… and to everyone who celebrates:
It’s been a difficult year for many of us, but I hope you all still have things to be thankful for! And
for being my friends and for making a difference in my life, this year perhaps more than ever.
… and to everyone who celebrates:
It’s been a difficult year for many of us, but I hope you all still have things to be thankful for! And
for being my friends and for making a difference in my life, this year perhaps more than ever.
This is something that ties two tasks together, so here we go:
My grandma kept baby / early childhood diaries for her children (including my mom) — and my mom continued the tradition when I was born. She started to write it about three months after my birth and kept it going until I was kindergarten age.
The final entry in volume 1 of this diary (there are two volumes in total) concerns a fright that I gave her when I was 2 1/2 years old, shortly before we moved from Berlin (where I was born) to a village just south of Bonn (where my mom’s parents were living at the time, and where I would come to spend the biggest part of my childhood):
“You now enjoy playing with the neighborhood kids, [and] alone, too, in the street. One day, however, you suddenly vanished and walked all alone to [your favorite playground on a nearby square]! I spent 1 1/2 hours looking for you! You’d almost gotten run over on [a large boulevard on the way]. So I am glad we are moving away from big city life now.”
The playground in question commanded so much of my particular attention because it featured an honest-to-God decommissioned steam locomotive that I absolutely adored “steering”. According to the story as orally elaborated on by my mom later, I had apparently (and unbeknownst to her) memorized the way to the playground, but not the way back home, and after having played blissfully and to my heart’s content for a while, had started to panic when it had dawned on me that I was lost. By chance, a passing neighbor had recognized me and taken me back home. How I’d managed to slip away in the first place, nobody knew — usually the mothers of the neighborhood kids took turns supervising us when we were playing outside (or even all came out to watch us), and there was never any word about anybody being recriminated for not having been on their guard. So probably there was just a moment’s distraction … which turned out to be enough, however, to let me indulge in a sudden spark of instant gratification and walk away to play at being a steam engine driver, rather than continue playing with the other kids in my street. — Since nobody had actually watched me walking away, the “almost gotten run over on the way” bit was possibly my mom’s very understandable fear talking (if that had really happened, I’d likely have been taken back home immediately without ever reaching the playground — I did know my home address; it was one of the first things my parents taught me to say once I’d learned to speak, and I loved repeating it, so it’s likely it would have popped out if I had been asked), though of course this may have been what prompted the neighbor to recognize me when I was trying to find my way back home.
The (in)famous steam engine
(Door 7, Task 2: Share a story about yourself, or a story about your family that’s survived the generations, or share a particular tradition your family has passed on from generation to generation and if there’s a story behind why, tell us about it.
Door 11, Task 1: If you have kids or pets, tell us about something “bad” they did that was so funny you couldn’t help but forgive (“pardon”) them. If you have neither kids nor pets, was there such an event in your own childhood – or with kids or pets in your family or circle of friends?)
Much of a muchness, but it’s one that fits the book task for this square — people being kind and charitable to the poor; especially to darling little children who are bearing their own poverty with preternatural meekness and patience. Bottom line, if you’ve read the Christmas episode from Little Women, which of course is contained in this collection as well, you’ve read the basic model for about 3/4 of the other stories, too … and given the semi-autobiographical background of Little Women, you’ve then also read a by far the most authentic expression of the theme.
That said, a sizeable portion of these stories are also either explicitly or implicitly set in New England (Boston and elsewhere), AND in at least one of them a turkey makes a fairly prominent appearance. So I’d say we’re well and truly within the parameters of the Thanksgiving square book task.
(Book: Read a book with an autumnal cover, set in New England, where a turkey shows up in the story, with a turkey or pumpkin on the cover, or with the theme of coming together to help a community or family in need.)
With another full month to go in the year, it may be a bit early to do this task, but a substantial number of the books I’m going to be reading in December will be Christmas rereads, so here we go.
The books / authors I am most thankful for having (re)discovered are, working backwards in the order in which I’ve read them (and with links to my reviews or status updates, if any, in the titles):
Margaret Atwood, The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale:
Atwood’s Gilead novels were my final reads of this year’s Halloween Bingo, and the game couldn’t have ended on a bigger exclamation point (though The Handmaid’s Tale was a reread). The Testaments not only takes us back to Gilead and provides answers to some of the questions remaining open at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, more importantly it is also a timely reminder of what exactly is at stake once a democracy’s foundations are allowed to weaken — as we’re seeing in more than one country around the world at the moment. One of the hardest reading double bills I ever imposed on myself, but I’m very glad that I did.
As a side note and for something very different, I also truly enjoyed Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a novelization of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I read earlier this year.
Toni Morrison, Beloved:
Another soul-drenching and profoundly devastating reading experience, and yet another one that I’m truly thankful for. Morrison deserved the Literature Nobel Prize for this book alone, and while her literary legacy has hopefully made her voice immortal, among the many great authors we have lost this year, she stands head and shoulders above all the rest. Her contributions to the literary and social discourse will well and truly be missed.
Terry Pratchett, Guards, Guards:
One of the Discworld series’s stand-out books and in many ways a perfect companion book for those by Atwood and Morrison as it, too, deals with the undermining of democracy by the forces of evil. Trust me, this is one dragon you don’t want to encounter … (unless, of course, you happen to be able to bring the perfect antidote).
Reminder for the Discworld group: This is our bimonthly group read for this coming December. And it’s highly recommended!
Arthur Conan Doyle: Danger:
Speaking of timely reads, this was yet another one: Much more than “merely” the author of the Sherlock Holmes books, Conan Doyle was an astute observer of the politics of his time, and he did not shy away from speaking his mind, even if that meant offending the highest in the land. Danger is a short story that he wrote shortly before WWI to warn the leadership of the Admiralty of the dangers of a submarine war, for which he considered Britain woefully unprepared. And if Conan Doyle’s words struck a cautionary note a century ago (turns out the Admiralty took his warning seriously, and it was a good thing for Britain that they did), they should do so even more in the context of Brexit, which carries its very own significant risks of cutting off or curtailing Britain’s trade routes. Alas, I very much doubt that’s the case.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell
Simply put, the Cromwell biography to end all Cromwell biographies. In his research for this book, MacCulloch took a fresh look at virtually every single document on which Cromwell’s vast legacy is based, and the resulting biography is a masterpiece of historical analysis which does away with many an often-repeated myth (beginning right at the beginning of Cromwell’s life, with the role of his father), and which shines a light on Cromwell’s many innovations and achievements and on the inner workings of his meteoric rise from humble tradesman’s son to Henry VIII’s chief minister. In the process, MacCulloch reevaluates everything from the foreign merchant experience that Cromwell gained early in life, to his work as Cardinal Wolsey’s assistant and, finally, his growing preeminence and his seminal policy as the power behind Henry VIII’s throne. What emerges from MacCulloch’s analysis is the picture of a highly complex and intelligent man, difficult to deal with even for friends, fierce and ruthless as an enemy — but always with England’s well-being and advancement (as well as the advancement of its institutions) at his heart; the one man who, in the space of a single short decade, emerged as the single most important politician of the entire Tudor Age (short of, just possibly, Elizabeth I), whose legacy (and the legacy of his innovations and reforms, far above and beyond the well-known Acts of Parliament which he initiated) reaches down the centuries all the way to the present date. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in the Tudor Age or in constitutional history, run, don’t walk to acquire this book.
Tom Reiss, The Black Count:
Another highly fascinating biography: We’ve come to think of Alexandre Dumas père and fils as the two writers, but did you know that Dumas père’s father (also called Alexandre) — the son of a black Haitian slave and a French count — was a general in the French revolutionary army and, in his own time, much more important than his son and grandson ever were in theirs? Reiss’s book not only tells the story of his life; it also places General Dumas’s life into the wider context of his era and examines, inter alia, how equal the budding colonial power’s black sons and daughters actually were in the motherland of “Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité” (spoiler: they weren’t). The picture emerging from Reiss’s research is that of a man of great personal courage, intelligence and ambition, as well as sheer enormous physical presence, whose life was cut tragically short as a result of the side effects of being caught up in the European and French power struggle of his time — and in case you ever had any doubts, yes, General Dumas was the model for one of his son’s greatest heroes, the Count of Monte Cristo … and D’Artagnan’s famous friendship-building duel with all three Musqueteers at the beginning of their acquaintance does have a basis in reality as well.
Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower:
Truly original worldbuilding, a powerful story, evocative writing and a knockout, totally unique narrative perspective: In a literary scene that seems to be dominated more and more by sameness and formula (both in adult and YA fantasy), with barely skin-deep layers of seeming originality, this book was my reading year’s one saving grace that singlehandedly restored my faith in the idea that there are at least a few fantasy writers out there who are still capable of compelling creations that are entirely their own and unlike anything else already out there.
Aminatta Forna, The Memory of Love:
Last year, it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun that provided insight and a new perspective on the history of one particular African country (Nigeria); this year, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love did the same and then some for Sierra Leone. A devastating tale of love, loss, and the many ways in which a person can be broken, in a country variously slipping into and emerging out of decades of a devastating civil war.
Kofi Annan, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace:
Mr. Annan was far and away the most influential and important Secretary General of the United Nations in its more recent history; his memoirs set forth with great passion and understanding how the experience of a lifetime, from growing up in post-WWII Ghana all the way to serving as Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping under Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and his first-hand insight into conflicts like those in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Israel / Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia, shaped his conviction about the necessity of an “interventionist” United Nations policy; one that does not stay on the sidelines of genocide and war crimes but takes seriously its mandate to act on behalf of the peoples of the world. A simply riveting read.
Clea Koff, The Bone Woman:
This one hit home, because it touched more or less directly on some of my own past work — but even if you don’t have any personal inroads into the investigation of human rights violations, it’s a great introduction to the subject and, more importantly, does great legwork in conveying both the psychological trauma and the physical wounds suffered by the victims of such abuses … as well as the toll that the field work of the subsequent investigation takes from the investigators. A truly memorable read.
Peter Grainger, An Accidental Death:
One of the year’s early and totally unexpected, great discoveries. A great location (the Norfolk coast), pithy and insightful writing, an unusual, profoundly contemplative detective — a formerly high-ranking officer who has chosen to be knocked back to the rank of sergeant so as to be able to keep doing hands-on police work instead of being mired in administration and pushing paper … and thanks to the main character’s hobby, there is even a bluesy background note. Who could ask for more?
Michelle Obama, Becoming:
Mrs. Obama may have chosen to focus on her charity work and on political education instead of seeking a career in party politics now that she and her husband have left the White House (and who could possibly blame her?), but I am very glad she also decided to give us her deeply personal perspective on her own and Barack Obama’s path all the way to the end of 2016. It’s a spirited narrative that manages to build an immediate connection with the reader, and which made me regret the end of the Obama presidency even more than I had done before. I can only hope the Obamas are going to continue to seek and find ways to make their mark on the political discourse, in America and beyond — not only Barack but also Michelle Obama, who in her own right is clearly at least as important a voice as her husband.
Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names:
A riveting read and proof positive of the old adage that truth is vastly stranger than fiction: the true story of a young woman who defected from North Korea to China “by accident” right before her 18th birthday and, after ten years of trials and tribulations, eventually ended up in South Korea and, later, in the U.S., where she testified about her experience, and more generally on the topic of dictatorial regimes and human rights abuses, before various bodies of the U.S. government and the United Nations. At times her story is so heartstoppingly riveting that you want to doubt whether all this truly happened, but apparently it did — and the book is worth a read for her unquestionably personal and in-depth inside perspective on Norh Korea and China alone.
Xinran, The Good Women of China:
My first read of 2019, and with it, the year started well and truly with a bang: the true stories of a number of Chinese women whom Xinran — then a radio presenter in Nanking — encountered as a journalist, but whose stories she was not able to tell while still subject to state censorship. In equal parts eye-opening and heartbreaking; by no means easy to digest but an absolute must-read, and my reading year couldn’t have begun in a better way.
Joy Ellis, Jackman & Evans series and Beware the Past:
As a new discovery, this is actually a carry-over from 2018, when Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters completely knocked me sideways during Halloween Bingo. I’ve since read her entire Jackman & Evans series — my favorite entries still being Their Lost Daughters as well as, coming very close, book 4 of the series, The Guilty Ones — and I have continued my adventures in Ellis’s Fenlands world of detection with an encounter with DCI Matt Ballard in Beware the Past, the conclusion of which managed to knock me sideways yet again (though warning: this is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart). And the good news is that the second book of the Matt Ballard series (Five Bloody Hearts) is already available as well, so I’m not done with the Fenlands by a long shot …
(Task: Tell us: Of the books that you read this year, which are you most thankful for, OR was there one that turned out to be full of “stuffing”? Alternatively, which (one) book that you read anytime at all changed your life for the better?”)
Reblogged from: Mrs. Claus’ Tea House
On tap today is taking my mom to Mass, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for the first time in years, cooking, eating, playing board games with the kids, and going for a walk to make room for more food. Enjoy!
NEW: Once you’ve completed a task or tasks, please use the handy form, located in the spoiler tags (to keep things tidy) to let us know. This will make tracking points MUCH easier for the 24 Tasks Team.
Previous door’s tasks are “beneath the fold”
I’ve decided to combine these two tasks — they both deal with dining in some fashion, and while I would actually not want to change anything about my / our personal holiday traditions, just for once I think it might be fun to have
Christmas or New Year’s Eve dinner with Mark Twain,
enjoy his sense of humor and myriads of stories (he must have been quite the raconteur), all the while enjoying an
all you can eat dinner
featuring my mom’s very own minced beef and bell pepper stir fry, her potato salad, as well as my BFF’s curry & cream soup, Indonesian rice salad, and mousse au chocolat;
amplified by some of the goodies that make up my favorite restaurant’s weekly changing culinary trip all around the Mediterranean and some of my favorite Spanish restaurant’s tapas. (Alternatively, a bunch of Indian curries — say, mango, korma and saag –, Thai / Indonesian / Vietnamese lemongrass chicken, Szechuan beef, and sweet & sour pork. Or a selection of Mexican burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and tacos with guacamole, salsa roja and sourcream on the side …)
All of this, with a nice Rioja Gran Reserva, plenty of sparkling mineral water, and an espresso or cappuccino to chase it down … as well as a single malt, preferably 15+ years of age. Cheers!
I decided to backtrack a bit to the series’s first (I think) Christmas entry, which is set right after Meg and Michael’s marriage and in which Meg is in charge of organizing Caerphilly’s annual holiday parade — emphatically not a “Christmas” parade, since it includes a nod to Diwali (complete with elephants), as well as a Kwanzaa float, which obviously makes this book a fun match with “24 Festive Tasks”.
Andrews had definitely found her Meg Langslow legs by the time of this book, and the writing and plotting is great fun … of course a holiday parade themed on The Twelve Days of Christmas offers countless opportunities for things to go hilariously haywire, but you still have to be able to hit just the right balance of humor and storytelling instead of simply stringing together a series of (wannabe) quirky incidents and characters, which not every writer is able to pull off convincingly. Perhaps the one tiny letdown was that the murderer (and their motive) was fairly obvious well before the conclusion of the book, but still, I very much enjoyed my annual return to Caerphilly for Christmas the holidays.
And since a whole rafter of turkeys show up in various parts of the book — they march in the holiday parade, they’re being offered as charity gifts to the local poor, they’re roasted at one of the local church community’s food stand, and a turkey also features in the Christmas dinner “in the off” at the end of the story, to be prepared by Meg’s mother — I feel justified in using this as my Thanksgiving square read in “24 Festive Tasks” … even if the turkeys are not accorded quite as prominent a role as the titular six geese (or actually, 37 geese … or make that 38, counting one deceased of natural causes).
… or would have, if MbD hadn’t shown me the way out. According to Booklikes, I acquired 387 books this year — 203 print books and 184 audiobooks. And that figure is definitely too low, as there are some 70 or so Audible downloads I haven’t catalogued yet and will probably only add to Booklikes once I’ve listened to them.
So there’s no way I will be posting covers of all of this year’s additions to my shelves. But my stand-out 2018 acquisition was the new Harry Potter hardcover set, together with the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw anniversary editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve posted photos of it before, but anyway, just for fun (and because I’m so damned happy about it) …
The proverbial stuffed turkey — full of self-praise and completely unnecessary references to the author’s interactions with paleonthologists of note; space that would have been better used for actual information on … the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. And yes, Dr. Brusatte — I know. Turkeys are birds, and birds are dinosaurs.
2018 was an excellent reading year for me, both in terms of quantity and quality — yet, among the many great books I newly read this year, these stood out in particular:
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun — a multiple-perspective inside view of the Biafra conflict that manages to be brutally honest, insightful, saddening and poetical all at the same time. Review HERE.
2. Elizabeth von Arnim: The Solitary Summer — in many ways the exact counterpoint to Half of a Yellow Sun: a largely autobiographical ode to reading, and to the peace and quiet of a summer garden … with more than an occasional sidelight on early 20th century Prussian country life and mores. Status updates:
3 / 190 pages ~~ 9 / 190 pages ~~ 14 / 190 pages ~~ 22 / 190 pages ~~ 30 / 190 pages ~~ 41 / 190 pages ~~ 46 / 190 pages ~~ 55 / 190 pages ~~ 62 / 190 pages ~~ 65 / 190 pages ~~ 67 / 190 pages ~~ 69 / 190 pages ~~ 83 / 190 pages ~~ 87 / 190 pages ~~ 89 / 190 pages ~~ 93 / 190 pages ~~ 95 / 190 pages ~~ 106 / 190 pages ~~ 110 / 190 pages ~~ 126 / 190 pages ~~ 131 / 190 pages ~~ 133 / 190 pages ~~ 140 / 190 pages ~~ 147 / 190 pages.
(An eminently quotable book, as you can see.)
And joint honors for No. 3:
3.a) Sharyn McCrumb: The Ballad of Frankie Silver — an examination of the death penalty as administered in the Appalachians as only Sharyn McCrumb could have written it, contrasting the historical case of 18-year-old Frankie Silver (the first white woman to be hanged in the area) with a fictional modern counterpart. Like Half of a Yellow Sun, equal parts brutal, saddening and lyrical. Review HERE.
3.b) Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters — modern crime fiction as it ought to be: very (darkly) atmospheric, but without even an ounce of sentimentality; with compelling characters, an intricate plot, a great, not-yet-overexploited setting and a satisfying conclusion. Review HERE.
Honorable mention goes to my reread of this year — J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which I fell in love with all over again … to the point of splurging on the new hardcover set and the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
And lest anybody point out that this is, in sum, vastly more than the “top three” books called for in the task: I’m a Libra — do you know what an effort it was to even narrow it down this much?? Besides, I’m counting the Harry Potter series as one book, so there …