Wednesday, September 19, 2018

My review of Frances Mayes' novel Women in Sunlight

Women in SunlightWomen in Sunlight by Frances Mayes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frances Mayes' novel Women in Sunlight reads like a Tuscany travelogue for middle-aged women. In a way, Women in Sunlight resembles Mayes' 1999 memoir, Bella Tuscany, with the addition of fictional characters who choose a Tuscan adventure at pivotal points in their lives. What Newsday said about Bella Tuscany applies here, too: "A love letter to Italy written in precise and passionate language of near poetic density ..."

One narrator in the story is Kit Raine, an American poet who has lived in Tuscany thirteen years when Camille, Julia, and Susan come from America to rent the house next door rather than move into an over-50 community in the U.S. An unnamed omniscient narrator tells how each woman reinvents, rediscovers, and blossoms among Tuscany's many pleasures. Each emerges from her backstory changed in positive ways.

I get a little confused when the narrator switches, but I can roll with that. Italy's history, art, natural beauty, and cuisine serve as muses for all the women, as well as the men they encounter. As much as I enjoy vicariously traveling to Tuscany, I find its perfection a bit tiresome. Mayes presents everything as glorious. That the women glow in their transformations affirms their courage to step out. That everything about Tuscany glows, however, is a little hard to swallow. Lastly, it seems unlikely to me that every character is as well-versed in Italian history, literature, and art as Mayes is.

That said, one reason I enjoy reading just about anything by Frances Mayes is her knowledge of Italian history, literature, and art. Not to mention cuisine! While reading Women in Sunlight, I often felt I was in over my head in the literature and art history departments. But that's okay; this stretches me. Traveling to Tuscany with Mayes gives a reader an understanding of Italian culture and customs that a mere tourist cannot gain. Yes, Women in Sunlight truly is "A love letter to Italy written in precise and passionate language of near poetic density ..."

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

My review of Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie (Little House, #2)Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charles and Caroline Ingalls take their family, Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie, by covered wagon from the big woods in Wisconsin to the prairie near Independence, Missouri. This second book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's series again shows pioneer resourcefulness and contentment with simple pleasures. This book has the added intrigue of Indians and soldiers and federal government interference. Also interesting to me are instances of neighbors helping neighbors build barns, dig wells, and nurse sickness. Although the family had coins, pioneer economics consisted mostly of bartering services and trading furs for goods like a plow and seeds.

I have mixed emotions about Wilder's portrayal of her parents' strict discipline. On one hand, my stomach knots whenever Laura reminds herself that "children should be seen and not heard." That feels harsh and oppressive to me. On the other hand, my heart is quieted by her tenacious desire to obey out of a visceral understanding of her dependence on her Ma and Pa for protection and provision. This seems like a critical spiritual submission lesson.

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Scrapbooks, Unfinished

My recent posts have a retro component. The reason? As we clear out my parents’ house, we find boxes of papers, photos, letters from the last century and a quarter. Little by little, we sort through, so I live in someone else’s past a lot lately. Today I went through a box of what apparently was going to be a 1994 travel scrapbook. Or maybe my parents compiled the scrapbook, and these scraps were left over, I don’t know. The latter is more likely. But the trip was a France tour, so this box held extra interest for me.

High points of Paris, Normandy, and Brittany traced on a pink photocopied map, the 1994 tour guide’s instructions, my parents’ tour badges and Paris Visite passes, some unwritten picture postcards, and lots of bilingual brochures. Since my dad was the one conceiving this scrapbook in his head during the tour, I found two of every brochure. I’m not sure I can explain his logic (He thought he was Noah?), but given that in general my dad liked to save and my mom likes to pitch, I am pretty sure collecting doubles was my dad’s doing. Another clue is the page headings printed on his dot-matrix printer. Another clue is the huge number of newspaper clippings on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. Mom and Dad’s tour, which included D-Day beaches and museums, was about a month before this anniversary. Both my parents served in World War II, but Dad had a special interest in D-Day.

This project produced a couple of Notes-to-Self :

  • Finish my own scrapbooks. My dad probably did finish memorializing this 1994 trip and I’m now just seeing stuff that didn’t make it into the scrapbook. But I have unfinished scrapbook ideas and materials that I feel sad I did not put together.
  • Decide on a statute of limitations on travel scrapbooks. If a trip is ??? years ago, and I still haven’t done the book, let it go.
  • Do the book. Pitch the leftovers.
  • I may have inherited my father’s “presentation gene.” When I approach a farmers’ market display of roses, my mind automatically frames a photo. As I stroll through a museum, my mind classifies lessons and reactions into themes to better explain it to someone. I usually pick up a brochure (just one) to help me remember later. I feel giddy to find some goofy visual like rabbit stickers or a die-cut Renault to put in my scrapbook. I like the idea of presenting my trip in an organized and creative way to show, but especially to treasure the memories.

I wonder sometimes if my father honed his “presentation” skill during the decades when his antennae were tuned for story problems to present in the eleven mathematics textbooks he wrote. I can just imagine him screeching to a halt at a random construction site to note how he could use the angles of a gabled roof in a geometry illustration. 

Me, I have no excuse. I must have inherited this tendency to present a story, as well as to keep stuff attached to happy memories.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With two little mysteries and two romances, Gabrielle Zevin's novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, is a page-turner. Grieving widower A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on an island off New England. His life is on the rocks; he is standoffish to everyone and downright rude to Amelia, a publisher's sales rep who visits the island quarterly. The first little mystery, theft of a valuable book, leads Fikry to befriend police chief Lambiase. The second little mystery, abandonment of two-year-old Maya in his bookstore, comes with multiple questions. As the plot unfolds over ensuing years, the reader is treated to brief commentary on myriad books by book-loving characters.

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Music Spans Generations

“You don’t strike me as someone who would like For King and Country,” my friend said. “My sixteen-year-old niece loves them.”  Implied was that someone fifty-plus years older than her niece should stick to Lawrence Welk’s ah-one-and-ah-two? Cue bubbles. Or perhaps would not like soul-thumping music enough to drive two hundred miles to a rock concert?

No matter, I took it as a compliment. Many people do tend to favor music from their own generation. I seem to have absorbed my father’s love for every generation’s music and almost every genre. After retiring from teaching in 1984, he bought and borrowed hundreds of music cassettes to record his favorites from each on mix tapes. On his playlists, Keely Smith and Diana Ross shared the stage with Sam the Sham and Boots Randolph. My dad might have said, “I have absolutely no musical talent; I just love music.” I could say the same.

Almost five years after Dad’s passing, we just discovered the extent of his hobby—about a dozen cases, twenty-four tapes each, of music cassettes. Before taking them to donate and/or resell, I popped a couple in my car’s cassette player. As I tooled around that day, memories flooded my car. Richard Clayderman’s piano stylings of the theme song from Chariots of Fire took me back to friends and feelings from the early 1980s. More time-traveling reveries with the gentle “Ballade Pour Adeline” from 1979. And “Memory” from Cats.

A few days after hearing this generation-spanning music, in an odd coincidence, I finish reading Mitch Albom’s The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto on the day Aretha Franklin dies. So I go from the book in which famous musicians from many generations and genres share memories of a dead musician, the fictional, brilliant musician Frankie Presto. From the 1940s into the 2000s, their paths crossed with Frankie’s in unusual ways. I close the novel and turn on the TV to see famous musicians from many generations and genres sharing personal anecdotes and praises of the exceptionally gifted Aretha Franklin.

By the way, For King and Country gave the expected high-energy concert. We old folks stood a few feet from the stage the entire time. I admit that an hour later when I got back to our hotel, my eyes still spun from all the strobe lights, and oh, I may have been a little deaf. But the group’s beat still pulsed in my chest, and my face glowed with that pleasure.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

I Blame the Barometer

I forked the last little glob of tuna salad onto the last little curve of bread crust, then tore sweet orange slices with my teeth. With a clean plate, save two skinny, naked orange rinds, I had finished the healthy lunch prepared for us by my mother’s caregiver. Normally, I’d be satisfied, but today I brought my mother’s silver candy dish from the living room to the dining table. Mom and I took a few chocolate-covered almonds, and I would have inhaled all the rest, except just then my mother commented, “This is the last of my chocolate.” Knowing I’d feel guilty if I ate the poor woman’s last chocolates, I switched my attention to a jar of M&Ms. These candies were also getting low, but by some inexplicable oversight had been at about the same level in the jar for the last three weeks. I’d be doing Mom a favor if I made more room in the jar for the new M&Ms I’d buy her next week, wouldn’t I? Haha. After popping half a dozen M&Ms, I persuaded myself to stop. People sometimes exhibit unusual discontent when barometric pressure shifts, or so they say, so I blame my rationalization and lack of self-control on the barometer. Oh no, I’ve sunk to rationalizing my rationalizations!

Trying to concentrate on the benefits of a breeze, oppressively humid as it was, I made my way after my excessively indulgent dessert to the nursing home to visit Dad in the Alzheimer’s wing. Wheeling him from a common area to his room, I parked and braked his wheelchair in front of the CD player so that we could listen to his favorite music. His CD player sits atop a three-drawer nightstand. I snapped fingers and he rotated wrists to saxophone sounds and trumpet toots. I pointed out the window to treetops wildly gyrating in the storm brewing outside, and Dad said, “That’s very happening.” Opening a nightstand drawer, I pulled out a small plastic container Mom keeps there for him. I offered him its contents—a few M&Ms, a few Hershey’s Kisses, and a chocolate peanut butter egg left over from his Easter basket. He plucked out a Kiss, unwrapped it, and popped it in his mouth.