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On this date in 1926, Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama.

A few days after she passed away in 2016, Berkeley Breathed published the above tribute, and it’s my favorite. It still brings tears to my eyes.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most important books in my reading life. I am not sure how many times I have read it — at least five. (The only book I can think of which I may have read more times is Charlotte’s Web.)

Mockingbird is my touchstone for empathy and self-respect. It is my reminder to treat others with dignity and respect even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t extend to you the same courtesy but not at the expense of your own self-respect and personal convictions. You still need to stand your ground, and you need to be able to live with your actions and their consequences. Just because a point of view or course of action works for most everyone else doesn’t mean that it has to work for you.

It’s a tough balance, but it is one I work towards every day. It may be time for another reading.

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Who knew?

Probably lots of people, but I was not one of them until today.

Slow River was on my shelf for years. I am not sure whether or not it still is, and I am quite sure that I have not yet read it. (I went through a phase where I was trying to make room for an ever-growing yarn stash and knitting far more than I was reading, so I overdid it with culling the library. Plenty of books have not been missed, and it was fine to send them to other homes. Others were a mistake to release. Live and learn.)

Today I read her Big Idea entry and learned that she also writes stories about magic — the old, wild magic of Britain and Wales.

As a result, Hild and Spear are now on my reading list. Spear is new and easily had. Hild is not and will require a bit more effort.

There is more to say, but I am extremely tired, and I must be up much earlier than usual tomorrow morning, so more will have to wait. In the meantime, click the links and amuse yourselves.

Good night.

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The last several years have been … well, everyone knows what they have been. And nothing in the news headlines indicates that the situation will improve significantly anytime soon. Sure, there are bright spots here and there, but the shadows still loom large and dark.

There’s a lot of talk about self care — to the point that it has become an industry unto itself. If any of those offerings work for you, great! If not, then just find something small and simple, and don’t underestimate the power of small, simple, and brief.

Last night my bliss was freshly-popped popcorn, a homemade vanilla milkshake, and opening day baseball.

Tonight I am distracting myself with a new book: Lost and Found in Paris by Lian Dolan.

The basic premise is pretty common — a woman finds out that her marriage has fallen apart, and she is the last to know — but this one has a slightly different twist, at least to me.

I have only read the first two chapters, so I don’t really consider these to be spoilers, but if you want to preserve all of the mystery, avert your eyes now.

Joan’s globe-trotting photographer husband cheated on her with his assistant five years ago. Yawn, right? The fun part is that the relationship resulted in the birth of twin boys. Casey (the husband) has come to the conclusion that it is time for him to become a more involved father, although he and the mother have been co-parenting the whole time. He offers that the five of them could become one big blended family, but his priority is the kids. After sharing all of this news with Joan, Casey gets on a plane to Japan for a work trip.

What I love is that Joan opts for, if not a scorched earth policy, swift and complete excision. Casey walks out the door, and the first item on Joan’s to do list is changing the locks. She is devastated, but she doesn’t let it keep her from taking action. She seeks counsel from her friends (and her attorney), and she cuts off the friends who knew about the other family and somehow convinced themselves that it was in her best interest not to tell her … for five years.

Now it is on to chapter three in which Joan has to tell her mother.

Happy weekend, everyone!!

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I wasn’t sure what I might want to write about today. It wasn’t a very exciting day — a nice, quiet Sunday. I did cast off a pair of socks (my second pair for March), and I definitely need to do a sock post, but that means remembering to take pictures when there is decent lighting to be had. I haven’t committed to the next book I am going to read yet, but as I was looking into the Patricia Highsmith collection, I came across a couple of contenders, and one of them got me to thinking about one of my linguistic pet peeves.

One possibility is East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rahman, an author who was born in Pakistan and grew up in London. The tagline on the front cover is: “From small-time drug dealer to MI5’s reluctant secret weapon.” The cover art has a kind of vintage feel, and I tend to be drawn in by the look and feel of a book, so I gave it a try.

The book starts with a quote from Gandhi: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Chapter one opens with the protagonist introducing himself, identifying as a Muslim, explaining what that means in his specific case, and describing his experience as a British-born Muslim. This is a perspective and experience quite different from my own, so I was intrigued. “Sign me up,” I thought.

In the third paragraph, the profanity started, and I was a little less inclined to keep reading. (I probably will because I am interested in this character and his journey.)

It wasn’t a lot of profanity, but it didn’t serve a purpose either. I know that lots of people are free and easy with the expletives these days. I don’t find it offensive so much as unnecessary, annoying, and distracting. A well-chosen expletive can be extremely satisfying and get a point across when more genteel language just won’t do.

These days, however, profanity is as common as punctuation … or the ubiquitous (and equally annoying in my world) “like.” I end up thinking that the person just needs a more expansive vocabulary.

Certain four-letter expletives are everywhere these days, and I wonder if they are losing some of their potency. There is usually an asterisk or two in the words, so they haven’t become completely acceptable.

I’m not out to censor profanity at all. If you want to use it, have at it. But is the word or expression you are using really the most appropriate or effective choice for the sentiment or idea you are trying to communicate?

It’s a minor irritation in the grand scheme of things, but it has made me think more about word choice, and not only when it comes to profanity. There are plenty of words which feel … lazy or generic to me. Saying something is stupid or good or bad. Really? Is that the best description I can use?

Even as I wrote this post, I struggled with some of my word choices. In a few instances, I don’t particularly like the choice I made, but I couldn’t think of a better choice. If I come up with words or phrases I prefer, I might come back and edit. In the meantime, I am going to go with the flow and send my linguistic musings out into the world.

P.S. Hello, new followers! ~waves~ Welcome to my little corner of the internet.

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(Random thought: Am I supposed to capitalize blog post headings like titles? I guess they are like articles, but they don’t feel that formal or official. I suppose I could look it up and at least find a best practice somewhere. Until then, I’ll improvise as the mood strikes me.)

(Also, this choice to just write and post and not worry really takes the pressure off and pretty much obliterates expectations. Cool!)

Note: This post might qualify as containing spoilers for The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley, so if you plan to read the book, proceed with caution. I’m sharing some thoughts I have about one of the characters and a connection I made as a result, but not revealing any major plot points or developments.

In The Paris Apartment, as Jess tries to figure out what is going on with her brother and what might have happened to keep him from being at the apartment when she arrives, she talks to the other people living in the apartment building. There are also chapters told from the point of view of those people, and they reveal their interactions with Ben.

As I was reading, I decided that Ben might not be as sincere or as good a guy as he seemed. Charming? Yes. Charismatic? Yes. But also sharp and observant and not above using his charm and charisma for, shall we say, less than altruistic purposes. I got the feeling that he might have been up to something. A bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, even. You think he’s a caring friend who is showing genuine interest and concern, but is he? Did he come to Paris with a purpose, plan, or agenda?

Eventually it clicked for me that there were hints of Tom Ripley in Ben. Nothing so sinister or violent as the talented Mr. Ripley, but a young man with charm and charisma who could talk his way into and out of situations as the need arose or an opportunity presented itself. Someone who was a bit of a chameleon as it suited his purposes. Ben’s adopted family provided him with a good life and education, but he didn’t have a lot of money. Even if he did always seem to catch a break and come out on top, he wasn’t able to live like Nick, the wealthy friend who got him into the apartment in Paris, and he may have resented it.

Being reminded of Tom Ripley got me to thinking about Patricia Highsmith and that I should read beyond Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. I knew that she was a prolific writer, and I wondered whether she kept letters or journals and whether they had been collected or published. A quick search turned up Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941-1995 edited by Anna von Planta and published by W.W. Norton just a few months ago.

When Highsmith passed away, she left behind an extensive personal history in the form of 18 diaries and 38 notebooks. The volumes contain a total of about 8000 pages, documenting not only her life but also her evolution and growth as a writer.

From the editorial note at the beginning of the book: “Pat essentially maintained a double account of her life: whereas she used the diary to detail her intense, at times painful personal experiences, she used the notebook to process these experiences intellectually and muse on her writing. Pat’s notebooks were workbooks, and a playground for her imagination…. Her diaries help us better understand the notebooks…. While the two formats can be read independently of each other, when read in tandem they help to gain a holistic understanding — in Pat’s own words — of an author who concealed the personal sources of her material for her entire life, and whose novels are more likely to distract us from who she was, than lead us to her.” (The digital excerpt I am reading does not have page numbers or I would include them here.)

Two accounts. The raw, personal, intimate events in one and the reactions, ideas, and creativity they spawned in another. All I can think is, “Brilliant!! Absolutely brilliant!”

I often hesitate to read published letters or diaries because they are such private works. Sometimes I shy away from reading memoirs of people who interest me because I don’t necessarily want to know more than I do from experiencing their art or music. For example, I have a copy of Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen sitting on my bookshelf, and I still haven’t decided whether or not I want to read it. He’s an amazing storyteller. He’s thoughtful, insightful, observant, and well aware of his own flaws and imperfections. On the other hand, I have a very personal relationship with his music, and the music and the live performances may be all I need. I might not need or even want to know the stories behind it all because it might change my relationship with the music. It’s a tough call.

In contrast, I very much want to read Unrequited Infatuations: Odyssey of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Consigliere by Stevie Van Zant, one of the original, if not continuous, members of the E Street Band. Except for the solo years, he is always there on stage to Bruce’s left, and he has had many endeavors and adventures away from E Street, so I am fascinated to read what he has to say.

Returning to Highsmith, the introduction to the new book indicates that she clearly meant for her diaries and journals to be collected, preserved, and accessible in some form. The editor notes that certain people have been anonymized to protect them and their families, so while personal and intimate, it’s not an expose. I like and admire Highsmith’s writing style and respect her as an important literary figure of the 20th century, but I wouldn’t call myself a big fan. This “behind the scenes” look into her writing process as much as her life, however, sounds like it is right up my alley.

I shall investigate further and report back.

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I am not sure how else to describe it.

The structure reminds me a bit of Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Morena-Garcia in that an ordinary person — not a detective or private investigator or some private citizen with a penchant for sleuthing — finds herself looking into a disappearance. The atmosphere of The Paris Apartment is darker, but Velvet Was the Night is grittier (70s era Mexico).

Picking up from my previous post, Jess is on edge because she is trying to escape one life and start over with another. She doesn’t really think anyone is after her, but she’s not sure, and she has had enough hard knocks to make her a combination of reckless and cautious. She takes chances because she doesn’t really have anything to lose.

As the story progresses, and the characters and relationships get more complicated, or at least raised more questions — it is definitely a character-driven story — I wondered if it was going to be one of those mysteries which builds up a lot of suspense and secrets that eventually get revealed, but the actual motive and culprit are something else entirely, almost unrelated and conveniently veiled by other more tantalizing options. Or would there be a plot twist thrown in at the end to tie all of the threads together?

As the story progressed further, I became more interested in how things would turn out and less concerned that the rug would be pulled out from under me. There is this interesting juxtaposition of people who are, should be, or even want to be intimately connected but don’t quite manage it for a number of reasons. Siblings, for example. Well, half-siblings. Jess and Ben have always been there for each other. Sort of. They have shared trauma and grief which binds them, and yet they end up on different paths.

The lives of the apartment building residents are intertwined and yet divergent. I don’t know how to say more without giving too much away. There are some twists, but nothing too shocking if you are paying attention. There is a deft sleight of hand by the author as to what the most serious crime is.

One of the complimentary review blurbs is “Exceedingly clever.” I am not sure I would go as far as exceedingly, but clever is a fitting description.

I am not sure that justice is quite served, but all of the pieces do fit together, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It works.

If you want complete edge-of-your-seat suspense and grand, shocking reveals, this is not your book, but if you want a clever, well-crafted plot driven by varied and interesting characters, each with their own flaws and secrets, then add this book to your reading list.

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The news and headlines are just too much again today — and I don’t think that I even read anything about COVID or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was all domestic nonsense. Well, not nonsense because all of it was quite serious, but it might be a little easier to absorb if it were nonsense, if there weren’t real consequences for a lot of real people.

Anyway, on this chilly, rainy, spring evening, I am disappearing into The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. I am about fifty pages into it and trying to decide if it is a taughtly-written mystery or if it is going to take some horrific turn that gives me nightmares.

Jess is running away from her past and her present, and she runs to her half brother Ben in Paris. Even though he knows that she is coming, he is not waiting for her when she arrives late at night. She finds her way into his apartment and is observed by several other residents and the concierge of the building in the process.

The next day he still has not returned, and she notices things which indicate more than a casual absence. Jess doesn’t want to involve the police for her own reasons, but she starts to worry all the same.

The story is told from multiple points of view — I am up to five so far, including Jess — and I can’t decide whether any of the narrators are reliable. From the dust jacket: “Everyone’s a neighbor. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.”

I am both nervous and curious. So far curiosity is winning. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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This book came up in the Fiction, Nonfiction, Truth, Fact post, and at the time I mentioned that it really deserves its own post. Well, today the book comes out in paperback, so now seems like a good time for the post. I will try not to get carried away and spoil anything.

Click on the image to read the first three chapters and the Machinehood Manifesto.

Machinehood is set in 2095. Technology and pharmaceuticals have infused almost every part of everyday life. There are drugs to prevent illness, promote healing, enhance physical strength and skill, and improve cocentration. People have high-tech implants for communication. They broadcast their lives via swarms of micro drones, earning tips from followers. There are machines and robots of varying levels of sophistication everywhere for most every purpose. Suborbital flight is a preferred means of travel. It is a future which is only a few steps ahead of our present for the most part.

Welga Ramirez, a former special forces soldier, is on the verge of a major career and life change. At 35, she is still fit enough for her bodyguard role, but she is being replaced by someone younger anyway. It’s okay, though. She has plans for a quieter life, until one of her last jobs goes horribly wrong.

Someone or something called the Machinehood publishes a manifesto demanding rights for machines with Artificial Intelligence and demanding that production of all of the pills people take be stopped. The group stages violent attacks, killing several pill funders (the people responsible for the production) and then escalate to the technological infrastructure on which everyone and everything is so dependent.

Because of her military background and the ill-fated mission which resulted in her leaving the military to become a bodyguard, Welga is more prepared — and determined — to fight this new threat than just about anyone else, even if it means breaking promises and revisiting a painful past.

The plot is interesting and moves along at a good clip. It’s complex without being overly complicated. The book tackles or at least touches on a host of social and political issues — workers’ rights, financial disparity between races, classes, and countries, political corruption\maneuvering, scientific ethics, religion, personal privacy, and what happens when the line between human and machine gets more difficult to define. But it is the characters and their relationships which really make the book work, and they are why you don’t have to be a fan of science fiction to read and enjoy this book.

Welga is a strong, fierce, smart, funny woman. She is deeply committed to her craft (which I think is a better word choice than career in her case), her colleagues, her family, and her country (though not so much the government). We meet her brother, her father, her sister-in-law, her partner, and become equally immersed in their lives and relationships. These are people living through a major global crisis — technological rather than viral in nature — and still dealing with the every day challenges of getting older, raising children, keeping a marriage\long-term partnership together, and trying to take care of themselves while helping others where they can.

There is a parallel (might not be the right word, but secondary didn’t work for me) storyline of another strong woman, a bioethicist who must make harrowing decisions when her son is diagnosed with a rare genetic condition. I’m not sure how to say more without giving too much away, but the point is that it is not only the main female character who exhibits strength in the face of adversity.

I don’t think I fully grasped it until I had finished the book, or was at least close to it, but the women are the strength and driving force in this story, and the men in their lives support them (and I don’t mean financially). That support doesn’t come without challenges or conflict, but at the end of the day, no matter what, the men not only don’t stand in the way of whatever the women want or need to do but do everything they can to help, and they are in no way diminished as a result. It feels so natural and real that it took a while for it to sink in just how impressive and important it is.

I finished reading the book more than a month ago, and I am still thinking about those characters and those relationships. They are going to stick with me for a long time.

Go read the book. You can start here with the first three chapters.

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Tonight, I am reading

Although nothing bad happened, today felt a little extra Monday — plus the day ended up being fairly busy — so my Morning Pages are all the writing I am going to do today. I need to read a second book for March, and I think it will be Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel. There might be knitting, too.

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Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.

Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

The debate of truth vs. fact has been occupying space in my head for the last several years, and I have been suspicious of statistics ever since I read the book How to Lie with Statistics. I don’t know if it is still in print, but if so, it is worth tracking down and reading. The principles in it are still valid today.

Today I saw a post on social media questioning the decision to read fiction in such perilous times as these when really people should be reading nonfiction in an effort to figure out how we got here.

The first part of my response was easy, and hopefully fairly obvious and not harsh. Reading fiction can provide respite from the stress of where we are and how we got here.

Then I started to get a little twitchy because the author of the post seemed to be equating nonfiction with fact. I have no way of knowing for sure. It was a short post and has since been deleted. Nonfiction books contain facts, but they also contain perspective, bias, analysis, and interpretation of those facts. Or they might not be facts at all. Fiction doesn’t go any further off the rails than books in the fields of political commentary and memoir. With fiction, I don’t have to worry about whether or not to trust the source.

I have been doing “how did we get here” reading, but I am trying to read history not written by the winners because otherwise it could have as much in common with fiction as with fact — not that alternate viewpoints are infallible. After I saw an interview with the author of Watergate: A New History, I decided to investigate in part because I know very little about the Watergate burglary, subsequent cover-up, and investigation and in part because the author made an excellent case for why a new book was warranted. There is so much more information (facts? truth?) to be had than was available for previous histories. My search turned up another book: The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President by Jill Wine-Banks, the sole woman on the prosecution team. I was surprised to learn that there had been a woman on the team.

Both of these books are history. Both are nonfiction. Both are important. And I don’t have to read both to know for a fact that they present some of the same information in different contexts and from different points of view. If I read both, and they conflict, which one will I believe?

Not unlike history and memoir, fiction offers reflection and commentary but with the premise that everything is made up. Like the best lies, however, the best fiction has its roots in reality. (Might as well let another worm out of the can.)

I read two books in February: Machinehood by S.B. Divya and Sourdough, or Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market by Robin Sloan.

Machinehood is near-future science fiction set in 2095, and I am recommending it to anyone and everyone every chance I get. The world, politics, and culture are so familiar that you only have to mentally squint a little bit to see it as the present, or at least see how the world could easily end up as it has in the book. Technology is infused into almost every aspect of human life — to the point of a violent uprising — but the characters have not lost their humanity. They are all of the things that the people you know and love are — brave, scared, driven, stubborn, flawed, intelligent, and just trying to do the best they can. (The book deserves it’s own post, but in the meantime, just go read it.)

Sourdough is the story of a talented young software engineer who moves to San Francisco for a high-paying, high-tech job which has her working all hours of the day and night, subsisting on a nutrient paste popular with her co-workers. The schedule and the diet take a toll on her physical and mental health. Some events occur which end up with her becoming the caretaker of a sourdough starter, and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for her. The content is lighter than the intense social and political upheaval of Machinehood, but the book offers interesting and entertaining commentary about how we feed ourselves, body and soul, in this modern world. Food for thought, as it were. (Sorry.)

Are these two books any less true or even factual than the history of Watergate? Or the two books of Russian history I have checked out from the library? It depends on your point of view.

Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

-Obi Wan Kenobi

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