February 2018


I was really hoping I would finish Fire and Fury and Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder around the same time just for the hilarious fire related puns I was thinking about. The books themselves, pretty different.

I finished Fire and Fury in like, a day, Prairie Fires (by Caroline Fraser) on the other hand has been a few weeks and a bit of a slog at times. Although probably no more so than any other 500+ page book that’s pretty depressing. Definitely not how I remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, her real life was significantly harder and less fun than it sounds in the books. I also didn’t love the later books as much as Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie, which I think are the happiest books of the series.

Prairie Fires is really the story of both Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane and goes from twenty years before Laura’s birth (discussing the Dakota Wars) and goes until both Wilder and Lane have died and all the legal wrangling over the book’s copyrights has been settled. Of course, the introduction actually opens with Wilder finding out her mother has died — “Some of us have received such messages. Those who have not, one day will.” Because I just can’t seem to find a book that isn’t about mother and daughters and motherhood these days. (Incidentally, the book is dedicated by Fraser to her mother, “She helped me make books with crayons and bind them with yarn. She took me to libraries and bookstores, gave me every book I ever asked for, and my first typewriter. I promised that if I ever wrote a book I would dedicate it to her, and I regret that this comes too late for her to see it. Memories are our treasures and torments, as Wilder once said, and somehow it is only in books that it can be set right in the end.” Fraser, Wilder and I are all in agreement on this point I think).

I thought this book would cover more of Wilder’s childhood, but that’s actually a pretty small part of the book (and I would assume, is significantly harder to research) — about a third is her younger years, a third her adult life in Missouri before she begins writing, and a third set when she begins writing and publishing the series. There’s some debate about how much of a hand Lane (her daughter) had in writing the books, this author definitely marshals compelling evidence that Wilder wrote the initial drafts but there was more and less editing done by Lane to each book which Wilder and Lane never really admitted during their lives.

The book paints Lane as very mentally ill. She’s suicidal all the time, her politics don’t really make any sense, apparently she and Ayn Rand were both beasties with/inspired by Isabel Paterson, although as written in this book, Lane is like a less smart, more crazy Rand. I definitely get the sense that Lane’s biographer, who was much more sympathetic to Lane and was the person who initially argued that all the books were really written by Lane, created a bit of a backlash against Lane by those who love Wilder. Which is not to say that I don’t think Lane is crazy. She seems like she really had no ability to discern fact from fiction, or at least no desire to do so — she wrote “biographies” of Herbert Humphry, Jack London, and Charlie Chaplin, none of which were what one might actually term a biography since they were all heavily invented by Lane, but she got upset when say like, Jack London’s widow didn’t want her to publish. She and her mother Wilder both argued the Little House books were “absolutely true” despite all evidence to the contrary, and the fact that literally no one cared that some of the worst parts of Wilder’s life had been softened for children, the chronology mixed around a bit, some characters were composites, and something were added or altered for storytelling purposes.

Some fun facts I learned about Wilder — she had a terrier named Nero who could sit politely at the dinner table and eat off his own plate. Similarly, I later learned that when driving on a 105 degree day, they periodically stopped to pour water on the dog and feed him ice cream to keep him cool. Now, these are people I could have gotten along with.

I also enjoyed when Lane referred to her own constant reading as “little more than a drug habit.” Hey, it’s safer than heroin!

You definitely don’t need to read Prairie Fires if you have no interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder. But, if you’re interested in the less white washed version of homesteading than that painted in her books, you might enjoy this. Fraser definitely convinced me that it was and is pretty much impossible to make it as a farmer in America, I learned new horrible things about how the native people were treated by settlers, and although I knew the dust bowl/horrible drought of the 1930’s was in part created by the farming practices of the past 50 years, Fraser really brings home the environmental devastation wrought on the plains.

Currently reading: About 100 pages left in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, then starting The Owl Killers. Going to the library to return Prairie Fires and will make every attempt not to get more books out…probably…

Also — I’ve already planned my summer vacation (WEEK AT THE BEACH!) in June, so starting to brainstorm good beach reads, yes, I will be taking at least 6 books with me. Suggestions?

I’ve been on the hold list at my library for Fire and Fury (the Trump book, not the WWII book) since January, and I’m actually surprised it only took until mid February to get it — I was number 140 on the hold list when I joined.

I remain glad I opted to wait and read the library’s copy of this book, I think there’s going to be a huge surplus of copies in about a year.  I kind of felt like I had to read it because it was all over the news and everyone was talking about it.  But now that I have read it, I can tell you that you don’t really need to read it.  Reading coverage of it and excerpts was very very similar to reading the entire book.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that Wolff is either completely accurate in every detail (lots of reporters have pointed out that he got many small, checkable details wrong) or that he’s totally wrong in every way (lots of things in the book have been reported by other news outlets).  I will say that that book is entertaining as written, which is kind of terrifying, or maybe it’s that now that you know nothing in the first nine months (all that’s covered in this book) led to nuclear war, you can laugh at some crazy things that happened.

It is not a flattering book for Trump obviously, although if accurate, it suggests that his campaign couldn’t possibly have actively colluded with Russia because they just didn’t have it together enough to do so. So, there’s that for him I guess…

I also read two fiction book recently — The Last Girlfriend on Earth – Simon Rich
and The Double Comfort Safari Club -Alexander McCall Smith.  The Alexander McCall Smith was because I realized that if I’m going to read 100 books this year, I’m going to have keep mixing in some lighthearted, 200-250 page books and the library happens to have pretty much all The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, many of which I haven’t read.  I had forgotten how much I enjoy Mma Ramotswe as a character, it’s been about ten years since I stopped reading this series every time a new one came out. I will continue to recommend Alexander McCall Smith books, although they aren’t must reads like Little Fires Everywhere, they are enjoyable books.

I don’t recommend The Last Girlfriend on Earth — I though I would enjoy it because I enjoyed hearing Daniel Radcliffe read one of the stories on This American Life.  But as I read the book, I became more and more frustrated about how bro-y the book was.  The main character in every short story is pretty much a dude, the women are rarely given much character at all, no agency.  The one Daniel Radcliffe reads is actually one of my favorites, and still — it’s almost 100% inside the guy’s head.  He uses time travel rather than having a conversation with his girlfriend about like, her feelings.  Some of these short stories are funny, but about 150 pages in, I was just frustrated.

Currently reading: Still working on Prarie Fires… also Woolly and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.

I recently finished Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen and A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith (for those of you keeping score at home, that puts me at 12/100 books for the year).

As you can perhaps tell by the title, my favorite of the bunch was Little Fires Everywhere, although I enjoyed the other two as well.

Little Fires Everywhere is a frame novel, it opens with a house on fire and you know within the first sentence that teenage daughter Izzy has set the fire, but you then find out through the course of the book how this came to occur. Although I first expected that you would mostly hear form Izzy, in fact she’s not really the central character and is jointed by a cast of other women who you learn about, her mother, who is mostly referred to as Mrs. Richardson, her sister Lexie, and the Richardson’s tenants/friends Mia and her daughter Pearl.

About 200 pages into this book, I realized how much it was about motherhood and what it means to be a mother, mother/daughter relationships. It doesn’t throw it in your face really until you realize each of these female characters is negotiating their relationship with their mother, to motherhood, or both. There are women who can’t get pregnant but want to, teenagers who get pregnant and realize they can’t stay that way, women who risk everything for their children, women who punish their teenager daughters because they are so afraid of losing them.

I think I enjoyed it partially because I so agree with this view that mothers are complicated. We all get one, maybe not for as long as we’d like, maybe it’s not the relationship we want, maybe you want to be a mother and you can’t be, maybe you don’t want to be a mother and you are. The world is so judgmental about mothers and how they should behave and what mothering should be and look like. And when, like me, you’ve lost your mother, you first feel so angry. But then you start to see this complexity — so few people have Hallmark card relationship with their mother or with motherhood.

As my mother died, the different people from hospice kept encouraging us to say anything we needed to say before it was too late. And I didn’t say this to them, but I was so sad because for me, there was nothing unsaid on my end. I hope that in her last days my Mom knew that I loved her, that she wasn’t alone, and I did tell her that. But the things that were unsaid between us were all unsaid by her. The advice that she would have given me about my career, about pregnancy, about my babies, about my 401K even. I didn’t value her advice enough when she was here to give it, I was only in my early twenties when she first became unwell and I didn’t want her advice.

SPOILER ALERT. Izzy spends the book finding a mother-figure in Mia, and Pearl and Lexie are also negotiating that relationship. But maybe I like this book because it ends with one mother realizing the error of her ways and vowing to search for her daughter:

They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for [her] herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this. She would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter, searching the face of every young woman she met for as long as it took, searching for the spark of familiarity in the faces of strangers.

I love that this passage also ends with a reference to fire — very fitting. And, although this may be a bit of a stretch, the end of this book reminded me of the end of Moby Dick (I know some people truly love Moby Dick, I’m not one of those people, but I do have a BA in English so I’ve read it more than once):

Buoyed up by that coffin [life-buoy], for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

If you have not read Moby Dick (no judgment, I’m putting it in the, I didn’t enjoy this, but I feel like culture and stuff column), Rachel is the name of a ship, the captain of whom earlier in the book losses his son to the sea. Rachel is also a biblical mother, sort of, in the Book of Jeremiah. So, also mothers who won’t give up searching (there are like no women in Moby Dick, and it still talks about mothers!)

The one thing that Little Fires Everywhere is Not Subtle about it that motherhood is fierce and consuming — you don’t stop looking for your children, you fight for them, maybe you make some crazy decisions where they’re concerned.

Our Lady of the Prairie is not entirely dissimilar — a mother of a daughter who is bipolar thinks that she’s finally reached a place where she can catch her breath, but instead she falls in love with someone who isn’t her husband, her daughter gets pregnant (and goes off her meds), and there’s an interesting divergence into her mother-in-law’s past in Nazi occupied France during WWII.

A Distant View of Everything is pretty dissimilar. Alexander McCall-Smith has a very smooth style, I like his books, and they do make you think with the many many references he makes. Particularly in this series, which focuses on Isabel Dalhouse a philosopher in Edinburgh. Technically, these are mysteries, although they tend to be less mysterious than his other series (The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency), and honestly pretty much nothing happens in any of these books. Like the plot of this one is, someone asks Isabel to look into someone’s background, she does, he’s okay. But, you have fun getting there. Somehow McCall-Smith manages to write 4-5 books A YEAR, and I am pretty much willing to read all of them.

Currently reading: Still Prairie Fires, and The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan — trip to the library tomorrow.

So far, I’m still on pace to read 100 books this year — I finished 8 in January, and finished #9 on February 1. It’s helping and not helping that I’ve spent the past week not working but crying and arranging a memorial service and graveside service.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is a great distraction of a book. You will be sucked in to this world and you, if you are anything like me, will enjoy all the characters and root for them despite knowing that, in a book largely about gangsters during WWII, these characters may not all make it. The main character, Anna, also endeared herself to me by becoming the first female deep sea diver in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I would have zero desire to be diving 40+ feet under water in the gear available in the 1940’s but Anna makes it sound fun and freeing to be under water that way. Basically, this is a story about Anna’s coming of age, helping with the war effort, and kind of finding out the truth about her father (who was involved with both Irish and Italian gangs).

I hadn’t planned to read this book until I read the New Yorker article about Egan, and then I decided it would make the list. I like the sort of behind the scenes look Egan gives us — she’s been working on Manhattan Beach for almost 15 years before she finally go it right. Also, you must read this article (and it is much shorter than Manhattan Beach!) because Egan also talks about her cat, Cuddles, who is apparently very dumb — “You have your own survival mood, which is beauty!”

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is less of a recommend. It is better than some women’s literature I’ve read, but nothing amazing. It is based on the very upsetting, very true story about the atrocities committed by Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Basically, poor children were stolen off porches, and from unwed mothers in the hospital (in that case with the mothers often being told that their children had died) and then sold to rich people. Children who died in the Society’s care, well they just kind of destroyed the paperwork and pretended they had never existed. So, a downer of a book, although it flips back and forth from the past to the present where a less depressing story unfolds. There is also an incredibly predictable romance in the present. You can skip this one, unless you really really really liked Orphan Train (by Christina Baker Klein), then you might want to read this as it’s got a lot of similarities.

Currently reading: Still reading Prairie Fires and now also working on a few other novels.