Sunday, September 4, 2022

First Lines: August 2022 edition

I didn't have any photos of Wuthering Heights
so we will have to make do with this photo
of Golan Heights

These are the first lines of the books I finished reading in August.  If there is a theme this month, it could be “Books That Reminded Me of Wuthering Heights In Some Way.”  Three of this month’s books did, anyway.



Book 1

Shadow had done three years in prison.  He was big enough, and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.



Book 2

One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people—a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes.


Book 3

When I was six, my father took me to Grand Central Terminal in New York to see the imposing bronze statue of my great-great-great grandfather “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt.



Book 4

The Piano Teacher’s Pupil

‘The Brahms?’ she said.  ‘Shall we struggle through the Brahms?’  The boy, whose first lesson with Miss Nightingale this was, said nothing.  But gazing at the silent metronome, he smiled a little, as if the silence pleased him.


Book 5

From above, from a distance, the marks in the dust formed a tight circle.  The circle was far from perfect, with a distorted edge that grew thick, then thin, and then broke completely in places.  It also wasn’t empty.


Book 6

Chapter One:  Breakfast Rolls

One fine summer’s morning the sun peeped over the hills and looked down upon the valley of Silverstream.  It was so early that there was really very little for him to see except the cows belonging to Twelve-Trees Farm in the meadows by the river. 


The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  First published 2001 (465 pages).  10th Anniversary edition, with 12,000 additional words, published in 2011.   565 pages.

I read this for book club.  My review at this link.   It is like Wuthering Heights in that I didn’t love reading the book, but I keep thinking about it.


Book 2

 Upstream by Mary Oliver (essays by the poet).  2016.  187 pages.

This book provided a lovely respite from the world.   I was completely in the mood for these essays, which feature discussion of nature and a few American writers.  This book was not in any way like Wuthering Heights.

This is my photo of a stream that is probably
 in New England, so close enough
 to Cape Cod, where Mary Oliver lived.


Book 3

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty

by Anderson Cooper  and Katherine Howe.   336 pages.  2021.

Pretty good read - expos√© of a rich but unhappy family, the ancestors of Anderson Cooper, journalist for CNN TV news.  Cornelius Vanderbilt used some of his money to found the university that bears his name.  (6+ degrees of separation: I studied in France for a semester via the Vanderbilt-in-France program.)  A few generations later, the mother and daughter both had the same name – just like in Wuthering Heights.  I was confused about which Gloria was which, at any point. I guess this practice of parents naming their children after themselves is more prevalent than I had realized. 

Book 4

Last stories by William Trevor.  Published 2014.  240 pages.

Ten short stories, published posthumously (as near as I can tell). 

Short stories are not my favorite genre.  I read this to fulfill the Summer Library Bingo square for a book with the word “last” in the title. I tried two other books in this category, and they did not grab me at all.  

These are well-written stories, but with short stories I always feel that I am not able to get to know the characters well enough, and there is usually a macabre or sad twist to the plot.  I would like to read more by this author, if time permits.  His work made the shortlist for the Booker Prize five times.   It’s a stretch to relate these short stories to Wuthering Heights, but there was one story that takes place partly on a remote farm.


Book 5

The Lost Man by Jane Harper .  2019.  353 pages.

It’s about a dead man and his distrustful family, all in the stark and blazing-hot Australian outback. I thought it was well told, with interesting characters.  I started out with the audio book, because it was available, but it was hard to understand, because of the Australian accent.  I switched to the kindle version to finish it, but in my head the Australian accent was always rolling around.  

This book reminded me a lot of Wuthering Heights – both have a family that mistreats each other, who live off in the middle of nowhere, with very little interaction with the outside world.  I was fascinated to learn about The School of the Air, which is a real thing.  I read this book for book club, but sadly will not be able to attend the discussion.

I don't have a photo of the Australian outback, so
this photo of the Thar Desert in Pakistan will have to suffice.
The crowd includes my Mom, Dad, brother, me,
 and my father's cousin's family.
I am the one in the pink chunni (head scarf).
April 1990.


Book 6

Miss Buncle’s Book, by D.E. Stevenson.  Published 1934.  304 pages.

A book set in a small English village in the 1930s.  A woman in need of money writes a roman √† clef about all the people in her town.  Matrons are insulted, barbs are traded, but nearly nothing of great consequence happens.  There is tea drinking and hot buttered toast and a happy ending.  It was a bit of a challenge to keep track of all the actual townspeople plus the fictional townspeople, but I didn’t worry about it too much.  The major villain is named Mrs. Featherstone Hogg.  This book is part of the Furrowed Middlebrow set of books.  I picked this one because it was available on Kindle from our library.


Did not finish 

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman.  2019. 400 pages. 

I might come back to it.  It was just too fraught at the beginning for me to get through to the better part.  Yes, I was too anxious to read a book about anxious people. The book club folks agreed with me about the beginning, but said about half-way through it became well worth it, and there was redemption.

As always, I love to hear what you are reading.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Common Household Mom’s review of

  American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I was perusing my college alumni magazine while brushing my teeth, and came across this sentence:

“In the century since its publication, James Joyce’s Ulysses has been described as beautiful, overrated, experimental, pornographic, dull, and genius.”

Aha! I thought.  All those adjectives could equally apply to American Gods by Neil Gaiman, the tome I was reading at that time, when not brushing my teeth.  I haven’t read Ulysses, so I don’t know how the two books truly compare. 

American Gods was chosen by one of my book clubs, with the adjective “trippy” attached to it by the person recommending it.  American Gods proved trippy indeed.  

Fantasy is not my preferred reading genre, and dark adult fantasy even less so.  I finished the book because I was fascinated with Gaiman’s take on America, and because I felt pride when I recognized a character as a god.  I did not overly enjoy this reading experience, but I keep thinking about the book.  Kind of like Wuthering Heights

It’s a very American novel, in that the main characters spend most of the time driving everywhere, and acquiring and discarding vehicles. The car is king (almost a god!) in Neil Gaiman’s America.


Plush Jesus 
buckled up for a car ride.

It’s also a very dark novel.  The setting is invariably dirty, dingy, ugly, smelly.  There is not much pleasant in this America.  Even the agreeable, crime-free, clean town of Lakeside has an extremely dark underpinning.  The gods are, at best, amoral – the main character gods, anyway.  Shadow is the most morally upstanding of the characters.

I didn’t find much exploration of race, although many characters are non-white.  If I recall correctly, the first characters who are obviously gods are ones from European cultures (Norse, Celtic, and Slavic). And there are also the gods who were worshipped in American before white people came.  It seemed to me the only gods from Africa were Anansi and then a few Egyptian gods, but it could be that I failed to recognize some, because I am a white American and I have not learned much about the many distinct African cultures that exist. I would be curious to know if Gaiman fell into that pit of assuming one or two gods suffice to represent all of Africa.  

I don’t know which culture the cat sex goddess is from, but I have to say, that was some scary pornographic text that I do not usually encounter in my reading.

As far as gods from Asian cultures, the only one I can recall, six weeks after finishing the book, is Ganesha.  Well, and that interlude story with the djinn - I was annoyed by that story because it didn’t have anything to do with the plot of the book and just added to my confusion.  Several times Gaiman inserts a little short story that is only tangentially related to the rest of the book.  The one with the djinn is the only one I can even vaguely remember.

Were there any gods from Central and South America?  I would not know nearly enough to recognize any gods from those cultures.

Gaiman intentionally obscures some of the gods.  The prize of recognizing that a character was, in fact, a god, was a teeny dopamine hit that kept me reading.  The first thing that keyed me into this was the introduction of Czernobog.  I know some Russian, and recognized that the character’s name means “Black God.”  After that, I saw that the gods kept popping up everywhere.

The Common Household Husband was reading the book at the same time.  He kept asking me, “What does this book mean?”  

Heck if I know.

What is Neil Gaiman saying about America and Americans? I am not sure, but here’s a stab at an answer:  Our gods are not the ones we say we worship.  In addition to bringing our up-front religions with us to the new world, white European people also brought all our folk gods and superstitions.  And people of color brought their gods. And there are also the gods who were worshipped in American before white people came.  We Americans carry around folk stories and superstitions from ancient times and faraway lands.

Then there are the “new” gods - gods of things, commerce, transport, money, and technology.  Mister Wood, Mister Stone, Mister Road, Mister Town, Mister World, and so on.  Out of all these gods, which ones do we really worship and adore?  Which ones are worthy of attention?  Which gods have the best outcome of people in mind, and which gods are only in it for themselves?  Perhaps Gaiman’s main point is to pose these questions.

Gaiman might be saying America is in a battle between the “old” gods of ancient tradition, and the new gods.  The way they are all portrayed in the book, I conclude that Gaiman feels none of them are worthy of our adoration.  Many of them are dishonest compassionless tricksters.

Shadow is very clearly a Jesus/Messiah figure, in that he makes a sacrifice.  Tied to a tree, enduring great pain, including the piercing of his side – classic crucifixion references.  He is resurrected by a woman (goddess/mythology figure) named Easter.  But does Shadow offer any kind of salvation?  

Gaiman comes from a family heavily into the Church of Scientology.  I know nothing about that, so I can’t say how that works into the themes in the book.

Our kindle download was touted as the “author’s preferred version” which included 12,000 words not included in the first-published edition. I really want to know which parts of the book were axed by the editor for the first edition, but I was not able to find this info anywhere.  It seemed to me that editors exist in this world for a good reason, and this book was at least 12,000 words too long. But on the other hand it gave me a lot to think about.

The book is American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.   565 pages.  Published 2011.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

First Lines: July 2022 edition

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in July.  This past month included a fun trip to Boston to visit family, a joyful event (our daughter's wedding), and then the inevitable aftermath: covid.



Book 1

Book One: A Nice Little Family

Chapter 1: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall speak of in its proper place.



Book 2

This happened back in March of 2010, when the Philadelphia train station still had the kind of information board that clickety-clacked as the  various gate assignments rolled up.


Book 3

You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they traveled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem.  But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus?



Book 4

Tom Langdon was a journalist, a globetrotting one, because it was in his blood to roam widely.  Where others saw only instability and fear in life, Tom felt graced by an embracing independence.


Book 5

It’s hard to imagine modern life without the crossword.  The puzzle originated in 1913, and it soon became part of the fabric of daily existence. 




The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  815 pages.   

I’d like to say something pithy about this book but I can’t because I just had covid.  And I read this in the BC period (Before Covid).  (I am now on Day 8, feeling much better, thank you, and tested negative.)

I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was in high school, but not for a class, so I had no guidance to help me through.  The main thing I remember is that it was full of over-emotional characters.  The main phrase was:

“(some exclamation),” Dmitri cried. 

Dmitri was always crying, that is, crying out. I believe it was the Constance Garnet translation.  When I read it 40+ years ago, I did not understand it well. 

I thought maybe if I read it in a newer translation I might get better insights, so I bought this translation for my kindle in 2019.  I started reading it in April 2022. This new translation seems to bring forth the narrator’s voice - it’s got a sardonic tone to it.  The text seems to flow well, and the notes are helpful.  But it is still full of over-emotional characters.  

The B.K. reminded me of Wuthering Heights.  It’s about one hugely messed up family who do terrible things to each other, and the characters’ names are fiendishly hard to keep track of.  Then add in a whole lot of musings about the Russian church and God and the devil, and you’ve got yourself a fine Russian classic.  At least there is Alyosha to give us all hope for humanity. 

Fun fact:  In the 1958 movie version Alyosha was played by William Shatner.  Also starring Yul Brynner as Dmitri and Lee J. Cobb as the depraved father Fyodor.

An example of a Dostoevskian sentence:

And at such moments he was glad that nearby, close at hand, maybe not in the same room but in the cottage, there was such a man, firm, devoted, not at all like himself, not depraved, who, though he saw all this depravity going on and knew all the secrets, still put up with it out of devotion, did not protest, and – above all – did not reproach him or threaten him with anything either in this age or in the age to come; and who would defend him if need be – from whom?


Book 2

French Braid, by Anne Tyler.  Published 2022.  244 pages.

The story begins on the train from Philly to Baltimore, so I loved the book from the start.  It’s about a kind of flaky family, with children of such vastly different personalities that it is amazing the family can still be together, although they don’t see much of each other.  I read this for book club, and we concluded together that it is not the best Anne Tyler book, but I enjoyed it.


Book 3

The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke.  Published 1895.  28 pages (short story).

Part of my self-assigned “Winter reading in July”.  This was a charming tale, quite short.  


Book 4

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci.  Published 2002. 273 pages.

Part of “Winter reading in July”.  I enjoyed this book – good characters, plot twists and turns, railroads, and a happy ending.



Book 5

Thinking Inside The Box by Adrienne Raphel   248 pages.  Copyright 2020.

The history and current standing of the crossword puzzle.  Many mentions of Will Shortz.  The weirdest thing was the description of the crossword puzzle cruise.  This was a good book to read while lying in bed with covid.

Friday, July 8, 2022

First Lines: June 2022 edition


Before getting to the first lines, I have a question.  What is a great book club book that you have read within the past year?

Below are the first lines of the three books I finished reading in June, all of which featured women and girls figuring out how to do life despite the obstacles in front of them.  



Book 1

November 28, 1905

Princeton, New Jersey

The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I’ll be late.  I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways.



Book 2

Reviving Ophelia was my attempt to understand my experiences as a mother of a teenage daughter and a therapist for adolescent girls.


Book 3

On November 21, 2019, I walked through the door of Room 1100 of the Longworth Office Building in Washington D.C., to appear before the House Intelligence Committee. 




The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray.  347 pages.  2021.

The book started slowly, but about half-way through the pace picked up.  The characters and plot were interesting.  Based on historical persons.  I read it for book club.


Book 2

 Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (25th Anniversary Edition), by Mary Pipher, PhD, and Sara Pipher Gilliam.  Published 2019.  399 pages.

Difficult material, but well presented.  I had to skip some chapters because the subject matter was too difficult for me.  It made for a helpful, deep, and searing discussion at book club.   Mary Pipher is adamantly against social media.


Book 3

There is Nothing For You Here, by Fiona Hill.  Published 2021.  432 pages. 

This is the memoir of the expert on Russia who testified to Congress related to the first impeachment of President Donald Trump.  She has an interesting story.  Some of it is a bit repetitive but the overall main points are good ones, I think.



Working on 

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  796 pages.

Up to about page 531 (Part III, Book Nine; 62% of the total) by end of June.  The murder has now occurred.  Dmitri Karamazov is being questioned.


Did not finish 

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. Published 1995.   322 pages. Nonfiction.

I thought this book would be mostly about Scotland.  I read a few chapters and there was nothing about Scotland.  Those chapters  were quite amusing, so I might return to it.  But I had other more pressing reading assignments, and library books appeared on my kindle before expected.  And I kinda wanted to read about Scotland.

Please do let me know what you are reading these days.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

First Lines: May 2022 edition

Below are the first lines of the three books I finished reading in May.  It’s a small list, but the list of offenses against women and against humanity in general were large last month.  And we had an election.  I won my seat on the Democratic Committee (unopposed). The entire state’s Republican party elected an anti-democracy anti-woman insurrectionist White Christian nationalist as their candidate for governor.   It’s no wonder I can’t concentrate on reading.



Book 1

I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning.  I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex.  But I’m also trying not to think about sex.  Or Luke.  Or death.  Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter.


Book 2

There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery. 


Book 3

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:

“Allez vous-en!  Allez vous-en!  Sapristi!  That’s all right!”



The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Writers and Lovers by Lily King. published 2020.  282 pages.

Maybe this is a good book, but I was not in the mood for it.  Given the month’s news about our impending loss of reproductive rights, I did not want to read about contraceptionless sex that apparently had no consequences.  That’s so last century.  I read it for book club but was unable to attend the discussion.  Sometimes the discussion can totally change my mind about a book, but I didn’t have that boost this time.


Book 2

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. published 2020.  306 pages. 

The tagline on the book says, “Siege.  Sorcery.  Sourdough.”  This was an enjoyable read, given all that is going on in the real world.  It was a page turner at times.  This author also writes under the pen name Ursula Vernon.  The book seemed to me to have moments of clarifying relation to our actual world.  As the author notes in the Acknowledgements section:  “Ironically I am publishing this in the midst of COVID-19, when we all started making sourdough at home and then started protesting police brutality.  Suddenly a twelve year old book was actually relevant.  Go figure.”   I read this book in paperback format, which was a welcome change from reading on the kindle. 


Book 3

The Awakening by Kate Chopin. First published 1899.  162 pages. 

The original title was A Solitary Soul.   The writing style reminds me of another writer, but I can’t place the memory.  The narration is deeply internal to the main character’s thoughts and realizations, all of which seem counter to the prevailing societal norms.  Perhaps the opening lines said by the parrot give a hint of this.  “Allez-vous en!” means “go away” – just what a solitary soul would say.   Google Translate  says “Sapristi!” means “Holy Shit!” 


This short novella was originally condemned for portraying adultery without any moral judgment. There was evidence that the book was banned from a library in 1902.  It was not published again until the 1970s, with the advent of the feminist movement.  All the strictures of being a wife and mother in her time hem in the main character.  I have to admit it is a bit crushing to me that she seems willing to abandon her children. 


Not Finished Yet

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  796 pages.    Up to about page 300 (37%) by end of May.


Did not finish 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. published 2021.  645 pages.

For TOS book club.  The book didn’t grab me, but this might be more me than the book.


The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection by Tamim Ansary.  Published 2019.  449 pages.

I heard this author on some podcast I listened during the Insomnia Hours of the Night, and the premise sounded interesting.  In the book, the author made broad claims about humanity without adequate evidence, in my opinion.  He drew conclusions from ancient Eur-Asian history.  No attempt to see if the claims held up for the ancient history of people in the Americas.  I gave up on this book.