Monday, July 3, 2023

First Lines, June 2023 edition

The John Grisham shelf at the
Retirement Home library.
At my most recent visit, I did not find this

Below are the first lines of the 7 books I finished reading in June.   Includes one history of medicine, one economic/political history, one essay collection, one young adult lit, one graphic book, one book of the bible + commentary, and two re-reads, for a total of 2,124 pages.



Book 1

The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape.


Book 2

Edmund Pettus Bridge

“Can you swim?”


“Well, neither can I – but we might have to.”



Book 3

Sanzi had broken yet another rule, but she didn’t care.  It was night, and she was alone and on the forbidden edge.  To make matters worse, despite her mother’s numerous warnings, Sanzi crossed right over, leaving behind the safety of her swamp island home.



Book 4A

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.

Book 4 B

As far as Jesus and the New Testament writers were concerned, the Jewish Scriptures that Christians called the “Old Testament” were the Scriptures.


Book 5

Essays Don’t Die

The first time I remember seriously thinking about my own death, I was twenty-six years old and working on my first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars.



Book 6

September 1953 

Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant

Thomas Wazhashk removed his thermos from his armpit and set it on the steel desk alongside his scuffed briefcase.

Book 7

So pervasive is its influence that Americans today can scarcely imagine a world without the Federal Reserve.

Did not finish 

The Sign

Tommy Guptill had once owned a diary farm, which he’d inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  369 pages.  Published 2010.

At first I had the uncomfortable feeling that the author was downright stalking the family of Henrietta Lacks, and I felt like she should leave them alone.  But by the middle of the book I felt she was telling their story fairly, with justice in mind.  The author also explores the wider ethical dilemmas posed by the science of cell cultures.  But the very main thought I had throughout the book was how unfair our society is, that the family members of the very woman whose cells made possible numerous scientific advancements do not have any health insurance, and so could not seek their own medical care. THAT is injustice, for sure.


Book 2

March: Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell.  Graphic book.  121 pages. Published 2013.

This graphic telling of John Lewis’ story is well done. I read it for discussion at church (second reading).


Book 3

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson.  416 pages.  Published 2022.

2023 Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winner (but I did not know this when I selected and read it).  Children’s lit. 

A story well told, introducing a new piece of history to me.  In order to escape slavery, people lived in the Great Dismal Swamp.  This novel imagines what it might be like to live there.  Interesting characters and captivating plot.  Recommend, as long as you can get past the one annoying character-who-defies-the-grownups, obligatory in YA novels.



Books 4A and 4 B

Daniel (The Bible), by Anonymous.  12 pages. (Chapters 1-12)  Estimated date of first writing is 164 BCE.  NRSV.

I was interested to learn that large portions of the book were written in Aramaic, with the rest in Hebrew. But I read it in English.  The book was purportedly written around the time of the Maccabees, but the story is set much earlier, in the 600s to 500s BCE.


Daniel and the Twelve Prophets for Everyone, by John Goldingay. Daniel section: 63 pages.  

The thing that stood out to me on this reading was Chapter 4 about the egotistical king who was sent away from people to live in the wild, as a cure for his pride and his oppression of others.  And it works – the king learns that there is one who is greater than he, and he learns how to be kind.  Or at least it is so reported in the Bible.  


Book 5

These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett.  320 pages • Published 2021. 

Memoir-essays about amateur airplane pilots, writing, publishing, friendship, and more.  Good stuff.


Book 6

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich  455 pages. Published 2020.

My third reading – this time for the other book club.

Book 7

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve, by Roger Lowenstein.  368 pages, but ⅓ of those pages are endnotes. Published 2015.

Main takeaway: Elected officials were just as cantankerous 100 years ago as they are today. 


Part of me was annoyed by this book, because it frequently ignored the lack of agency of large groups of Americans in the 1910s.  Any time a history book talks of democracy it should be stated who could not participate.  In the era when the Federal Reserve Act was being formed (~1910-1913), women only had the right to vote in a few states, and Black and Native American men effectively did not have the right to vote in vast areas of the country. 


But about half-way through the book, the author points out that Carter Glass, one of the major actors in bringing the Federal Reserve into being, was a white supremacist, plain and simple:

For Glass, every political issue was interpreted through the narrow prism of its potential effect on white supremacy. Any position that might drive southern bankers into the arms of the Republicans threatened to uproot the system of racial exclusion—and was to be avoided at all costs.

The last part of the book was as close to a page-turner as is possible for the story of how legislation happens.  Which ain’t pretty.  Woodrow Wilson, a.k.a. The Grinch, held Congress hostage right before Christmas until they got it done.

Did not finish 

Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout.   272 pages.  Published 2017. 

I stopped reading in the third chapter on about page 65 (30% of the way through the book) because I could not stand what I was reading.  And I had lost track of which character was which.   A shorter book is not always an easier read.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Three Dinner Guests

Cheerful dinner guests


If you could invite three people, living or dead, to dinner with you, whom would you invite?

This is the question that a cousin posed to my 88-year-old aunt, in order to get my aunt’s mind off her troubles.  If memory serves, my aunt would invite FDR, George Washington, and Queen Elizabeth II.  

My aunt and her sister, my mother, were captivated by Elizabeth and Margaret, who were just slightly older.  When I was a girl my mother gave me her book about the princesses, written before 1952 when Elizabeth became queen.  I was intrigued but not overly enamored of royalty.  

At the same age, I was also quite taken with a book my father read from, called Van Loon’s Lives, in which the narrator in fact has dinner with prominent people from long-ago history.  This was my first introduction to a guy named Erasmus.  Most of this book went over my head, because I was unfamiliar with most of the personages and wasn’t very interested in history at that time, but the whole idea of having these people for dinner fascinated me. 

The full title of the book is Van Loon's Lives: Being A True and Faithful Account of A Number of Highly Interesting Meetings With Certain Historical Personages, From Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, About Whom We Had Always Felt A Great Deal of Curiosity and Who Came to Us as Our Dinner Guests in A Bygone Year.  And the author is Hendrik Willem Van Loon.  

My aunt recently asked my siblings and me the same question about three dinner guests.  My immediate answer was that I would invite my three children.  I said I made this choice because I know I could make a dinner that they would eat, whereas making dinner for Queen Elizabeth II would be too much pressure.  My siblings objected that nobody said that I had to cook the meal.  Yeah, right.  But my real reason is that I immensely enjoy my children’s company (although I’m still not sure if they are ready to dine with the Queen), and it’s been a while since I’ve been in their presence all together.

If I was forced to limit myself to non-family dead-or-alive dinner guests, I suppose my three might be prominent historical figures.  But maybe it would be cool to invite the historians who know all about the historical figures - how about Jill Lepore, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eddie S. Glaude?  Or Hendrik Willem Van Loon?  Nothing like a good argument among historians over dinner.

I recently had dinner with a man who, when he was a teenager, shook the hand of Malcolm X. Amazing! I guess that’s as close as reality can bring me to having dinner with prominent historical figures.

The cat helping my Dad cook something with
bacon and zucchini, sometime in the 1990s.