a lowering violet-gray sky (and I would expect them to spell gray g-r-e-y) and white lights on all the trees and the first flakes just falling, and it would always be December 19 — the best day of the year, school out, stores open late, Christmas a week away.

There are two traditions — the classical Christian idea of the North as bad, dangerous, to be escaped, and the Romantic idea of the wintry North as alluring, seductive, to be followed.

Kitsch is just our shorthand for failed Romantic mysticism.

With regard to the fascinating tales of the polar expeditions

Part of it is just our voyeur’s fascination with hard times being had by other people.  They [the polar explorers] went in search of absolute winter — and got it, good and hard.

‘Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has yet been devised.’ – Apsley Cherry-Gerrard

That nineteenth-century sense of having to be too polite in too-tight clothing and too-tight quarters with people you can’t quite stand, is never more palpable than in the diaries of the polar men.

And about Christmas,

The funny thing about Christmas is that its pagan origins all lie in reversal feasts, in Saturnalia and the Kalends festival, and secularized today.

…… the world’s one permanent religion:  the dream cult of rejuvenation.

He talks about the art of the era of Romanticism, music dedicated to winter, the underground city of Montreal which he says is only possible in a cold city, where one needs to escape the bitter cold to go outdoors.

He examines our winter holidays, and what a treat that was.  All in all, I loved this book.  I admit, because I live in an area where the winter gets cold (for us) at 50 degrees F, and none of the houses have heat except space heaters, I had to wait until Spring to read the book.  I got too cold when I tried reading it in the winter.  hahaha

Adam Gopnik  is a staff writer for The New Yorker—to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism—and is the author of the essay collection Paris to the Moon, an account of the half-decade that he and his family spent in the capital of France.

HOW TO BE BLACK by Baratunde Thurston

Baratunde Thurston is the director of digital at The Onion, the cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics, a stand-up comedian, and a globe-trotting speaker.  He was named one of the 100 most influential African-Americans of 2011 by The Root and one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine.

It is pronounced 8baa-ruh-TOON-day.  It is derived from the very common Yorubwa Nigerian name Babatunde. A literal translation comes out something like “grandfather returns”

This guy had a wonderful mother, gotta say that right up front, who set him up for success by exposing him to African pride groups as well as enrolling him on scholarship in an elite Quaker school, one which Chelsea Clinton also attended.  His intelligence and ambitions got him into Harvard, and he sure has a background we all wish we had.

He is something of a black activist, but then, I think that almost all black people have to be something of a black activist just to get through their daily lives, I am ashamed to say.  His book is a satiric look at the struggles of being black in America, interlaced with biographical details of his life.

A lot of the satirical material is a bit over-the-top;  it goes on too long, like a SNL skit that is about three minutes longer than the audience’s attention span.  But then, I, a little old white lady, am not the prime audience … then again, maybe I am.   For me, he is at his best when he sounds a more serious note, and stops trying to be the funniest guy in the room.  He is interesting, clever, and has a lot to say.

Very enjoyable book.  It was published in 2012, when Obama was still in office.  I would love to see an update, and have his views on our current situation.

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER – Musings on Book Covers

We are always admonished not to judge a book by its cover, but of course we do — prejudging is part of our DNA.  If we didn’t, if our foreparents had  waited to get all the info before making a decision, our ancestors all would have been fast food takeout for the local sabre tooth tiger  and we wouldn’t even be here to be discussing this.  We are a visual species.  We were visual beings long before we were talking beings.   We learned to recognize the patterns that meant danger — big teeth, speed coming at us,  veggie configurations that meant poison, topographical features that signaled height and certain death if we fell off them.  And of course, our fellow hunter-gatherers.  The guy with the pointy thing aimed at us boded ill, the guy with the rock in his hand about to throw at us certainly wasn’t a good sign.  So, yeah.  We judge visually.  We had to.

And then along came books.  (Admit it — you were singing “And then along came Jones” in your head, weren’t you.)  Book covers were plain plain plain with nothing to suggest to the potential reader anything of its contents.  It wasn’t until the advent of dust jackets and paperbacks that we readers could get a hint of things to come within the book’s pages.  Hot damn!

Which brings us to today.

Even ebooks today have cover art.  And this cover art is important to help us decide whether we care to investigate that book further, and possibly even buy it.  If it is cheesy and amateurish,  we are sure the contents of the book are amateurish.  If it is classy and beautifully designed, we feel the contents will have value.   Professionalism outside signals professionalism inside.   You know, dress for success.

I am in love with book covers and what they tell me or don’t tell me about the book it covers.  I love the art. I love the conception of the designer.  I love seeing how well it fits or doesn’t fit the tone and content of its book.   I love when I read that a best friend, or spouse, or dear neighbor did the design, or took the photo used for the cover.  Isn’t that just the loveliest thing?   You never got this kind of thing before the emergence of indie books and self-publishing.

Just looking at a cover, without even reading the title, you can pretty much guess the genre.  There is a certain dark, creepy art, often with blood dripping down the cover, that is de rigueur for post  apocalypse and zombie books.  Political thrillers often have government buildings pictures, or some scene behind a gun scope.  Military thrillers of course have helicopters or tanks.  Cozy mysteries usually have a sweet scene of a porch with plants,  or a garden, or some such.   More serious mysteries tend to have a dark cover with some depiction of the theme.  Crime stories often feature yellow crime scene tape running across the cover.  Noir mysteries are generally dark covered, often with blood drops.  Horror has bloody knives, and paranormal has wispy ghosts and cemeteries.

I could go on and on.  Sweet romances usually have a couple embracing or almost embracing.  Hotter romances usually have some  dude with his shirt unbuttoned showing off ever so casually his six pack.  Serious literature tends to have a plainish cover, often a scene of a generic meadow with a single tree.  Or a three part pale color bleed.   The font choice tends to be the same.   REALLY serious literature often has a black cover, or a third black, two-thirds grey or off white.  No picture.  Just austereness,  saying in polite tones,  “I Am Serious.  No Snickering.”   Light, humorous books always have a bright, kicky cover, often in a semi-cartoon style.

Go to Goodreads  and just randomly look at books.   See if I’m not right.   You CAN judge a book by its cover.






THE ABORIGINES AND MAORI by Charles River Editors

“The History of the Indigenous Peoples in Australia and New Zealand.”    What an interesting book, although the tag on the title is deceptive.  It is not really the history of the Aborigines and Maori, but rather the history of the founding of Australia and New Zealand by the British and their appalling treatment of these people, most of the time considering them ‘not human,’

So if you Americans were wondering where our forefathers’ notions came from as to how to treat the native people they found when they took over territory, those notions came from the Europeans and the British.  In the book there is a fair amount of discussion as to the British brutality towards all the indigenous in their empire, such as those in India, and the Caribbean islands.   It is certainly something to be ashamed of.

I was a bit disappointed to find that there was nothing about the day-to-day life of these peoples or their culture, other than to point out the warlike nature of the Maori, but that may be because the British engaged in what was essentially genocide, herding the few who remained into reserves (the counterpart to the American native reservations), where they starved, became alcoholics and died off in disheartening numbers.

The pure bloodlines of these peoples has been so diluted that there are only a few left with the pure DNA of their origins, such so that when an indigenous person was in politics, it was pointed out that he had a true DNA bloodline.

Like I said, an interesting book, and the author is a boutique digital publishing company specializing in history topics.


BELOW STAIRS by Margaret Powell

Margaret Powell was born in 1907 in Hove, England, to a poor family, and had to leave school at age 13 to start working in a hotel laundry room.  A year later she went into service as a kitchen maid, eventually progressing to a cook before marrying a milkman named Albert.

After having had to give up a scholarship to a good school as a kid in order to work, at age 58 she worked on taking her O levels and progressed on to her Advance levels.  She then went on in 1968 to write her first book, this memoir, then two more books and a cookbook, and co-authored three novels, tie-ins to the television series Beryl’s Lot, which was based on her life story.  She died in 1984.

So don’t give me any guff about how you are too old to do something.  You can do whatever you want whenever you want.  You just have to want it badly enough.

She was a scullery maid for a number of years and then a cook, during the twenties, when there was a substantial divide between ‘them’ upstairs, and the domestic staff downstairs.  She worked for a number of different characters, all of whom required the staff to call them ‘Madam’, and never called the staff anything but their last names. The population who comprised the domestic service were mostly from the poor.   One employer was surprised to see her reading a book, saying she (the employer) didn’t know she could read.  Being a scullery maid was a tough job,  especially since the cooks under whom they worked thought all of them shiftless and stupid, and berated them daily.

A lot of the book is devoted to comments about the social divide, how they were treated so poorly, and what would appear to be a rapid turnover of scullery maids, parlor maids, under parlor maids, footmen, etc.   The one house where the domestic staff was treated well, with respect, and paid well, all the staff stayed their whole lives, and she only worked there as a cook on a temporary basis while the permanent cook had and operation and a recovery period.  She was so sorry to have to leave that place.

Her stories of the stingy and haughty manner of the various employers would be amusing if it weren’t so sad, but by the end of her stint in domestic service, things were already changing a bit, wages were higher, with more time off.

Upstairs Downstairs, and Downton Abby were based on her work.  Very entertaining reading, and makes you glad that was never your lot in life, that’s for sure.