Saturday, September 16, 2017

September Book Club

As I mentioned last month, September's Book Club at the Barn read is the sequel to last month's 'The Kitchen House'. And it did not disappoint!

Glory Over Everything by Kathleeen Grissom
(Fiction)
The latest New York Times bestseller from the author of the beloved book club favorite The Kitchen House is a heart racing story about a man’s treacherous journey through the twists and turns of the Underground Railroad on a mission to save the boy he swore to protect. Glory Over Everything is “gripping…breathless until the end” (Kirkus Reviews).

The year is 1830 and Jamie Pyke, a celebrated silversmith and notorious ladies’ man, is keeping a deadly secret. Passing as a wealthy white aristocrat in Philadelphian society, Jamie is now living a life he could never have imagined years before when he was a runaway slave, son of a southern black slave and her master. But Jamie’s carefully constructed world is threatened when he discovers that his married socialite lover, Caroline, is pregnant and his beloved servant Pan, to whose father Jamie owes his own freedom, has been captured and sold into slavery in the South.

Fleeing the consequences of his deceptions, Jamie embarks on a trip to a North Carolina plantation to save Pan from the life he himself barely escaped as a boy. With the help of a fearless slave, Sukey, who has taken the terrified young boy under her wing, Jamie navigates their way, racing against time and their ruthless pursuers through the Virginia backwoods, the Underground Railroad, and the treacherous Great Dismal Swamp.


How an author can write two page turning novels back to back, using the same the characters, yet make them so different is an art form to be certain.

When we read The Kitchen House last month, I was swept away into Belle and Lavinia's often brutal and heart wrenching story from its first words.  This sequel was more of a slow boil in the action, yet a page turner just the same.

In Glory Over Everything we are reintroduced to Jamie Pyke, Belle's son, only his name has changed and he is living a white man of social status in Philadelphia.  There is a crisis brewing in his life and as that crisis unfolds we are filled in on the backstory of how Jamie, now James Burton, came to be in his current situation. 

In the beginning, I didn't find Jamie to be very likable and I was frustrated by his demeanor.  But as the story unfolds, he reveals more about himself and the way the secrets and fear have affected him deeply. 

At the end of the book, there is a transcript of a conversation with the author in which she says, "In Glory Over Everything, I heard Jamie's voice as clearly as I'd heard Lavinia's and Belle's from The Kitchen House.  The difference was that both Lavinia and Belle were open to me and very forthcoming; whereas Jamie, a man with a secret, was guarded and kept me at a distance when I first met him.  For that reason, I found Jamie both frustrating and intriguing.  Fortunately, the other characters, such as Pan, were quite verbal and gave me deeper insight into Jamie, until gradually he became less cautious and was ready to reveal himself."

That is exactly what it felt like reading Jamie's story...frustrating, yet intriguing...until he felt safe enough to tell his story, secrets and all. 

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt that the story was handled well, there were a few tidy bows at the end that answered questions we were left with after The Kitchen House that I felt were unneeded.  Jamie's story, on the other hand, was left with a couple of bows but mostly the unknown and I liked that.  He had undergone such a transformation, yet his origin story still had quite the pull on him, so I liked that I didn't know exactly how he would be able to accomplish all that he planned to do.

I'm looking forward to discussing this with the ladies on Monday night.  Due to the hurricane, illnesses and other life issue, we are meeting a week later than originally planned.  I wonder if they felt the same as I did.

Rating: ★★★☆

Friday, September 15, 2017

Escapist Reading

They say a book has a way of finding you when you need it most.  Usually it's a serious piece of work that addresses an issue in your life.  For me, at least this time, it was a funny little tale of money and manners and family expectations. 

After two days of watching non-stop news coverage of Hurricane Harvey and feeling more anxious than a person whose home and family were still safe should, I decided to indulge in my favorite pastime and read a book. 

BUT it couldn't be a hard or suspenseful book.  I had enough of that in my real life as we watched flood waters rise and kept close tabs on family and friends in our greater Houston area.  This was our first major storm where all of our children were not in the same home as us.  Each morning began with a 'safety check'...first of our children, then of our employees and close friends...followed by a mandatory check in with my sister to let her know that we were all okay.

Once the worst of the storm had passed and we knew that our home, office and family were all safe, I was ready to fill my mind with something other than the 24 hours news cycle.  It would be nearly a week before we would even be able to watch network television, yet we were all still trapped due to road closures and continued rainfall. Thank goodness I had added this little gem to my July selection at Book of the Month.

The Windfall: A Novel by Diksha Basu
(Fiction)


A heartfelt comedy of manners, Diksha Basu's debut novel unfolds the story of a family discovering what it means to 'make it' in modern India.

For the past thirty years, Mr. and Mrs. Jha's lives have been defined by cramped spaces, cut corners, gossipy neighbors, and the small dramas of stolen yoga pants and stale marriages.  They thought they'd settled comfortably into their golden years, pleased with their son's acceptance into an American business school.  But then Mr. Jha comes into an enormous and unexpected sum of money, and moves his wife from their housing complex in East Delhi to the super-rich side of town where he becomes eager to fit in as a man of status; skinny ties,  hired guards, shoe-polishing machines, and all.

The move sets off a chain of events that rock their neighbors, their marriage, and their son, who is struggling to keep a lid on his romantic dilemmas and slipping grades, and brings unintended consequences, ultimately forcing the Jha family to reckon with what really matters.  Hilarious and wise, The Windfall illuminates with warmth and charm the  precariousness of social status, the fragility of pride, and above all, the human drive to build and share a home.  Even the rich, it turns out, need to belong somewhere. 

I needed the laughs...and the truths...that were waiting for me in these pages.

The Jha's find themselves in the struggle between their former lives as a working class family and their new lives after the family business is sold for twenty million dollars.  No matter what they try to do in their old neighborhood, even their oldest friends are often either offended at their new wealth or questioning how honestly it was made.  New appliances are seen as a snub to the rest of the neighborhood...and moving away is seen as a betrayal.

Meanwhile, as the new home is being prepared for their arrival, the new neighbors reveal their own prejudices towards wealth and what exactly constitutes being wealthy enough.  Mr. Jha and his neighbor even find themselves trying to one-up each other with tales of how 'worthless' their sons future careers will be (one is an aspiring poet, the other makes short films) because they see it as a sign of pride that they will have to provide for not only themselves but the future generation as well. 

Once the danger had passed us by, this was a fun little escape for a few hours each afternoon.  I did laugh out loud a few times, but I also felt a few pangs of recognition in how we all try to fit in and find our places in our communities.  Our motives are not always right, and the outcomes can certainly be embarrassing.

I was reminded of an illustration that I heard a Pastor share once.  A group of Pastors were gathered on a panel and the question was asked, 'how big of a house is too big?'  After lots of numbers being discussed and passed around the group, one of the participants says, 'Honestly?  Anything bigger than my house.'

As a people, we distrust those who financially have more than we do and we find their displays of wealth vulgar.  Yet when we are the ones being judged as vulgar and untrustworthy for what we have worked hard for, we are often hurt and offended.  We all need to just show a little grace! 

Rating: ★★★

On Wednesday I was able to make it into the office for a few hours to run payroll.  It was the first of the month and we knew our employees had rent and mortgages due.  By Friday I was able to begin commuting to work daily again, so I started listening to an Audible book that I had downloaded a few weeks back.

Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline
(Fiction)
At once wildly original and stuffed with irresistible nostalgia, READY PLAYER ONE is a spectacularly genre-busting, ambitious, and charming debut—part quest novel, part love story, and part virtual space opera set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner, and flying DeLoreans achieve light speed.

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.  

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?

What would you think of an America where everyone escaped into a virtual world because the real one was just too depressing and hard?

Fuel is expensive and something devastating has happened.  People live twenty trailers high in 'the stacks' where Wade grew up with his aunt and several other families in the same small space.  She isn't a motherly type to him but only cares for him so that she can get his ration coupons.

Although this isn't my normal read, I was so swept up in the story that I picked up a paperback copy in Target so that I could continue to read over the weekend. (Can I just say that listening to a dystopian novel that describes the scarcity of a future Oklahoma then walking into a Houston department store during a record breaking weather event with sections of the food aisles empty can be a discomforting experience.)

The '80's trivia alone kept me going in the beginning.  Flashbacks to my own life, the movies, the video games, the situation comedies, even song lyrics...it was very engaging.  When the arcade game Joust was being described (but not yet named) I could picture it so perfectly as it was one of Jim's favorites to play at the Hamburg Circle K Food Mart.  He dropped quarters in that machine almost every time we walked through the door.

As I read the story of Wade and his quest to find the 'Easter Egg' hidden in a virtual world while the whole time avoiding the real world that he inhabited, I felt sorry for him and for all the people described in the book.  But then, by the middle of the story, I realized that this was somewhat a tale of our world today.  People don't interact face to face, we prefer presenting our 'Online Selves' that are all put together with perfect pictures and perfect lives.  We have presented ourselves as being our own avatars while ignoring the people and the world right in front of us.  All we see is a screen.  We prefer keeping in touch with our Internet 'friends' and don't even speak to the people in the next room of our homes. 

And to think that this book was written ten years ago! 

It is being made into a movie by Stephen Spielberg to be released in 2018.

Rating: ★★★

As soon as the roadways opened up and life returned to an irregular normal, we reached out to help where we could.  But in the evenings when the news coverage became just too much, it was nice to have a book to escape into for at least a hour or two.


Monday, September 11, 2017

What I Read In August

Due to Hurricane Harvey, I'm a little late posting this past month's reading log.  We are all just trying to catch our breath after spending days on end rushing from the television screen to our windows as we watched flood waters rise all over the Houston area.  Over two weeks later we still hear of friends that need help removing items from homes still surrounded by water.   It will take awhile for Houston to recover...but recover she will.  We are Texas Strong.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(Fiction)


Sussex, England: A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. He is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet sitting by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean), the unremembered past comes flooding back. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie - magical, comforting, wise beyond her years - promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. A stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

I have heard so much buzz about this author and felt for certain he would be someone I enjoyed reading.  So in April of 2016 I purchased his novel American Gods on Audible.  I finally got around to listening to it in June...and didn't make it far at all before I had to TURN IT OFF! 

It is the only Audible book that I have ever returned for a refund.  I just could not do it!  Since then, American Gods has been turned into a television mini-series on Starz...and my husband was instantly hooked.  It wasn't a Game of Thrones or Westworld for him, but very close.  After the second or third episode that Jim watched, I mentioned that I wasn't able to do the audio version of the book and he knew in an instant where I quit.  But...he would give me PG rated recaps of each episode and I remember thinking how intriguing the storyline was to me and that I wish I could have made it through.  (FYI: He does the same thing for me when it comes to Game of Thrones which I had to give up during the fourth season for its brutality...but I still love the story!)  I decided that maybe it just wasn't the right Neil Gaiman for me.  Enter this book, on my future daughter-in-love's recommendation.

This is a beautifully written book.  Whimsical, yet dark in places.  I was so swept away by this book that it took me only a few days to devour even though we had out of town guests at the time. It's premise comes from a quote in the New Yorker from Maurice Sendak. "I remember my own childhood vividly...I knew terrible things.  But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew.  It would scare them." I think this should be required reading for later high school or early college aged.  There are only two scenes that would keep me from giving it to a junior high reader.  I am eagerly awaiting Deborah's next Neil Gaiman handoff, Neverwhere. (link to Amazon)

My Favorite Quote:

"I'm going to tell you something important.  Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either.  Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing.  Inside, they look just like they always have.  Like they did when they were your age.  The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups.  Not one, in the whole wide world."

Rating: ★★★★★

Discipling Women by Lori Joiner
(Non-fiction/Christian Living)

A practical guide to helping your women grow. Filled with personal stories, humorous examples and helpful advice, Discipling Women will guide you in how to invest spiritually in other women. Whether you are mentoring a new Christian, reaching out to a neighbor, or in full-time vocational ministry, Discipling Women gives the answers, lift and encouragement you need.

I am a little over halfway through a year long commitment to a discipleship group.  As part of that group, I committed to praying about the possibility of launching a group in 2018.  While I love our group and I see the great advantage of studying and doing life in a group of four, I am not totally sold on the curriculum we are using.  So, I am looking at alternatives as I learn all that I can about small groups and discipleship.  I had ordered a women's curriculum from CRU earlier this summer and, on a whim, added this to my cart.  It was a quick read.  About a third of the book goes into the why and how of discipleship.  The remaining chapters addresses certain issues that may arise in a discipleship relationship and gives some guidance on how to look to Scripture for answers, as well as when to seek professional help.

My favorite quote:
"Do you want to partner with 100 people who are 10 percent committed or 10 people who are 100 percent committed?"
I am not sure where I first read this question, but it is burned onto the hard drive of my mind.  I want to disciple people who are 100 percent committed to growing and helping fulfill the Great Commission.  I would rather disciple a few people who are completely committed than hundreds who are only half-hearted.  I do, though, want to make the distinction that they don't have to be 100 percent perfect - just 100 percent willing.  
Love that thought!

Rating: ★★

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
(Fiction), (Audible)

Elvis Babbitt has a head for the facts: she knows science proves yellow is the happiest color, she knows a healthy male giraffe weighs about 3,000 pounds, and she knows that the naked mole rat is the longest living rodent. She knows she should plan to grieve her mother, who has recently drowned while sleepwalking, for exactly eighteen months. But there are things Elvis doesn’t yet know―like how to keep her sister Lizzie from poisoning herself while sleep-eating or why her father has started wearing her mother's silk bathrobe around the house. Elvis investigates the strange circumstances of her mother's death and finds comfort, if not answers, in the people (and animals) of Freedom, Alabama. As hilarious a storyteller as she is heartbreakingly honest, Elvis is a truly original voice in this exploration of grief, family, and the endurance of humor after loss.

This book was highly praised by the staff at The Bookshelf in Thomasville, GA during their From the Front Porch podcast on Summer Reading Recommendations.  I downloaded the audible version and 'ate it up' in less than a week. 

The first line of the book:

“On my tenth birthday, six months before she sleepwalked into the river, Mom burned the rabbit cake.”

Such a witty, yet heartbreaking, look at a family trying to pick up the pieces after personal loss.  From the guilt that we somehow didn't do enough, the withdrawal from those we need the most (and that need us), the search for meaning to an unexplained death,  the laughter of family life with all of its ups and downs...this book does a great job of looking at how, even when we share the same DNA, we grieve so differently. 

I just want to warn you that you might now be able to get out of the car when you arrive home because you do not want to leave Freedom, Alabama just yet.  Or you might find yourself carrying the trash to the curb for your husband because you want to pop in the ear buds and listen to 'just one more chapter.'

You've been warned!

There were a few times while listening that the audio had some dead space...that might have been due to my phone or a faulty download.  But it was just enough of an annoyance to cause me to knock it down to a 4 1/2.

Rating:  ★★★★☆