Season’s Readings 2009

My Favorites

My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme © 2006

This book, Julia’s reminiscence about the years she and her husband, Paul Child, spent in Paris, Marseille and Provence, is a total pleasure, truly one of my favorite books of the year. Thanks to Marigail Barcome for recommending it. Perfect timing, because this is the summer that the movie Julie and Julia came out. The book’s co-author, Alex Prud’homme, is Paul Child’s great-nephew. Timeline: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol 1) came out in 1961, after 10 years of very hard work. Julia was then invited to appear on “I’ve Been Reading,” a show produced by Boston’s WGBH.

She arrived with hot plate, giant whisk and eggs, and made an omelet. Twenty-seven viewers wrote to the station, wanting to see more.”

The quote is from a reminiscence of Julia by filmmaker Marilyn Mellows, who also wrote:

To the fans who knew and loved her, she was known simply as Joooolia.” and

Over 6' 2", middle aged and not conventionally pretty, Julia had a voice that careened effortlessly over an octave and could make an aspic shimmy.”

The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer © 2005

14 CDs.

Wonderful memoir! Author was born in 1964 and grew up mostly in Manhasset, Long Island, NY. Recommended reading for single mothers and only sons. Especially memorable scenes: Summer, eleven years old, trips to the beach with Uncle Charlie and his cronies; December, eighteen years old, learning proper protocol from his uncle the bartender.

The Long Walk, by Słavomir Rawicz, with Ronald Downing © 1955

8 cassettes. In 1941, Rawicz, a 25-yr-old Polish military officer who had grown up right on the Russian border, was arrested by the Russians, and accused of being a spy. When a year of solitary confinement, deprivation, and torture—in two notorious prisons—failed to make him sign a confession, he was sentenced to 25 years hard labor. Then followed the almost unbearable transport to Irtusk, and the 2-month (Dec-Jan) walk, in chains with thousands of fellow prisoners, from there to a remote camp in Siberia. It was enough to kill a man, and many did indeed perish along the way. But, the heart of the book is Slav’s escape with six other men, in a blizzard, and then their 4,000 mile walk to freedom.

See more under “Reviews and Commentary.”

The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeannette Walls © 2006

10 CDs. I loved this book! I had never heard of it until Barbara Voris recommended it. After I read it, I found out it had been on the New York Times Best Seller List for 100 weeks, so it turns out plenty of people know about it. (This year, the author’s new book, Half-Broke Horses, has come out. Maybe I’ll get to that someday.) Jeannette was born in 1960. Her father was charismatic, a dreamer and an alcoholic. Her mother could put a positive spin on anything, even the dire poverty they lived in. When Jeannette was about eleven, the family moved to Welch, WV, her father’s hometown. So that’s the setting for the second half of the book.

Second Tier

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin © 2006

11 or 12 CDs. This is very much worth reading (just barely missed being in my first tier). Greg had an unusual childhood. In 1958, at the age of 3 months, he was packed off by his parents to the great adventure of their lives. They spent the next 14 years in Tanzania, where his parents raised four children, established the Moshi International School, and built, with a Tanzanian partner, Tanzania’s first teaching hospital (640 beds). As an adult, Greg became an emergency room nurse, which allowed him the freedom to pursue his passion: climbing. After a failed attempt to summit K2 in Pakistan in 1993, he saw the need for schools in the remote villages of northern Pakistan, and he vowed to build one in Korphe Village. He eventually secured funding from an individual donor, and became head of CAI, Central Asia Institute, pretty much a one-man operation. My favorite part of the book was how he met and fell in love with his wife, Tara. God bless him for being America’s face in Pakistan.

City of the Soul: A Walk in Rome, by Willliam Murray © 2002

This is a slim book, and I read it—save the final short three chapters—aloud to Bob on our return drive from Boston at Thanksgiving. The Crown Journeys series matches interesting writers with interesting places. Some other books in the series are one about Washington by Christopher Buckley, one about Oakland by Ishmael Reed, one about New Orleans by Ray Blount, Jr, etc. Wm Murray has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for 30 years. He spent the first 8 years of his life in Rome, his mother being Italian. Then he returned there as a young adult to study singing “still hoping for a career in opera as a lyric tenor.” He was 23. He needed some income. “In the early spring of 1949, I was hired as a stringer by the Rome bureau of Time-Life. ... The bureau chief was a man named George Jones, who saw in me talents I didn’t know I possessed.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon © 2003

5 cassettes. This won the Whitbread prize (2004) and the Spokenword Audiobook of the Year (2003). Mark Haddon was born in Northampton in 1962. He graduated from Oxford University in 1981, returning to school later to get an M.Sc. in English Literature at Edinburgh University. He has worked with children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. I don’t know whether Asperger’s Syndrome children are anything like Christopher, but I found this interesting.

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas © 1993

3 cassettes. I was intrigued by the fact that, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Elizabeth and her family didn't make any attempt to train their dogs. What interested her was, "What do dogs want?" She is an anthropologist by training. So that might explain her desire to want to know what her dogs do naturally. BTW, simply put, her answer to the question is: "They want to belong, and they want each other.''

The author’s interest in anthropology was nurtured when, at age 19, in 1950, she dropped out of Smith to go with her parents and her 18-yr-old brother, to live among the Kalahari bushmen. (Nine years later she wrote a book about that experience.) As an interesting footnote, her bother, John Marshall, became an anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker (he co-directed, with Frederick Wiseman, the famous Titicut Follies, shot at a hospital for the criminally insane). He has devoted much of his life to recording the culture of the Juwa and advocating for them, so persistently that from 1958 to 1978 the South African Colonial Administration banned him from Namibia.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout © 2008

9 CDs. Maybe it was the spoken-book reader’s interpretation of Olive’s voice, but Olive reminded me of Aunt Florence. Recommended.

Three Junes, by Julia Glass © 2002

9 cassettes. Loved the Scottish burr used by the Recorded Book narrator. This was the author’s first novel, sold at age 44. In her National Book Award acceptance speech she said, "This is for everybody who blooms late in life.” And also, "I wanted to write about living through incurable heartbreak, the kind that haunts you forever." I would not have thought that to be the nucleus of the book. This is (mostly) the story of Fenno McLeod, a reserved, self-protective, gay, Scottish bookstore owner in Manhattan. The novel was divided into three sections: Collies, 1989; Upright, 1995; Boys, 1999.

The Only Girl in the Car: A Memoir, by Kathy Dobie (© 2003

Kathy Dobie reached adolescence during the 1970s in small-town New England. During an era that ushered in America’s most liberating identity crisis, Kathy--the oldest daughter in a large Catholic family--took a risky route to adulthood, defining herself through exploitive older boyfriends.” – good summary from the Random House website.

Selected Shorts from Symphony Space, Vol III: A Celebration of the Short Story © 1990

2 cassettes. White Angel, by Michael Cunningham; The Cat That Went to Trinity, by Robertson Davies; The Loudest Voice, by Grace Paley; Everything That Rises Must Converge, by Flannery O’Connor; The Hector Quesadilla Story, by T. Coraghessan Boyle; Violets, by Edna O’Brien. I got this specifically for the Flannery O’Connor story.

War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-44, by Iris Origo © 1947

7 cassettes. I first heard of this when it was on Stan's booklist a few years ago. The author (who is Anglo-American, but grew up largely in Italy) and her husband Antonio lived with their two young daughters (the second of whom was born in 1943) at La Foce, an estate about 8 miles south of Montepulciano. They were in the thick of things during WWII, hiding partisans and sheltering some 30 children. Our cycling trip through Tuscany in June piqued my interest in learning what that area had suffered during the war. The estate is now run by Benedetta, Iris's daughter, and the gardens are open to the public on Wednesdays.

My Own Two Feet: A Memoir, by Beverly Cleary © 1995

Begins when the author is leaving home (Portland, OR) in 1934 to stay with a relative in California, where junior college was tuition-free. Beverly couldn't wait to break free, being an only child whose mother was both suffocating and, well, nasty. She stays focused on her dream of becoming a librarian, and writing for children. It took her quite a few years to actually begin writing (she began in 1949, at age 33), but once she got started, the ideas flowed.

She went to UC Berkeley, then known—other campuses not having been built yet—simply as 'Cal.' After Cal, she went for a year to the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington. I enjoyed her descriptions of her college experiences, in that different time. Example: "Miss Worden called me into her office. ‘Miss Bunn, you have done excellent work in Book Selection,’ she said, ‘but I am giving you a C because you looked bored.’ I was speechless. Graded on my facial expression. I couldn't believe it. I may have been tired or hungry, but I was not bored. ... I doubt if any student today is graded on facial expression."

In Tuscany, by Frances Mayes with Edward Mayes © 2000

This set of 3 cassettes was for sale at a library book sale in September. A quick and interesting read for anyone who has just been to Tuscany, and to Cortona in particular. The author talks about regional sagre, the celebrations of the local foods, and she describes her visits to nearby towns, and mentions a restaurant or two. After listening, I got the book from the library for the visuals and the recipes.

I Feel Bad About My Neck, by Nora Ephron © 2006

Unabridged on 3 CDs, read by the author. I don't tend to pick up books whose jackets uses phrases like 'a candid, hilarious look' and 'she speaks frankly and uproariously about life.' That's why I haven't read Nora Ephron until now. I was sucked in this time by a plain CD case—no marketing hype. And then I found I liked Nora Ephron's delivery. And to top it off, she did have some good advice, such as "Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from."

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque © 1928

Another library sale item. 5 cassettes. The author was a German veteran of WWI. Often considered the greatest novel about WWI, it follows the narrator, Paul Baumer, from “eager recruit to disillusioned veteran.”

Sharing Good Times, by Jimmy Carter © 1990

Bought for 50¢ at Penfield Library Sale. Jimmy was born in 1924. After a short career in the Navy, he decided (without consulting Rosalynn!) that they would return home to Plains, GA, in October 1953. They had three young boys at the time and Jimmy’s father was terminally ill. Rosalynn was furious (but she got over it, and he eventually learned what a partnership was all about). This is one of Jimmy’s many books, the only one I’ve read.

Not Recommended

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill © 1996, 6 cassettes

Mary Susan asked me several times if I had read this, so I finally did. She never told me what she thought of it, so I look forward to hearing! According to the publisher’s website, this is the first in a series called ‘The Hinges of History’ (five down, two to go) written by Cahill. (“The story of the Western world through little-known stories of individuals who had pivotal impacts on history and contributed immensely to Western culture.”) Great concept, but this “scholarly yet cheeky” book missed its mark with me. I did learn that St. Patrick (389-461) and St. Columcille “put Ireland in the vanguard of intellectual leadership, a position the Irish would not surrender until the Viking invasion of the 11th century.”

Three Weeks with My Brother, by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks © 2004.

6 cassettes. I got exactly halfway through this book (3 tapes out of six) before giving up on it. Nicholas Sparks writes novels (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, etc), not that I’ve ever read them. But I gather he has quite a following. In this memoir, he tries to wring some deep meaning out of a 3-week trip he is taking with his brother. The authors’ children would be justifiably thrilled with this more-than-adequate recounting of their father’s and uncle’s boyhood adventures, but it lacked “spark” for the unrelated reader. One thing I liked: Micah's upbeat personality reminded me of our friend Steve Derne!

An Unfinished Season, by Ward Just © 2004.

8 CDs.

See review at end. I was interested to hear about Ward Just’s background, but I don’t know why Jonathan Yardley liked this novel so much. I cared nothing for Wils Ravan and the debutante parties he attended his 19th summer, before going off to college.

As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, by Richard John Neuhaus © 2002

I'm sorry to say I didn't get anything from this book. I got interested in learning more about the author, though, and so after finishing the book, I looked him up and found out he just died this year (Jan, 2009). I also learned this, from Wikipedia:

"In the late 1960s he gained national prominence when together with the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel he founded Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. [At the time, he was a Lutheran pastor, but in 1991 he converted to Catholicism and became a Catholic priest.] He was active in the Lutheran "Evangelical Catholic" movement and ... was active in liberal politics until Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973 which changed his perspective."

An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth © 1999

Violinist Michael Holme had an intense love affair with another music student, Julia McNicholl, when they were students in Vienna. He left Vienna over some conflicts with his major professor, and, due to the emotional turmoil in his life, stopped communicating with Julia. When he tried to reach her again, it was too late. Now, ten years later, and living in London, we see that he has never been able to move on to love another woman. Their paths cross again. I found this book unsatisfying. Many threads were brought up but not resolved. His old teacher contacts him twice, but Michael never pursues that or has any closure. He never came to any understanding that he should leave Julia alone, as she was happy with her husband and son. I never understood the significance to him of the dog in the painting in Venice, and the fact that when he sees the artist's sketch in the British Museum he sees that the dog had first been conceived as a cat or a stoat or something. I ran out of sympathy for Michael. I don't understand why he leaves the quartet.

In the end, he goes to a solo concert at Wigmore Hall where Julia is playing. Afterwards, he reflects, "Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music—not too much, or the soul could not sustain it—from time to time."

I am in awe of the way Seth was able to write so intimately about music, when his academic background was in philosophy, politics, and economics. Obviously, music is also a huge part of his life. In fact, in the author's note, he says, "Music to me is dearer even than speech."

Children’s books

Mary on Horseback: Three Mountain Stories, by Rosemary Wells © 1998.

The book jacket says, about the author (well-know for Noisy Nora and the Max and Ruby books), that when she read Mary Breckinridge’s autobiography she “was so struck by it that she went to Kentucky to learn more about Mary and the Frontier Nursing Service.” (I am familiar with that autobiography (Wide Neighborhoods), as I took it off the shelf and read it in 1972, while working at The Council of the Southern Mountains Bookstore in Berea. Mary, born in 1881, died in 1965. In 1975, the new Mary Breckinridge Hospital had been opened on the site of her original hospital in Hyden, KY. Ezra was born there in 1978.) This is a wonderful little book by Rosemary Wells that captures for children the spirit of Mary Breckinridge’s work.

Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat © 1961

I bought this at a library sale, and wanted to read it before deciding who to give it to. Believe I will give it to either Wyatt or Brock. A nice introduction to Farley Mowat.

Books Sampled

Religious Literacy - What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero © 2007

Got the book on CD and loaded it onto my iPod. (A first for me!!) I recommend everyone take the quiz in this book.


Book-related quotes, and quotes from books

Why They Write

Writing is an eerily magical act and just sometimes when the writing works, or you read a book that really works, you can perform that same conjuring trick you did when you were 7 or 10 or 13 and you can leave your body behind. It’s sort of a religious thing.

I’m a hardline atheist, but there’s something about making and reading books that puts you in touch with something far bigger than yourself. I think it’s extraordinary that the things we remember from 2,000 years ago are some things that people scribbled on paper. Just because they said something powerful enough that people had to keep copying it.

- two quotes from Mark Haddon,

author of The Curious Incident

My high school journalism teacher, whose name is Charles O. Simms, is teaching us to write a lead—the first sentence or paragraph of a newspaper story. He writes the words “Who What Where When Why and How” on the blackboard. Then he dictates a set of facts to us that goes something like this: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago.” We all sit at our typewriters and write a lead, most of us inverting the set of facts so that they read something like this, “Anthropologist Margaret Mead and University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal of the high school Kenneth L. Peters announced today.” We turn in our leads. We’re very proud. Mr. Simms looks at what we’ve done and then tosses everything into the garbage. He says, “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school Thursday.’” An electric lightbulb turns itself on in the balloon over my head. I decide at this moment that I am going to be a journalist. A few months later I enter a citywide contest to write an essay in fifty words on less on why I want to be a journalist. I win first prize, two tickets to the world premiere of a Doris Day movie

- Nora Ephron, in I Feel Bad About My Neck

I was eager to attempt the last assignment in English Compo-sition [at junior college]. . . Mr. Palmer gave me an unqualified A, read my story to the class, and said, "This story is nothing to be ashamed of," lighting me with joy with this, for him, lavish praise.

- Beverly Cleary, in My Own Two Feet, reminiscing about the days before grade inflation

Why They Read

unable to focus on anything but whether my favorite character in the book will survive. I will not be able to bear it if anything bad happens to my beloved Marian Halcombe. … Eventually, I’ll have to start breathing the air in today’s New York again, but on the other hand, perhaps I won’t have to. I’ll find another book I love and disappear into it. Wish me luck.

- Nora Ephron talking about “Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece, The Woman in White, probably the first great work of mystery fiction ever written.”

Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

- from Nora Ephron’s essay, Blind as a Bat, in describing why she is so traumatized when she loses her reading glasses, the whereabouts of which are a mystery to her, even though she bought six pair last week and sprinkled them throughout the house.


Under that one sagging roof my mother and I lived with Grandpa, Grandma, my mother's two grown siblings—Uncle Charlie and Aunt Ruth—and Aunt Ruth's five daughters and one son. "Huddled masses yearning to breathe rent-free," Grandpa called us.

- J.R. Moehringer in The Tender Bar

I knew that wherever I would go in the world, Chicago was the place I would return to and recognize at once, its fedora pulled down over one eye, a wisecrack already forming in its mouth.

Grandma had never ridden in an automobile until she came to live with us [about 1936]. . . Whenever Dad turned a corner, Grandma whispered, "Oh, Lordy!"

- Beverly Cleary in My Own Two Feet

My desk is a mess. Many of the things I’m missing are buried somewhere on it, although some are in my wastebasket, where I

have mistakenly thrown them.

- from Nora Ephron’s essay, Where I Live

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things, like the conversations I have written down in this book, and what people were wearing, and what they smelled like because my memory has a smelltrack which is like a soundtrack. And when people ask me to remember something I can simply press Rewind and Fast Forward and Pause like on a video recorder…

- two quotes from The Curious Incident


Reviews and Commentary

The Long Walk

Three-fourths of the way through the book, I decided to see what I could find online about Slavomir Rawicz. I learned that after the war, he eventually made his home in England. He died in 2006. At one point (unfortunately after Slav’s death, and also the death of Ronald Downing [the journalist who wrote his story]), BBC Radio tried to find documents or individuals to substantiate Rawicz story. “We found Rawicz's military record, which clearly says he had rejoined the Polish Army in Russia. We wondered how this could possibly fit with the story of The Long Walk. The missing link came through documents discovered by an American researcher, Linda Willis, in Polish and Russian archives. One, in Rawicz's own hand described how he was released from the gulag in 1942, apparently as part of a general amnesty for Polish soldiers. These are backed up by his amnesty document and a permit to travel to rejoin the Polish Army.” They speculated that the likeliest explanation was that Rawicz read another man’s genuine escape account, in official papers that he found in the Polish Embassy in London during the war.

I further learned that just this summer (May, 2009) one Witold Glinski has come forward (from his home in Cornwall) to say that it was his story that was stolen. For more details, go to (16 May 2009) or find the May, 2009 issue of Readers' Digest, where the story is also told.

All of this was to my utter surprise (and chagrin!), as I would never have believed that anyone could have given the incredible detail of that walk across Asia unless he had lived it.

Rawicz's children, when asked to comment after Mr. Glinski came forward, released this diplomatic statement: "Our father was dedicated to ensuring the remembrance of all those whose graves bore no cross, for whom no tears could be shed, for whom no bell was tolled and for those who do not live (or die) in freedom."

The Glass Castle

If the aim of education is to forge strong, compassionate citizens of the world, capable of successfully finding their place in it, then we can judge the Walls family as having accomplished that mission.

From Layla AbdelRahim

Three Cups of Tea

For the Viking Penguin paperback edition, the subtitle was changed—at Greg’s insistence—from the original, “One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations ... One School at a Time.”

For more on this book, see

The Curious Incident

One of the nicest reactions I've had to the book, although it was slightly eccentric, was from someone at a publisher that didn't eventually publish it. We were sitting around in their offices talking, and someone mentioned autism and Asperger's, and this woman said, "Oh, I didn't realize there was actually anything wrong with Christopher." I've always treasured that reaction. It's kind of naïve but perfect. There is a very true sense in which there is something more wrong with the people around Christopher than with him.

- author Mark Haddon

Olive Kitteridge

Nice review:

"Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. People are sustained by the rhythms of ordinary life and the natural wonders of coastal Maine, and even Olive is sometimes caught off guard by life's baffling beauty." - Booklist

An Unfinished Season

Powerfully evocative of both the time (the early 1950s) and the place (Chicago) in which it is set. … In 1970 [Ward Just] left The Post and daily journalism to become a full-time writer of books. The transition from journalism to literature is tricky, and not many people make the full leap. Most fiction written by journalists is, like journalism itself, of the moment and thus inherently evanescent. But those writers who made the leap—Gail Godwin, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky—have been well served by their newsroom experience.”

– Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, 06/2004

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