Brain food: CKD’s Adventures in Books

As some of you know, in my previous life, when we lived in the Bay Area, I organized an annual gathering of women who love books and wine, aptly called the January Annual Book Exchange. Born of my love of paper books (mostly because I love to read and e-readers had not yet gained massive popularity) and my wine club membership with Vino Noceto, which always sent members a case of the fruity, low-alcohol moscato named “Frivolo” in January, our annual girls’ brunch and book exchanges were a fun gathering of my closest, book-loving friends (in my local area) during which we (as one would guess) brunched, dished, drank and traded our paper books for others our friends had read during the year prior.

After we moved to suburban Rocklin in 2010, the annual gatherings, sadly, kinda died.  But my good friend T reached out to me a couple years ago asking if we might want to revive it and do the gathering at her house in the Bay Area.  So, we did.

As a result of these lovely gatherings over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a few paper books that my good friends recommended and they proudly held court on my bookshelf at home during that time, waiting to be read.  I always wanted to read them and always thought I would make time to do so.  But as one would expect, life, work and everything else got in the way, and the books sadly watched me go about my daily routine waiting to be picked up, dusted off and enjoyed.

Now that we are living life afloat sans paying jobs (nevermind that we are educators and parents 24-7) with little to no consistent internet access and ever-mindful of our energy usage (i.e., not able to stream or even really watch TV or other electronic devices when we are anchored), I find myself seeking that quiet time after the kids go to bed to enjoy the written word (and not the kind I typically relied on in my land-based life — my magazines, Facebook, NY Times and the like).  And luckily for me, I’m finally making a dent in the big (especially by boat standards) pile of books I acquired during those Book Exchanges and deemed “necessary” to move aboard.

Since leaving San Mateo, I’ve devoured books at a pretty decent clip (for me) and after finishing my 4th book tonight in as many weeks, I decided to add a section to our blog recording my thoughts and reflecting on what I’ve read during this year afloat.

(In an interesting side note, in years past I’ve challenged myself to read 25 books a year and despite best efforts and New Years’ resolutions, have never really hit the mark.  But I’m hoping that this year, without the burden of my previous job (which entailed a ton of reading and brain-intensive analysis), I find the time to read pleasure books as much as possible, write more and devote some time to developing my skills in creative writing. I also hope that by osmosis, I can teach my boys the joy of both endeavors so that they too can add that to their repertoire as they move through life.)

The White Queen (Phillippa Gregory)
Having read The Other Bolyen Girl and the 3 or 4 books subsequent in the Tudor series, I picked up The White Queen knowing that I would *love* it.  And true to Ms. Gregory’s impressive authenticity to the time period and scrupulous research, her historical fiction about the pre-Tudor era (the Plantagenets) was a page-turner for me.  I stayed up quite a few late nights, sometimes till 2 in the morning unable to put it down (always a good sign).

This book, the second in a series of 13, tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who turns the head of the future King of England and invokes scandal and intense scrutiny when she lands her man and rises to become the Queen of England.  Already familiar with Gregory’s style and the dialect and norms characteristic to the times, I found myself entranced in her story and Gregory’s telling of the War of the Roses and particularly, towards the end, the mystery of the two princes.

If you love historical fiction, particularly well-researched and written pieces of the Tudor (and Plantagenet) times, I highly recommend The White Queen.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll zip to the end of the book in the middle of the night and find yourself in the Kindle store searching for the next book in the series at 3am.

The Red Queen (Phillippa Gregory)
Which leads me to The Red Queen by Gregory. Once I finished The White Queen, I was intrigued that Gregory endeavored to write the story from the other side of the coin–from the opposing/waring family in the War of the Roses, the Beaufort family.  As in most of Gregory’s books I have read, she writes from the perspective of a female lead.  In this iteration, it is Margaret Beaufort from the House of Lancaster.  For pages upon pages, chapters upon zippy chapters I found myself recalling Woodville’s side of the story and really loving becoming invested in the whole story. I found myself understanding how each side of the conflict felt the way they did and justified their actions the way they did (although Beaufort proved to be a much harder character to love than Woodville).

On balance, I was equally impressed and had to fight the urge to buy the next book in the series–oddly convincing myself that I needed to take a break from Gregory’s historical fiction before I burned out (I’ve made that mistake years before).

Paint it Black (Janet Fitch)

One of the benefits of being a cruiser and finding myself in different ports every so often is that cruisers often finish books and need to offload them.  At first I thought I should take them to a used book store, but in Santa Barbara (I think), I found that another cruiser had left a pile of books right there at the top of the dock entrance for anyone to take. So, perusing them, I picked up Paint in Black and saw it was written by Janet Fitch (author of White Oleander) and thought “Eureka!” I loved White Oleander and in fact almost considered bringing my personal copy of it aboard to read again when we were moving out of our house.

Let me preface this by saying: I hate to speak ill of books.  I can only imagine the toiling, late nights, hand-wringing and poring over every word that must go into it… but I gotta be honest. I really struggled with this one.

The story seemed promising, albeit dark– Josie Tyrell finds herself abruptly “widowed” by her love and beau Michael. Thereafter, Fitch takes us on Josie’s journey through grief.  I don’t know what I was thinking would happen, or really what I thought I was going to get when I picked his up (I now recall that White Oleander was similarly dark)…. but the pain and suffering the main character endures for the *entire book* was almost too much to bear.  I found myself about 50+ pages to the end thinking “God, when is this going to be over?!”  Not. A. Good. Sign.

Upon further reflection, my take on the book is this: Josie and Michael are both artists (of different genres)–she an art model and he a painter.  Their suffering originates from different places and they are, indeed, very different people.  Fitch appears to take readers with Josie on her journey to find out why Michael committed suicide (oh yea, did I forget to mention her boyfriend killed himself in the first chapter?) and abstractly (and only if you listen/look/pay attention) gets Josie there by driving her deeper into the darkest, most depressing recesses of Michael’s life (both before her and during their relationship).

This is not to say that Fitch does not write well or is a sub-par storyteller. Rather, I think as a reader, I was not prepared for the darkness of this novel and had a really hard time relating to either Michael or Josie.  Their artistic lifestyle seemed way out in left field to me and the abundance of drug abuse and alcoholism and just general mental-unhealthiness going on with Josie was just too much for me.  I could not relate at all.

That said, if a well-written, albeit dark, novel appeals to you and you have previously enjoyed Fitch’s other novels, you may enjoy Paint it Black.

It probably goes without saying, but when I finally finished this bad boy in Santa Barbara, I was pretty happy to leave it on the public bench for someone else to enjoy. And head to the closest book shop for something a little more uplifting.

The Japanese Lover (Isabel Allende)

So, while in Santa Barbara in search of more Diary of a Wimpy Kid books for Elliott (he seems similarly engrossed in a series–turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree)… I found myself in a lovely little new & used bookstore called The Book Den. The heady scent of new and old books, combined with the smell of coffee and stale cigarettes seemed to rip the credit card right out of my wallet.  I started cramming books in my little hand cart faster than I should have… and only when I got to the register did I take a moment to collect myself and (sadly) put a few of the books back.  I mean, really, I have a looonngg shelf in my cabin (room on the boat) full of books I promised myself (and my sweet hubby who didn’t even ask me to leave those heavy books ashore for reading later) that I would read all of the books I already had.  Buuuttt, I picked up Isabel Allende’s latest book The Japanese Lover and for some inexplicable reason, just couldn’t let it go.

I’m so glad I did.  It was exactly the break I needed from historical fiction and the recovery I needed from Fitch’s not-so-uplifting novel. There’s something about the way she writes that drew me in, I can’t aptly describe it.  It’s alluring. It’s romantic. It’s real and you can feel it, which as a reader is always the biggest draw.  I found myself entranced with Alma (the central character) and Irina and wondering how each of these characters came to the present time as the book opens up.  Allende does a beautiful job giving the reader small glimpses back (just as she so smartly provides the exact moment you begin wondering how the character got to that place) and really illustrates, with an enticing depth and richness, the internal workings of the character such that you just can’t help but be in love with them.

I finished this book tonight while the boys were ashore at a movie and when I finished it I had that almost-satisfied feeling, which is bittersweet.  I felt so wonderfully satiated with how she made me so invested in the characters while at the same time felt sad that I wouldn’t be with them anymore.

And that, for me, is the mark of a truly good book.  Allende’s writing spoke to me on an intellectual level but not in a way that was off-putting.  She made the language relatable, the times tangible – I felt that I was there with Alma in her early childhood years and growing up, while at the same time understood where she was now in her 80s.  And the way she wrapped up the book was so fitting, and yet so fleeting.

I can’t say enough good things about Allende’s Japanese Lover.  And while I’m tempted to go hop on my Kindle and buy her flagship book The House of Spirits, I kinda want to wait because I’m afraid that if it’s not as good as Japanese Lover, I’ll be really disappointed.

For now, I’ll toy with the idea of starting an e-book highly recommended by a friend I trust with my reading recommendations, Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh. …… even though part of me feels obligated to pick up one of my paper books. Decisions……

The Pleasure of My Company (Steve Martin)

As tempted as I was to hop on my Kindle and download something new and exciting, I did the *yawn* responsible thing and went to my bookshelf in our cabin and made a selection. This book, The Pleasure of My Company, by Steven Martin (yes, the actor) was short and sweet and I’m glad I finally made my acquaintance with his writing. I had owned a copy of his first novel, Shopgirl,  on our first boat (Eleni, our Catalina 30) for oh…about 6 years and never read it. (boo!) and I think I came into his second novella by way of our annual girls’ book exchange.  What a lovely little read! At 176 pages, it’s completely approachable and regardless of the author’s style of writing, easy to blast through.  Lucky for me, Steve Martin is a fun and easy-to-read author.

The novel tells the story of a highly neurotic man and his path to love (albeit upon mostly unknowing subjects). At first blush, I felt like the book might have been a mistake… uh-oh . . . Another book about someone way too neurotic (I had a bit of’PTSD’ after Paint it Black)… but Martin did such a fantastic job providing color and understandability to Daniel’s life, I found myself plodding along at a quick clip.

If you’re up for a very quick and somewhat easy read (not quite like a “beach read” but something more substantive) and would like to be taken on a journey of empathy and understanding of a character living with OCD  (and possibly on the spectrum), Martin does a wonderful job with Pleasure of My Company.

The Last Van Gogh (Alyson Richman)

After completing Martin’s novel in a couple days, I gave myself ‘permission’ to go online and download something– especially exciting given that this author was recommended to me by a good friend whose reading recommendations I trust. This was my first encounter with Alyson Richman’s style of historical fiction, and as I recall, my first historical fiction outside the realm of ancient times. (think Ken Follett and Phillippa Gregory).  I must say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Richman’s style was much more ‘fiction’ than ‘history’ as an initial read and it was not until the Author’s Note at the end did I realize how much fact she had cleverly woven into the story.

The book focuses on Vincent Van Gogh’s final muse, Marguerite Gachet, the oldest daughter of Dr. Gachet, who he had come under the care of later in his short life upon his brother’s recommendations.  The story takes place almost entirely in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small French village Dr. Gachet relocates his family to (from Paris) under the auspices of his wife’s medical condition (the reader learns more about that later). Marguerite comes to Van Gogh’s acquiantance when he moves to Auvers for treatment by her father and ends up inspiring Van Gogh to complete 3 portraits of her.  (Interesting factoid, Van Gogh completed 77 paintings in as many days–the last days of his life spent in Auvers, which I learned in the Author’s Note at the end, fascinating!).

As one would imagine, this is a love story of sorts, but even if one is only remotely aware of Van Gogh’s life, it’s not hard to foresee that their love story does not have the fairytale ending.  Nonetheless, Richman writes so effortlessly in weaving in the historical facts that I quite literally forgot it was true until I got to the end where she allows Marguerite to (almost) address the reader directly saying “As one knows of Van Gogh’s life…”  I was jolted back to reality and tried to jog my own memory as to what happened to him at the end of his life.

All told, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Van Gogh and although I felt sad for Marguerite at the end, any other portrayal of her life would have been (1) likely false and (2) too perfect.

I’m looking forward to picking up another Alyson Richman book and thank my good friend SFK for the recommendation!

Everything We Keep (Kerry Lonsdale)

Oddly, this book is one that I had forgotten I had read when I wrote the last post… which, I suppose, does not seem to speak highly of the book.  But despite my squirrel-like memory (and why I try to write a post as soon as I finish a book!), I actually enjoyed this quick read. First-time author Kerry Lonsdale weaves the story of Aimee and James and what happens after James disappears right before their wedding day in a boating accident.  Presumed dead, and mourned on what would have been their wedding day, Aimee’s journey to grieve James takes us on a twisty-turny, and sometimes dark, road.

In the end, the book ties up somewhat too-neatly, but as a reader, I don’t know that I expected anything more spectacular then what I got. That said, I did find Lonsdale’s first published novel worthwhile and would recommend it as a break between other, heavier/longer novels you might be working through.  Likewise, if you are the type to read two or three books at a time, this one could easily slide into your rotation.  There isn’t a highly complex cast of characters or plot twists such that you couldn’t keep track of them along with your other reading material.

On balance, I’d say–sure, give it a go! It’s not going to blow your mind, but it’s also not going to disappoint.

Jack 1939 (Francine Matthews)

I read this book in conjunction with The Mask Carver’s Son and I think it was a good choice for me–since I didn’t feel totally immersed in this novel within the first hundred pages or so. That said, on balance, I did enjoy this book! In short, this is a historical fiction accounting of how JFK was tapped by Roosevelt (seeking a third term) to gather intelligence on Nazi Germany’s plans in Europe prior to the outbreak of WW II. Represented as a thriller in the online descriptions, I’d say it aligns more with a historical fiction, leaning a little more on the fiction side (enough sex and sizzle to keep fiction readers entertained, but framed in true events). That said, it is completely different from the period pieces of historical fiction I have become accustomed to reading Phillippa Gregory and Alyson Richman–they are simply two very different styles.

Matthews does an excellent job framing the events of the time in a way that readers can connect to their own recollections of how it was portrayed in the press (and later in history books).  Why leaders said what they said, why countries did what they did–this book helps connect the dots in such a way that you start to wonder, “so, wait, is that the historical part or the fiction part?”–and that, to me, is a good sign.

I finished this book while we were stuck in Mag Bay (for 6 days with no wifi/cell reception) and found that I ended up enjoying the book far more than I thought I would when I first cracked it open.  If you’re in the mood for a lightly theatrical version of how JFK first dipped his toes in politics and how his family’s reputation proceeded him, what happened behind the scenes in Western Europe, and how involved/knowledgeable the US was about those happenings prior to the declaration of war in 1942, then I’d recommend Jack 1939.  I had no idea many of these events transpired (clearly it was long before I was born and I don’t claim to be a huge history buff) But as always, I love to feel like I’ve learned at least a little bit while I’ve entertained and immersed myself in a new book.

The Mask Carver’s Son (Alyson Richman)

Oh boy, what can I say?  I simply ADORE Alyson Richman’s novels and am so grateful to my good friend, SFK, for introducing me to her.  In this novel, her style reminds me of Isabel Allende’s, another favorite author, and the story was very relatable to me, being of Japanese descent.  Here, Richman weaves the tale of Kiyoki-the only son of a highly acclaimed and traditional line of mask carvers in early Japan, known as the Noh era.  The circumstances that entail Kiyoki’s life–the only child of a hard and disciplined father who lived a life of strict adherence to tradition, descending from a long line of people who felt the same way, a child who lost his mother in early life and finally an individual who learns as he grows that he is not necessarily cut from the same cloth–are merely the outer layer of the intricate and beautiful tale that Richman tells us.  But what I connected with more was the main character’s struggle. His struggle between pleasing his family and doing what he was told was “right” and choosing the path that was right for him.  I’m sure this is not unique to any strong-willed individual (or kid with an Asian tiger mom!), but for some reason, the framework from which Kiyoki must work is one that felt very tangible and relatable to me. Richman does an amazing job of making you feel what the character must be struggling with and you find yourself both advocating for his own journey and understanding how painful it must be for others to live with the repercussions of those decisions. The additional layer of Japanese culture on top of all of that was like icing on the cake for me–I really felt how Japanese norms must have been so difficult for Kiyoki to maneuver through and how much courage it must have taken for him to take those leaps of faith.

Even revisiting this novel for this blog entry makes me want to grab my Kindle and download another one of Richman’s novel.  Except I can’t.  BECAUSE I ALREADY DID.  I tried to resist, but I’ve already downloaded The Velvet Hours and am reading that right now. I can’t help it! I am completely addicted to Alyson Richman and I think that if you read The Mask Carver’s Son and/or The Last Van Gogh (see prior entry), you might feel the same way. Happy reading!

Prisoners of Geography (Tim Marshall) (1)

I was gifted this book from a good friend who recently visited us in Mazatlan.  One night we were chatting about random world events (and commenting how behind we both feel as we’re both living nomadic non-US based lives right now)…and she mentioned that she had just finished this really great book . . . and promptly passed it along to me.  Yay! I love that and I knew I was going to love this book.

This book is different than others I’ve read this year. It focuses on 10 maps of the world’s regions and explains in detailed summaries (read: enough detail to make you understand it, but not so many that you get bored and bogged down) why geography so intensely shapes how the world works and how it came to be that way, how cultures have clashed, how tribes have warred and why leaders have struggled to maintain their grip on their nations. Indeed Marshall shows us how geopolitics explains much of the history of the world and can, in fact, forecast what will transpire in the months/years to come. (This version is updated on events through October 2016, so very on point)

Make no mistake, this is not light reading, but it is well worth it and I highly recommend this book if you are (1) highly interested in world events; (2) are interested in learning how the seemingly-static nature of geography is so insanely connected to the dynamic nature of politics and relationships between nation states; and (3) you like finding out what makes each country’s leaders tick, i.e., what keeps them up at night. Sure, Marshall does a great job making this a highly approachable and readable account of world geopolitics, but it’s not necessarily meant for easy digestion. I found that I’d often have to keep one finger on the map page so I could flip back to it when Marshall was referring to detailed areas on the map I wasn’t familiar with or I needed a visual of why his explanation was panning out a certain way.  Note: It really helps to buy the paper version of this book rather than the Kindle version.

If you’re in the mood to really get your learning on, or if you’re like me and you don’t mind reading something light and fluffy on the side, then grab a copy of this.  At a minimum, if you’re worried about how the next 4 years of presidential politics in the U.S. will impact not only Americans but the world at large, this book should provide some peace of mind because as we have seen throughout history, even if one leader is a total fuck-up, the rest of the world can still figure it out till the next leader comes online.

The Essential Oil Truth: Facts Without the Hype (Jen O’Sullivan)

One night in Mazatlan, when I was fighting a nasty cold, I decided to look up what I could concoct with the essential oils that I have on board. In short, that led me to this e-book. I chose this book because it was short (114 pages) and to the point.  I wanted to know what oils worked for which ailment and how.  That’s pretty much what she does in this book.

Granted, there is a fair bit of neurosis entailed here (the author goes on about minutia that most of us don’t care about–the soil and how organic the seeds *really* are–and if you don’t care about that then “you really shouldn’t bother using essential oils AT ALL.”)–so yeah, she’s a little judgey-McJudgerson… and off-putting to say the least.  But at the end of the day, I wanted to know what oils I need, for which ailment and how to apply them–and she answers those questions.

When I get back to a land-based life, I’ll likely be picking up a hard copy of a more complete (and less biased) reference book that I can physically flip through. But for now in my life afloat this book suits my needs when I’m out of wifi range and unable to Google it.

Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (John Steinbeck) In progress

Since we will soon be heading north into the Sea of Cortez, and I recently learned that John Steinbeck not only travelled extensively there but also based his novel, The Pearl, on his time in the SOC, I decided to do a little pre-SOC reading.  Stay tuned!

The Velvet Hours (Alyson Richman)(2)

I’m about 100 or so pages into this book and, as you might already expect, am in love with it!  I’m having a hard time keeping up on any my other reading and brain activities (Spanish language studies, New York Times and NYT daily crosswords), let alone any online activities (when I have wifi).  Damn you Ms. Richman! (so kidding, I love her!)

Update: I finished this book January 15th and of course recommend it highly.  In this novel Richman tells us the story of Madame Florian, a Parisian courtesan in early 1900s, through her thrice-weekly interactions with her newly discovered granddaughter, Solange. Solange comes to learn, at the age of nineteen, that her father’s mother (with whom she had no prior knowledge or relationship) lived close by in Paris – but was estranged from her father.  See, Madame Florian gave up her son hours after giving birth and did not ever meet him until he was about to get married.  And when he brought his bride another time, pregnant with their daughter, to see her again, the reception was … um less than warm. As a result of their history, Solange only made her acquaintance at 19 when her father needed to give her a distraction.  Anywho… the relationship between grandmaman and granddaughter flourished as Florian weaved her glorious tale, Solange enraptured and gathering much content for her forthcoming novel. But, as the impending invasion of France approaches, all of the characters must deal with the strains and stresses primal survival brings.  I loved Richman’s tale and she expertly moves between the past (Madame Florian’s life) and the present (Solange’s life) until they converge.

That said, at a critical point in the book, it becomes clear something has to change and I will admit that it was fairly predictable. And the book ties up quite neatly, with one tragic part at the end.  However on balance, I thoroughly enjoyed The Velvet Hours and look forward to continuing my journey with this author!

The Jane Austen Book Club (Karen Joy Fowler) (3)

In preparation for the Cruiser’s Swap Meet here in La Cruz last weekend, I went through my storage area and pulled out a few more bags of books I had planned to forge through on this yearlong adventure.  After getting all of my books in one place (the overflowing book shelf in my room), it became quite clear to me that I NEED to get through some of my paper books.  At first, I thought I’d be able to part with some of them and donate them to the cruiser’s library hear… but typical of me… I can’t!  I love each of them and have been holding onto them for this exact occasion – the opportunity to pick each one up and lovingly consider whether this will be my literary muse for the next couple weeks.

It is in that vain that I decided to start Fowler’s book, The Jane Austen Book Club, which, as one would imagine, is about 6 quirky and different individuals who meet to discuss Jane Austen books each month.  On some level,a book about people who gather to discuss books (the same 6) that they’ve read and re-read seems a little ….. meh.  But what Fowler does is use the book club and the characters shared love of Jane Austen as a backdrop for filling out each character and providing color to their lives.  I can’t totally explain why, but I found myself drawn to the book night after night and finished this book in 4 days! It’s not that I’m an Austen fan (I don’t think I’ve ever completed one of her books despite my best intentions).  It’s not that I really understood the nuances the characters discussed at the monthly book club meetings.  But what she does is artfully weave a depth and richness to each character that draws you in.  I found myself skimming the Austen discussions and looking forward to learning more about each character. Admittedly, the ending ties up a little neatly, but I’m not sure how else she could have ended the book.

On balance, I would recommend this book. It is a fast read and one that you can come back to in between other books (or things you’ve got going on in your life).

One Man (Author) 


Palm Trees in the Snow (AUTHOR)